Church Action on Poverty trustee Stef Benfield reflects on what scripture has to say about Christians campaigning for justice.

Should Christians work for structural change? There is a lot that could be said on this from a range of viewpoints. I’m going to use just one here: God’s law for Israel.

God gave the Israelites structures – laws – to prevent and eradicate poverty. His law specifically forbade exploitation and required generosity.

God forbade harsh treatment of workers. Pay was to be prompt, even daily, and adequate to the work done (Leviticus 25:35-43; Deuteronomy 24:14-15). Owners were not to hoover up to themselves all the available profit, but were to deliberately leave some available to the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22). Even animals were not to be treated harshly and worked for all they were worth, but to be looked after (Deuteronomy 25:4). The interest was not the money that could be made but the wellbeing of the workers.

If we followed God on this, there would be no job insecurity, no unpredictable hours, no overwork, no inadequacy of pay. Toxic jobs wouldn’t exist. There would be dignity in all work.

God required those with power to use it for good. The laws on gleaning mean that power is not to be used to grow wealthy but to support the poor. Laws on debt said that lending is not a means to more money, but a way to use your money to help others. If you could lend to someone who needed it, then do so – in the knowledge that debt is cancelled every seven years, essential items could not be taken as pledge, and usury is forbidden (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, 24:6,10-13). You were more likely to make a loss than a profit, and that was how God expected it to be.

For people who fell into poverty, God made structures to protect and provision them. This included the gleaning laws (access to food and work) and debt cancellation. It also included redemption of (extended) family property, based not on the worthiness of the poverty-stricken relative but their relation to one who could redeem (Leviticus 25:25-28). If a person had to sell themselves into servitude, it was for a fixed period of six years, with the option to buy one’s self out if the means became available. And in the seventh year, the person was not merely released from their job contract but restored to prosperity: the employer was to send the person away with gifts in accordance with not the contribution of the employee but the prosperity of the employer (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).

Finally, if all these remedies failed and a person had to sell their property outside of the family, then every 50th year was a year of Jubilee: all land went back to the original owners (Leviticus 25:28). It was a divine reset and redistribution that prevented both poverty and gross wealth.

Jubilee was a second chance for the very lowest, and a reminder to the richest that their prosperity is but a gift from God to use for others.

In these structures, God imbued humanity with dignity. The random chance of charity has little place here: gifts were made at the command of God, not the whim of the rich; and the primary mode of action was through the dignity of the law. Let us strive for the same dignity.

Join our book group

During March 2020, Church Action on Poverty staff and supporters will be reading Stef Benstead’s new book Second Class Citizens: The treatment of disabled people in austerity Britain. At the start of April we’ll discuss the book in a blog post here, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

If you’re interested, please get a copy of the book to read, and let us know you’ll be joining in!

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Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield Update, June 2020

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Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

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Book review: Bread of Life in Broken Britain

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Gathering on the Margins – 23 June

Latest update: 19 March 2020

Our thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted by the current COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. Church Action on Poverty is approaching this with the utmost priority and taking a number of steps internally to minimise risks, whilst keeping our trustees and key stakeholders informed.

We regularly hold meetings and training, as well as specialist and public events externally with a range of partners and members of the public. The health and safety of all those who attend our events – and the vulnerable people who they may go on to have contact with – are of primary concern and priority. We continue to monitor the evolving situation closely, guided by information from the UK government, Public Health England and NHS.

Following the government’s advice that people should avoid non-essential contact and unnecessary travel, we will not be holding face-to-face events until this advice changes. If you signed up for one of our events, you will receive an email confirming that it is no longer taking place.

Wherever possible, we will  ensure that any planned meetings, trainings and events that cannot go ahead will be rescheduled or go ahead using the best alternative option, including digital technology (e.g. via phone, Zoom, Skype or a webinars).

Meanwhile, we are taking extra measures to minimise risks to the health and safety of our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries.

  • We are proactively monitoring the UK government and Public Health England advice, ensuring we are able to respond to changing advice swiftly and decisively.
  • We are reviewing our event planning to ensure our events reflect the most current guidance on infection prevention and control measures.
  • We are asking staff, volunteers and beneficiaries not to attend events or meetings and – where recommended – to consider social distancing or self-isolation.

If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us.

