Food bank Britain and the three faces of poverty

A major report ‘Emergency Use Only‘ was published yesterday by the Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust. It outlines the reality of Food bank Britain:

    • Those receiving emergency food from food banks rose from 128,697 in 2011-12 to 913,138 in 2013-14.
    • Many food bank users faced multiple challenges, including ill-health, relationship breakdown, mental health problems or substantial caring responsibilities.

The report is further evidence of the impact of a deepening web of poverty that increasing numbers of people find themselves caught in:

3 Faces of Poverty

Material poverty is driven by low incomes, unemployment, cuts and sanctions to benefits, unaffordable housing and increased costs of living.

Poverty of relationships relates to the fragile and fractured nature of many people’s relationships, both within families and communities.  The weakening of the bonds of commitment within families has left many, especially children, far more vulnerable than ever before.

The poverty of identity underpins both. It is seen in the growing issues around mental health problems, low-self esteem, self harm and addictions which cluster around and feed off material and relational poverty.

The example of homelessness

These three faces of poverty are all evident in my work because home-lessness is far more than simply house-lessness.  Houses are a material need – we need somewhere warm, dry and safe to live.  But homes are far more than that.  Homes are places of relationship and identity.  They are places where we live alongside those know us and care about us: they are the place where we belong.  In 2007, a St Mungo’s report found that relationship breakdown was the biggest single cause of homelessness.

Whilst material things address our outward needs, our inner needs are met through relationships and a positive sense of identity – through how we relate to others and to ourselves. The issues of ‘inner-homelessness’ are often far more challenging to overcome.

It helps show why many issues associated with rough sleeping require more than simply a material response.  It is why, so often, giving money to someone begging does not help because the key problems they face are deeper than a lack of money.  It is why even giving someone a flat to a homeless person does not always solve the issues they face. The material problem may have been temporarily solved but so often this falls apart because of other issues need to be addressed.

Polarising the issues

Often, it becomes difficult to talk about these different aspects of poverty because of how polarised the debate becomes.  Despite all the mounting evidence, the government will never want to admit that rises in material poverty are linked to the policies they have introduced.  Anti-poverty campaigners don’t want to relate the issues to family breakdown because they see this as letting the government off the hook.

As with any social analysis, none of this can be divorced from politics (as some might have noticed from the diagram!)  Those on the political left emphasise the material aspect of poverty and how society’s structures and government policies need to change.  However, those on the right emphasise the factors less under government control such as family breakdown and personal discipline.  This is why Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “There is no such thing as society” because she wanted to emphasise responsibility that individuals and families have.

The role of the Church

For me, these polarities show why the Church has such a vital and on-going role to play. Food banks and Night Shelters are run by the Churches because material poverty needs to be addressed.  Authentic faith always has a social impact. But the Church also has unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity.

This is because the Christian faith is inescapably personal.  The gospel message speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart because it is fundamentally about the restoration of relationships – with God and with others.  At its best, the Church is the place where those who have been rejected and neglected, whose relationships and identity have been fractured, can find a home where they belong.  A message and a community which offers reconciliation and acceptance in an increasingly harsh world.

* The three faces of poverty model was adapted from Jim Wallis’ analysis in the book Faith Works (SPCK, 2002).  

Posted in Poverty | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Can you give 10 minutes a day for R&R’s Advent Challenge?

R&R Advent Challenge 2014.jpgAdvent is supposed to be a time of waiting and anticipation. A time to pause and prepare for the celebration of Christmas.

If I am honest, for me it is far more likely to be a time smothered with extra busyness, more spending and an anxiety about getting more things done.

To help people like me, I have put together R&R Advent Challenge 2014 which consists of 24 days worth of short readings and reflection.

The challenge is to make time every day between the 1st December and the Christmas Eve for 10 minutes of silence, reading, reflection and prayer.

Download a simple, two page sheet which contains 24 days of reflections which are all based on Jesus’ words and actions in the gospels. The reflections are grouped in pairs; the ones on the left in blue focus on the destructive values to resist, and the ones on the right in green are those values which bring renewal to us and the world around us. We hope it helps you have a bit of R&R this Advent.

Are you up for the challenge?  Download: R&R Advent Challenge 2014

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged | 3 Comments

Endurance inspired by hope: why churches remain at the heart of tackling poverty

hopeA while ago an atheist friend of mine who also works with homeless people said to me: ‘My motives are purer than yours.  I do this work simply to help people, you do it so you can get into heaven.’

