Ethics & Christian living, Poverty

Five lessons from Living Below the Line – by Alexandra Lilley

Live Below the LineFive days on five quid. What would you spend it on?

Last year I took up the Live Below the Line challenge, living on porridge made with water, lentil dhal and potatoes. Here’s what I discovered:

1. The less you possess, the more you need friends

Obvious really, but this was a lesson in community living. Five of us (I’m detecting a theme here) formed a group to shop and sometimes cook together over the week, giving us a more diverse diet and an essential sense of solidarity.

2. Head knowledge vs gut knowledge

The stats are sickening:

  • 1.4 billion people in the world – around 20 times the population of the UK – live in extreme poverty (i.e. on no more than £1 a day)
  • 870 million – 1 in 8 people – will go to bed hungry tonight because they have eaten nothing or next-to-nothing all day
  • 2 million children will die this year because of malnutrition – that’s one every 15 seconds.

But sometimes the stats remain as aloof figures in our heads. Living differently causes our bodies to remind us of these terrible truths. Similar to when I ‘slept rough’ one night to raise money for a homeless charity as a teenager, I then cared about homelessness in a more personal way, so too did this small act of deprivation penetrate my psyche in a way that reading or watching something never could.

3. Smugness banished

Lots of people were complimentary about this ‘sacrifice’, which felt embarrassing. Then I came across this quote from the 4th century Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who sets things straight:

“It is not from your own possessions that you are bestowing alms on the poor, you are but restoring to them what is theirs by right. For what was given to everyone for the use of all, you have taken for your exclusive use. The earth belongs not to the rich, but to everyone. Thus, far from giving lavishly, you are but paying part of your debt.”

Ha! According to the Bishop, living below the line should be the norm, so no pride allowed.

4. The Local Line

As well as the thick, black marker pen line between the global rich and poor, there’s a thinner pencil line where you and I live. For me, living near Kings Cross, it’s the Caledonian Road. It’s cuts through this part of London with social housing estates on one side and (multi)million pound houses on the other. It’s no good limbo-ing under the global ‘line’ and living within our local barriers.

One of the small prejudices that I crossed during LBTL was dietary. I realised that it’s not possible to buy fruit or veg with a tiny income – but I could afford a whacking great pack of value biscuits. Acknowledging the judgements we make against either rich or poor in our own community, particularly in our increasingly fractured UK society, plays a significant part.

5. Blessings and curses

Jesus says these terrifying and marvellous words on the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”

Enforced poverty is a curse that Jesus came to break. But for those of us who have the privilege to choose to go hungry, it’s blessing. I certainly discovered that last year, as through the drudgery of diet and caffeine cravings, I found a freedom of depending more fully on the one who provides my daily bread.

So I’m doing it again. And so could you…

  • Please do think about whether you take part in Live Below the Line sometime this year. You can sign up here:
  • And please consider donating towards alleviating extreme poverty through sponsoring our team – we’re raising money for Tearfund.

Alexandra Lilley lives in and loves King’s Cross, works as assistant minister at St Mary Islington and is training to be a vicar.

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