We will update this statement as and when official guidance changes, and as further good ideas come forward that can help with sensible risk minimisation.

 
 

Gathering on the Margins – 23 June

1 city, 8 tales: sudden poverty & an outpouring of goodwill

Be in my Bubble

Gathering on the Margins – 16 June

Gathering on the Margins – 9 June

Running a Good Society conversation

Something to wonder at and ponder on….

Gathering on the Margins – 23 June

Our North East local group report on their event for Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2020.

The North East event for Church Action on Poverty Sunday, 23 February 2020, took place in St Peter’s RC Church in Gateshead. It drew together 270 people, representing local churches and communities along with charities such as the Bensham Food Coop, Joe’s Place and Oasis Community Housing.  Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead, and members of Gateshead Council attended.

The theme ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ was addressed from the start. Revd Hugh Sperring from the Wesley Memorial Methodist Church inspired the gathering with the prayer that God would bless us with “enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world” and “do what others claim cannot be done”.  Pat Devlin from the North East group explained the aims and activities of Church Action on Poverty, and Lucy Zwolinska from the Gateshead Poverty Truth Commission spoke about the work of the Commission and shared through video some real-life stories. Hannah Davison from St Peter’s Church concluded this first part of the programme by reading the poem ‘Refugees’ by Brian Bilston which cleverly invited us to turn our thoughts upside down and think about things differently!

A range of speakers from the local area highlighted the real crisis of poverty that is all around us and, by using their authentic voices, called those listening to action. Two local initiatives were shared by those engaged in running them: Joe’s Place is a drop-in community café  for homeless people and for those who are struggling in a variety of ways, and the Bensham Food Coop provides food, support and friendship for people seeking sanctuary, refugees and local people living in poverty.  In each case someone with experience of poverty shared their story and the truth of their situation. Oasis Community Housing shared the reality of homelessness in Gateshead and how they are helping the situation. They have recently been able to open a 24-hour facility for those living on the streets.

A short liturgy led by young people gave a much needed opportunity to reflect and to bring the light of God’s power into our situation so that all of us might raise our voices to ‘speak truth’.  The final part of the afternoon was to invite those who represented ‘power’ and ‘influence’ to make a response to what they had heard: Ian Mearns MP, Ian Stevenson from Gateshead Council and Fr Adrian Tuckwell, Vicar for Caritas and representing Bishop Robert Byrne of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.

It was very appropriate that the event took place in Gateshead as the launch of Gateshead Poverty Truth Commission was planned for 5 March.  Church Action on Poverty North East had hosted a meeting focusing on poverty in Gateshead over a year earlier, and this had turned out to be a huge catalyst in the formation of an Outreach Group in two Gateshead churches: Corpus Christi and St Peter’s. The group was delighted to host this year’s Church Action on Poverty Sunday, seeing it as an opportunity to raise awareness and to establish connections in order to bring people together to work for change. 

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1 city, 8 tales: sudden poverty & an outpouring of goodwill

Be in my Bubble

Gathering on the Margins – 16 June

Gathering on the Margins – 9 June

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield Update, June 2020

Viral Song

Running a Good Society conversation

Something to wonder at and ponder on….

Gathering on the Margins – 23 June

Coronavirus: will food banks be able to meet demand for those who can't bulk buy?

Charlotte Killeya, Social Food Coordinator at Parson Cross Initiative in Sheffield, shares her reflections on coronavirus:

I started to read the headlines this weekend; it’s not easy reading at the moment due to the amount of information regarding the spread of Coronavirus. The stories about people stockpiling items in supermarkets and photographs of empty shelves concerned me. In addition, some supermarkets started to limit the number of certain items people could buy. My thoughts quickly turned to the food bank we run here in Sheffield and the people that we help.  How are we going to manage if shelves are beginning to empty of the very items that we always need? 

As well as relying on donations of food from the public, we also purchase additional items from supermarkets to ‘fill in the gaps’ on our shelves. Some supermarkets have always restricted the amount of some items that you can purchase online for delivery, but it’s usually more than the five that I saw on my computer screen this weekend. Concerned about this ‘rationing’, I telephoned the supermarket we usually use for deliveries. I asked if the reports were true and if so, was there any way around this, particularly as we are currently supporting around 90 households per week. Customer services understood our situation but told us that there was little that they could do if the stock was not available or was in short supply. They could not make an exception.