I did my best to explain that while I am motivated by my faith, I have never seen this work in terms of earning brownie points for the afterlife.

But it prompts the question: why is it that so many homeless charities were started by committed Christians?  Why is it that churches run the vast majority of food banks?  Why is it that over 280 churches in London alone will open as night shelters for homeless people this winter?

Of course, Christians don’t have any monopoly on making a difference to those in need, but even the most hard-bitten critics of Christianity have to admit that the church makes a massive contribution in combating poverty.  After all, what other voluntary institution can rival the scale and scope of what the church is doing?

Motivations for action

But why is this the case?  Is it because Christians want to gain a place beyond the pearly gates?  Well, in over 20 years of being involved in this kind of work, I have never heard anyone claim this as a motivation.

So is it because Christians are nicer people?  Again, experience doesn’t tell me this is true.  Churches have just as many cranky, argumentative and grumpy people as you find anywhere else.

Work produced by faith

I think the answer to this question is found in a verse from Paul’s first letter to the early Church in Thessalonica:

“We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

Paul praises the Thessalonian Christians for their work, labour and endurance. But this triplet of actions are all rooted in their belief about what God had done for them through Jesus.  Their outward actions are motivated by an inner experience of faith, love and hope.  It is:

  • Work produced by faith
  • Labour prompted by love
  • Endurance inspired by hope

Rooted in what God has done

The Bible makes abundantly clear that action is at the heart of a faithful Christian life – faith without deeds is dead. But our actions are not rooted simply in confidence about our intrinsic qualities, our generosity, kindness or stamina.  The Bible contains no dewy-eyed optimism about the goodness of human nature.

Rather, Christian activism is rooted in what God has done.  Our work is produced by the faith we have been given. Our labour is prompted by the love and acceptance we have experienced.  We endure in this work because we are inspired by our hope that God will one day bring complete renewal to this broken world.

Theology of social action

This is the basis of the strongest theology for social action.  God’s grace, acceptance and love has to remain central: it is the rock on which we must base all our faltering efforts.  All other ground is sinking sand.

And I think this is the key reason for the enduring efforts of churches and Christians, both in the UK and globally, to combat poverty and live lives of generosity and love.  Of course we mess up, get things wrong, and we are weak and inconsistent. But we point to one who isn’t.  We are not the ones who can save people but we believe in One who can.

The key factor is that the Church draws on resources beyond itself.  At its best, the Church lives out actions rooted in faith. We seek to love because we have been loved.  We endure because we are inspired by the hope we have in Christ.

Posted in Social action | Tagged , | 3 Comments

I don’t Vow To Thee My Country: the difference between patriotism and nationalism

Poppies Tower of London nightThis week a lot of people will sing the hymn ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ at Remembrance services. The hymn, which combines the words of a poem by British Diplomat Sir Cecil Spring-Rice with a beautiful tune by Gustav Holst, is enormously popular.  And having been sung at both the wedding and funeral of Princess Diana it has become cherished by many.

But these qualities should not mask its highly dubious lyrics:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

It is telling that these words were written in 1908 before the First World War.  The idea that of promising to show a love for our country which ‘asks no questions’ and undauntedly sacrifices people is highly questionable.  In my view this is not true patriotism.  Rather it too easily lends itself to a nationalism which demands uncritical loyalty and blind obedience and which contributed to the slaughter of the 1914-18 war.

Patriotism and nationalism

George Orwell wrote about the difference between patriotism and nationalism:

 By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Orwell was deeply critical of the injustices and pomposity of his own country, but he helped re-define patriotism through an honest appreciation of Britain’s qualities.  In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ he wrote ‘In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in…the belief influences conduct, national life is different because of them.’  For him, these strengths made the country worth fighting for against the tyranny of Nazism.

The kind of patriotism we need today will combine both appreciation and critique. A good artistic example was Danny Boyle’s incredible opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics. It stands in contrast to the many who delight in a cynical mocking of their own country and who show no appreciation of the freedoms and quality of life we enjoy.

The dying and the dead

At the end of the war, Spring-Rice wrote an additional verse to his poem which is far less jingoistic, but rarely sung:

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

This verse at least reflects something of the terrible reality of loyalty to one’s country in the midst of war. It is a cost and horror which should daunt us.

