(Psalm 15; Micah 6.1-8; Matthew 5, 5-12)
Poverty and Homelessness Action Week
What sort of Christian are you? Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Orthodox?
Or perhaps you would describe yourself in terms of your theological approach? orthodox, conservative, open, liberal?
Many would say they are Bible Christians. But what does that mean? Tends to be that take certain bits of Bible literally, or are conservative in approach to morals, based on a selective reading of Bible texts.
Some people now describe themselves in terms of the bits of the Bible that are most important to them; Red Letter Christians, taking the words of Jesus which are printed in red in some Bibles as their guidance; Matthew 25 Christians, saying that their most important guide to faith and action is the parable found in Matt 25, 31-46, about the last judgement, in which Jesus says to those being judged “Whenever you helped (or failed to help) the least of these least important ones, you did it to me”. Still others say they are Sermon on the Mount Christians, and some of those will say The Beatitudes are their most important guide to faith and action.
We heard Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, the one we know so well, this morning. Many scholars think that Matthew’s beatitudes, which speak mainly of those showing spiritual virtues as ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ are further away from what Jesus originally said than Luke’s less familiar version. Luke says:
•20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
•‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
•21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
•22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
•23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
•24 ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
•25 ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
•26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
In Luke, Jesus doesn’t speak about the poor in spirit, he speaks about the poor, those who have no money and few goods; he doesn’t speak about those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, he speaks about those who have no food; and he includes condemnation, as does Matthew 25, for those who enjoy the good things of life now, and do nothing about the plight of the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the excluded. Like Matthew 25, Luke’s Beatitudes are a very uncomfortable read for those who live in relative comfort and prosperity.
Jesus is reported as saying “The poor you will always have with you” What he didn’t say is ‘”and you shouldn’t do anything to change that fact”. The week ending today is Poverty and Homelessness Action Week, when various Aid agencies, and particularly Church Action on Poverty try to bring home to the churches and the nation the reality of poverty and homelessness in the UK, and to prompt them to try to do something about it.
Definitions of ‘poverty’ vary. Some use a definition related to income – les than half the average national income, or below the level needed to meet basic needs. This measure obviously varies according to societies and what most people earn, or consider basic needs. Other definitions look at deprivation, which allows a wide range of things to be considered; not just income, but food, heat, light and clothing, housing, medical care, education and recreation facilities. Another measure related to deprivation is social exclusion, which defines people as ‘poor’ when their lack of income or savings excludes them from taking part in activities which are considered an accepted part of daily life in that society.
Whatever definition we use, recent studies have shown that numbers of people living in poverty are growing. Key figures from the Poverty and Social Exclusion Project, published just under a year ago show:
- Over 30 million people (almost half the population) are suffering some degree of financial insecurity;
- Almost 18 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions;
- Roughly 14 million cannot afford one or more essential household goods;
- Almost 12 million people are too poor to engage in common social activities considered necessary by the majority of the population;
- About 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing;
- Around 4 million children and adults are not properly fed by today’s standards;
- Almost 4 million children go without at least two of the things they need;
- Around 2.5 million children live in homes that are damp;
Around 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat their home.
And rather than getting better, the situation, particularly for children and working age adults without children, is expected to get worse over the next 5 years or so, with benefit changes and increases in fuel prices.
Fuel poverty – where a household needs to spend so much of its income on keeping warm, that it is left below the poverty line – is growing.
As the animation we saw earlier emphasises, the impact is particularly hard on children. Children who are not warm, who don’t get enough food, who can’t sleep because of the cramped conditions in which they live, who are frequently ill and miss school because of their poverty, do not achieve as well as others.
Figures show that a larger proportion of children eligible for free school meals fail to achieve 5 or more GCSEs than their better off counterparts – and the effects of poverty are much worse in some ethnic groups than others.