I did manage to place an online order from a couple of supermarkets, albeit some items I wanted were unavailable, the amount was restricted and we had to order more expensive alternatives. Thanks to social media posts we have had kind offers from people offering to donate to us. We are fortunate to have generous donors and supporters who respond in this way, but none of this deals with the fundamental issues at heart.

The spread of Coronavirus raises issues regarding food security, how we respond to crises in our society and the role that food banks have, and indeed should have.  

It is understandable that people are trying to prepare themselves should they become ill or isolated due to Coronavirus. Topping up their cupboards with extra tinned foods and making sure that the freezer is well stocked is not an irrational thing to do. It brings a sense of security and control – it gives us a ‘back-up’ if we need it. However, problems arise when stockpiling and panic buying takes hold because it has a direct impact on the most vulnerable now.

Again, understandably perhaps, it’s the cheaper versions of products that sell out first. Often, it’s the more expensive items that are left on the shelves, and this has an impact on people living on the lowest incomes. Unsurprisingly when items become scarce and demand is high, the cost of such products increases dramatically (we only need to look at the example of hand sanitiser to see how this happens.)

If you are on a low income you cannot afford to stockpile: there’s often little or no slack in your budget to stock up your cupboard for ‘just in case’ times.

Often, the people we support tell us that they manage food day-to-day or even meal-to-meal. Linked to this, it’s also difficult to get online orders if you have no internet or you have to reach the ‘minimum basket’ amount to get a supermarket to deliver: currently some of these minimum amounts vary from £25 to £40.

I was also struck by the types of food that some in the media have suggested that we ‘stockpile’ (or at least get a few items of each.) These foods won’t sustain you in the long term, but they can be easily stored away and used in an emergency. The lists are so similar to those we ask for at food banks – dried pasta, UHT milk, tinned tomatoes, baked beans, soup and so on. We give out these foods week on week. As a society we need to question this:  it’s not okay to expect people to live on these ‘emergency’ foods long term. The people we support are already surviving on this ‘crisis’ food.

We all hope that this virus does not cause the levels of suffering that many fear. We need to stay calm and try to think about those who are more vulnerable than themselves. Hopefully, if people have surplus food and toiletries they will share them out to others who need them. I believe many people will reach out and help others because we see them doing it in so many ways already, for example when they donate to our food bank or when they volunteer their time.

In light of all of this, we need to question the idea, and often the expectation, that charity should be the safety-net, the ‘back-up plan’, the solution to the problems and crises that we face as a society.

Food banks and charities like ourselves, have been saying this for years. Recent events highlight the flaws in using the charity sector to ensure food security. Food banks rely on public donations and volunteer time – if either of these things falls we will struggle to continue the service that we provide. For many people, food banks and the charity sector is their safety net, but unfortunately this net is already full of holes.


See this article in The Guardian for more background on the impact of the Coronavirus crisis on food banks.

Gathering on the Margins – 9 June

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield Update, June 2020

Viral Song

New wine, new wineskins: theological reflection on ‘building back better’

Gathering on the Margins – 2 June

Reflecting together, 28 May: Whom are we serving in our services?

You can’t eat the view

Reflecting together, 21 May: inhabiting the public realm in the midst of lockdown

Book review: Bread of Life in Broken Britain

Running a Good Society conversation

Something to wonder at and ponder on….

Gathering on the Margins – 23 June

'Telling Stories and Shaping Solutions' is a toolkit for empowering people who have lived experience of food poverty, developed by our Food Power programme.

“I got involved because I’ve lived it and I wanted to speak out for those who can’t. The toolkit is there to make sure those working with people who might be
experiencing poverty have the right support in place, things that organisations might not necessarily think about.

“We’ve done the pitfalls and know what works and doesn’t work, with the toolkit we can share this learning. I hope it achieves more clarity and makes organisations think before they start working with people at the grassroots.

“For me I’d never done anything like this before, I’ve now something I’ve co-produced that has my name in it, it’s a massive boost. It’s made me think I can do more stuff that I never thought I could do, it’s helped me build a large network of friends and support in the process.”

Penny Walters, Food Nation

Church on the Margins: video reflections

SPARK newsletter summer 2020 – online edition

Food Power Toolkit