It is a sentiment which is captured by the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London which I visited last night.  Seeing the vast sweep of red poppies, and hearing the names of the soldiers killed being read out along was powerful and moving.  As a lone bugler played The Last Post, he embodied the words of Spring-Rice’s unused verse as around his feet lay the thousands of flowers representing the dead.

It was understated, haunting and evocative. Powerful and patriotic, but not nationalistic.

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Would Jesus bomb IS? – by Claire Mathys

ISISSince the UK decided to join other Western countries in airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State (IS), many Christians have been wrestling with whether this decision was the right one.

FighterOne question is whether bombing is morally justifiable. Another is whether it is strategically wise. Both sit against a backdrop of the 2003 Iraqi invasion and painful thoughts about what was actually achieved.

Barbaric acts

Given the devastation that is taking place in the affected regions – the barbaric acts including beheadings, kidnappings and sexual slavery – can we possibly be justified in sitting back and doing nothing?

Ethnic cleansing is taking place, with minorities being given the choice of leaving or being killed. Now that we know all that we do about Hitler and his treatment of Jews, it is hard to imagine how non-intervention would have been right in that case. Is the current situation morally different?

Two directions

Christians looking to their faith for answers to these difficult questions are often pulled in two directions. One is the direction of pacifism, based on Jesus’ example as a suffering servant and his call to be peacemakers, forgiving our enemies. The other is the direction of just war theory, which states that in certain extreme circumstances, we have a justification – even a moral obligation – to intervene to protect the vulnerable. Coming to any sort of conclusion on the right thing to do can be an agonising process.

But we have a responsibility to undergo this process. It is worth each of us reflecting on this question:

If David Cameron asked you for your advice on whether to bomb IS, what would you say?

It is easy to avoid engaging deeply with these issues, thinking that we will never have to be the one who makes the decision. But we must not simply avoid responsibility for making a judgement on this moral dilemma and leave it in the hands of others. It is vital that we play our role as citizens and help to shape the decisions made by our leaders.

An opportunity to think and discuss

Next Tuesday, there is a great opportunity to think through these issues.  The Rt Hon Shirley Williams, a deeply experienced thinker and politician, will speak on ‘How can we best promote peace in the world?’

She grew up during the Second World War, raised by strongly pacifist parents.  Her career has involved deep engagement with international affairs, including being Gordon Brown’s Adviser on nuclear proliferation while he was Prime Minister.

Shirley writes extensively about the moral decision-making involved in questions of war in her book God and Caesar: Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion. She writes about the struggles involved in such questions but also the basis for the hope she has:

“While the challenge of evil is very great…there is also great potential force for good. The good among us often distrust power, and power in turn underestimates moral and spiritual force. But I have seen that force, in the hands of men and women without material or political power, move nations.”  

The Gladstone Lecture

If you want high quality input with a chance to grapple with these vital issues then please come along to the annual Gladstone Lecture.  Please share with anyone you think might want to come.

Rt Hon Shirley Williams: How can we best promote peace in the world?

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Inequality is bad for EVERYBODY: its time to close the gap

Pope FrancisEvery day I am struck by the incredible inequality on display in the West End of London.  I get off the bus outside Selfridge’s and see the £5,000+ designer handbags in the windows.  I walk through Marylebone past the exclusive clubs and restaurants such as the Chiltern Firehouse with security guards and paparazzi outside.  Every few minutes, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McClarens roar past ostentatiously displaying the wealth of their owners.

But in the very same neighbourhood, the Day Centre run by the West London Mission sees a hundred homeless people every day.  These are people at the opposite end of the wealth spectrum – people who sleep rough under doorways, in parks or on night buses. At our centre they can get the very basics: a good value breakfast, showers and access to medical care.  And last year we helped over 300 homeless people come off the streets.

Gross inequality

The West End of London might be the playground of the ultra-rich but is also is the home, by a long way, of the largest population of rough sleepers in Britain today.  It is a concentrated geographical microcosm of the gross inequalities which affect the whole country.

London’s Evening Standard newspaper regularly illustrates this sharp divide.  In yesterday’s edition, an article titled Murdoch’s daughter buys home for £38.5m drooled about the heiress’ new house in St John’s Wood with its seven bedrooms and “a reception hall as big as some entire London flats”.

But at the bottom of the page, a far shorter article focussed on the rising numbers of rough sleepers in Westminster.  It was hardly sympathetic to their plight.  Instead, the journalists chose to focus on quoting complaints from local businesses that the rise in rough sleeping has “turned Park Lane into a slum”.