Until recently, I knew about poverty only through statistics such as these. ‘The poor’ weren’t real people to me. But that has changed since I began volunteering at a foodbank, started by a group of churches in Rickmansworth, under the sponsorship of the Trussell Trust. You may know that food bank use has been growing in the UK over the last 3 or 4 years as this cartoon by Dave Walker shows.
The Trussel Trust is only one of the organizations sponsoring foodbanks. It saw usage rising by 170% in 2012-3. About 61.5 K people used foodbanks in 2010-11, 128.5K in 11-12 and nearly 347K people in 2012-3. Nearly 45% of people turned to foodbanks because of benefit delays or benefit changes. Nearly 20% were in work, but on such low income they could not cover their living costs. Only 4% came because they were homeless, and another 4% because they were unemployed. The worsening situation caused Church Action on Poverty to start a campaign to highlight the link between benefit changes and food poverty, with a poster saying Britain isn’t Eating.
But let’s put a human face on ‘poverty’ Let me tell you about Jennie, who I met for the second time at one of our foodbank outlets last month. While I held her youngest child, and tried to keep her toddler amused, Jennie spoke to another of the helpers – and cried. She came first for help in the autumn. She has 4 children, and after the last was born, her partner couldn’t cope, and lost his temper a lot and shouted at the children. Jenny had grown up being shouted at, and she didn’t want that for her children, so in the end she asked him to leave. That meant an adjustment to her benefits, and in the inevitable delay while they were reassessed, she couldn’t afford food, and came to the food bank for help.
Her partner sorted himself out, and got a low paid job, so much to everyone’s joy, the family got together again. But the changed circumstances meant another reassessment of their benefits – which were cut off while the reassessment was done. The father of the family was late for work one day, and was threatened with the sack – another stress. The previous day, with food stocks getting lower, Jenny was in such despair that she put the two younger children in her car and just drove. She told us she seriously considered just driving and driving until the fuel gave out- leaving the two older ones in school with no-one to collect them. She felt she was a bad Mum because she couldn’t work things out better for them. We gave her the usual 3 days supply of food, but almost more importantly, we listened to her, cried with her, reassured her that she wasn’t a bad Mum, and that she and her partner were loved and supported.
Then there was Edna who came in November. She was a single Mum with grown up children and grandchildren. She lived alone in social housing, and had fallen foul of the ‘bedroom tax’. Because she remained in a 3 bedroomed house when her children had left, her housing benefit had been cut, so she no longer had enough money for food. Again we talked through her situation. She suffered from nervous problems and was afraid to go out alone. Often her grandchildren came to stay to keep her company, and her adult children came round to take her out to shop. The housing authorities had offered her a one bedroomed flat – but in another part of the district, far away from her family. There were none available in her immediate area. If she moved, her financial situation would improve, but she would be socially isolated, and her mental health would suffer. Her family couldn’t help: one of her daughters, another single mother, deserted by her children’s father, came to claim food at the same time.
The more I help at the foodbank, the more I realise that living as a Matthew 25 Christian, or a Beatitudes Christian isn’t about dishing out charity, giving bags of food and toiletries to people who have fallen on hard times. It’s about being alongside those who are struggling against illness or disability, or low wages, or the complexities of our tax and benefits system; it’s about listening to them and affirming them as human beings who are loved and valued by God; it’s about doing what we can locally to provide them with somewhere to meet, debt counseling, budgeting training, and access to computers and training in job applications; and it’s about being angry at the fact that people find themselves in such situations, often through no fault of their own, in this prosperous part of the world, and doing something about it, through campaigning and democratic politics.
And it is also about mission and strengthening faith. One very grateful client said recently before she left: “You’ve not only given me food, you’ve given me back my faith that there is a good God”.
Action Week Prayer:
We give thanks that you meet our daily needs
of food, shelter, companionship.
We pray for those who go hungry and without a home.
We will not abandon our neighbours who struggle.
We will not revile them.
We will not blame people for their poverty.
We stand alongside them.
We know that you are with us as we give, act and pray for justice.
This is the Church Action on Poverty’s final video for this week: