I was pleased to see this morning that Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam’s report Walking the Breadline: the scandal of food poverty in 21st Century Britain as the lead story on the front page of the Metro Newspaper. This report is a stark reminder of the reality of life for over 500,000 people are forced to use Food Banks in the UK.
Niall Cooper and his team at CAP have done a great job over many years to highlight and campaign against the reality of poverty in the UK.
It is a critical time for such a campaign.
Firstly, we have a government which simply does not care enough about people in poverty. The austerity measures, swingeing cuts in public spending, rising unemployment and underemployment and radical benefit changes are adding up to a cocktail which is hitting the poorest hard. In the Day Centre for homeless people that we run at West London Mission, we have lost our largest government grant and yet we are seeing more people than ever coming in who are sleeping rough as a result of the benefit changes. Demand continues to rise and resources are lower than ever.
Secondly, the Church is doing a great job, alongside many others, in practically making a difference to those who are worst affected. Most of the Food Banks in the UK are coordinated by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, in partnership with local churches. In my line of work, as well as the many established Christian homelessness charities, church Night Shelters for homeless people have grown at an incredible rate in recent years. In London alone these shelters gave accommodation to over 1200 people this winter. Click here if you want to see a brief 3 minute film about these shelters.
More than ever, churches are rolling up their sleeves and putting their faith into action.
The most powerful aspect of CAP’s report is the way it uses real life stories and the practical action of the churches as the basis for its political commentary and its recommendations. The work of the church’s Food Banks gives unarguable evidence of the shocking levels of need in the UK. It is this link between the practical and the political that gives power to what is being said.
The link between the practical and the political is not always an easy one to maintain. Sometimes the simple messages which are needed in political rhetoric don’t sit too well with the complexity and messiness of delivering services to those affected. But when the link is made, it is a powerful synthesis. This cannot be read as easy armchair commentary from a comfortable position. Rather it speaks of a church which has its hands dirty in helping people and which is angry about the conditions which cause the poverty.
Addressing underlying causes
The report gets a good balance of appreciating the work of the Food Banks whilst also raising concerns about their growth:
‘Food Banks provide a vital emergency service to the people they support but they do not address the underlying structural causes for the growth of food poverty’
It captures what Desmond Tutu was getting at when he said that
‘The church should not just be pulling people out of the river. We need to go up-stream and find out who is pushing them in.’
Helping people practically is vital but in doing so we should find the evidence, motivation and anger for political activism ‘up-stream’ which addresses the structural reasons behind their poverty.
But often this is not so popular. It often makes many Christians nervous and it is telling how few of the more conservative Christian groups and networks re-tweeted and promoted the report today. It reminds me of what Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously said
‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.’
This report is vital reading – please download it and read it. Share it with your friends, print off copies for your church. Discuss it at your home groups, talk about it in the pub. Get involved with CAP’s campaign. When we bring together practical care with political activism things really can start to change.