Hurting us all

The UK generates great wealth, but it is distributed increasingly unequally. During our years of growing prosperity, the vast majority of our increased wealth went to those who were already rich – while the poor actually became poorer.  This is neither just nor sustainable.

But this is not just an issue for those who care about social justice.  We should all care about inequality because it hurts us all.  The massive gap between the rich and the poor is bad for all of us.

Related social problems

The seminal book, The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, powerfully showed that all kinds of social problems are directly related to income inequality in developed nations. In countries where the gap between rich and poor is at its widest, mental illness, obesity, imprisonment, mistrust, low social mobility and many other social problems are all worse than in countries with more equal societies.

This is true for everyone in society, not just the lowest earners. So a wealthy person in the UK is more likely to suffer from health problems or be a victim of crime than they would be in a country which was equally affluent but had a smaller gap between rich and poor.

close-the-gap-logoThe growing gap between the rich and the poor impoverishes us all.  We have to close the gap.

This post is part of the global Blog Action Day on inequality

Posted in Homelessness, Social commentary | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Alan Henning: a ripple of hope in a world of injustice

alan-henningEach time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert Kennedy, Cape Town, South Africa, 1966

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We CAN make a difference to homeless people – by Danny Kuhrt (aged 11)

Danny K Sleep outHomelessness is a man-made issue. Just like pollution, we have started it so we have to help end it.

People are living on the streets, having a nightmare life.  We cannot sit here and pretend it’s not happening.

I can’t imagine living on the streets, being insecure, always having to worry where you are going to sleep that night, or what people are going to think of you. None of us would want it to happen to us or someone we love.

Why does homelessness happen when there is enough resourses, money and land to get everyone a place to live?

Changing people’s lives

What West London Day Centre are doing is vital. They are getting people of the streets every week, and are literally changing people’s lives. They work so hard to get people in to jobs, accommodation and out of Homelessness.

The centre provides breakfast, showers, clothing, laundry and healthcare. As well as that they get advice and support to solve their problems. Money is needed though.

Our Sleep Out

To make a difference, my dad and I are sleeping rough on the streets on Friday the 10th of October (this Friday!)

Donations would be FANTASTIC and you can donate via our justgiving page.  We are trying to raise £1000 and 100% of the money will go to the day centre’s work. Let’s make a difference in the world!

Sponsor Danny for the West London Day Centre Sleep-Out here

Posted in Homelessness | 1 Comment

The J-Law photo leak: why your opinion is important – by Sophie Whitehead

Jennifer LawrenceUnless you’ve been living under a wifi-less rock for the last couple of months, you know about the celebrity nude photo flood.

I say flood rather than leak because of the sheer quantity of celebrities who were involved: Jennifer Lawrence, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Kaley Cuoco, Vanessa Hudgens, Ariana Grande, Anna Kendrick, Cara Delevigne and Kirsten Dunst are just a small fraction of a huge list of household names.

Jennifer Lawrence has somehow become the face of the saga because of her status as Hollywood’s current “it girl”, and because frankly, there are too many victims to list every time the situation has been discussed in the media.

Female celebrities

By doing some research into the rest it seems as though every young, attractive female celebrity has been included. No one can accuse the hackers of not being thorough. Except for the obvious: they have mainly targeted female celebrities.

In fact, out of the hundreds of stars to have images of their naked bodies paraded through social networks and sharing sites, only one (American reality star Nick Hogan) is male. One.

Why? The hackers were hoping to make money from their finds, and deduced that the target market most likely to pay for images online would be heterosexual and male.

What’s your view?

The reactions of the public can be roughly grouped into three camps:

The first camp is the one I have pitched my tent in – this is not only a breach of privacy and theft of personal property but a non-consensual form of sexual violence and those responsible need to be stopped and held accountable.

The second camp is occupied by those who think this sort of thing comes with the territory of being in the public eye and those girls should have known better.

The third is made up of those who just don’t care.

People who share or look at the images are from the latter two camps. They either think the celebrities deserved it, or they simply haven’t thought about it at all. I’m not sure which view worries me more.

What it says about our culture

The whole situation says a lot about the state of our culture and western society at this point in time: how we view celebrities, how we view privacy, and how we view women’s bodies.

So many people, mostly men, have seen these images, not just as passive viewers but as active sharers too. And this behaviour is often accepted as normal by themselves and by those around them.  This is a blatant example of the false and dangerous idea that men cannot and should not be asked to control their sexual desires. The internet in this instance has removed any sense of restraint and any notion of empathy for the victims.

In one swoop these women have been reduced from individuals with complex personalities and wills of their own, into objects of sexual pleasure, without their consent.

What does it say about you?

People who haven’t thought about it, or just don’t care, have accepted that this is normal. People who think it is the fault of the celebrities, that they should not have taken the photos in the first place, are encouraging the idea that men are out of control and it is the responsibility of women to keep themselves safe.

If you are one of these people then you are part of the problem.

You may not think this deserves as much attention as it is getting, or that people like me need to calm down, but this is naïve – we all need to be aware of the affect of the media on society and on individual behaviour.

Behaviour is learned, and when this type of behaviour is seen as being accepted or as “normal”, it contributes to a culture where sexual violence is not taken seriously, where men “can’t help themselves” and where women are parts instead of people. We all deserve better.

What can you do?

Make yourself aware. Stand up for victims. Do not view or share nude photos without the consent of the subject. Report people who share these images (most sites do not allow their distribution).

Think about what messages your actions are sending. Treat everyone as a human being, whether or not they are famous.

Sophie is a creative copywriter for an advertising agency in London. Check out her blog at

Posted in Social commentary | 7 Comments

Church on the Corner: an Oasis in the Blur of urban life

“Jesus did not write a book but formed a community” Lesslie Newbigin

Church on the Corner, Islington

Church on the Corner, Islington

Just under twenty years ago, I borrowed my mum’s car to visit my mate Giles who had moved to King’s Cross.  When I got to his flat, he said ‘Sit down and listen to this’ and he played me Wonderwall from Oasis’ recently released album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory.

The realisation that I was listening to a great song was rudely interrupted when I remembered that I had left my wallet on the passenger seat of my mum’s car.

We legged it down the stairwell of the flats – but were too late. Some local kids had just broken in to the car, nicked the wallet and we saw them running off.  Later I would find out they used my bank card to spend the rather modest amount of £34  in ‘Caledonian Food and Wine’.

It was my first experience of this slice of North London. The year before, Giles and a small group of Christians, had planted a new church into a former pub building in between Angel and King’s Cross in Islington. It was called Church on the Corner and a few years later it became my church too.

Doing life together

Last weekend, Church on the Corner celebrated its 20th anniversary with a party and a church service (see photo).  It was brilliant to see how the church is flourishing now and it made me reflect on how much being part of that community truly enriched my life.

The best thing about being part of Church on the Corner was the sense of doing life together with others – sharing the ups, downs and realities of life as a community of people committed to following Jesus.

The church engaged in the local community in many different ways. Plays were held in the park opposite, art competitions were organised and we ran a football team. We set up a little community project to help vulnerable people called Decorating and Gardening. It was known as D&G so we nicked the Dolce & Gabanna logo.  We never heard from their lawyers.

A place of grace

But more than anything else the Church on the Corner taught me about grace. Grace was taught and grace was lived.  The Church took the Bible seriously but it also took being a community seriously.  Grace was not an abstract doctrine but a principle to be lived out.

At that time I lived in a flat on the Marquess estate on the Essex Rd.  One day the flat got completely flooded by someone breaking in to the empty flat above and and turning on the taps. A couple in the church, Tim and Justine, came over soon after and insisted I move in with them.  I stayed for over two months.

And when I moved into a flat in King’s Cross which needed loads of work, people from the church came over every night for 2 weeks to help me decorate.

Amazing grace and true community.

Go to Church

It is easy to knock church and downplay its importance.  But beliefs never become real faith unless they are expressed within community. We need others.

Charles Marsh, in his brilliant book on the role of faith in the Civil Rights movement, The Beloved Community, writes in his conclusion:

“Go to church…Go to church where God is celebrated as the creator and lord of life, where the good news of God’s overwhelming love permeates the congregation’s understanding of itself and the world. It does not matter whether the preacher is a liberal or an evangelical, a Protestant or a Catholic, an orator or a rock-and-roller, educated or uneducated, as long as the hearts and minds are opened to the peace that passes all understanding. Go to church and let the beloved world of God slowly transform your life in compassion, mercy and grace.”

This is what I found in Church on the Corner.

A place where I learnt more about the grace of the One whom (in the immortal words of Noel Gallagher) “Just maybe, is gonna be the one that saves me“.

Church on the Corner website

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged , | 1 Comment