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Gemma Athanasius-Coleman

A chance conversation at just the right time set Gemma Athanasius-Coleman on the road to social justice activism.

Gemma Athanasius-Coleman

She was volunteering at Newquay Orchard, when one of the team mentioned a new project looking at food experiences during the pandemic.

Gemma joined, gained a broader and deeper understanding of the systemic causes of poverty, and is now vocal and active in campaigning for a better, more just society.

Gemma: Every kind of poverty is linked

“I lived near Newquay Orchard and was volunteering there at the time,” says Gemma. “I had come out of full-time work to care for my daughter, and was telling Andrew at the Orchard about having become a single parent and struggling financially. So sent me an email about the Food Experiences project and it sounded right up my street.

“I had been a little involved before in some environmental stuff, and had been toying with studying around the environment.

“The Orchard got me into sustainability and social justice, and then the Food Experiences project really opened my eyes to how a lot of issues are interlinked.

“Every kind of poverty is linked and every kind of injustice is linked. That work got me interested in all those links, and what can be done to change things.

“Learning is a form of activism for me. It’s not the type that involves marching to Parliament with a placard. For me, studying and learning and trying to apply that knowledge is my activism.”

Gemma: A nationwide view of poverty

Gemma grew up in Bradford, and went to university in Leeds, then moved to Cornwall in 2010 – so she has direct insight into the varying challenges facing communities in the north and south of England, and in urban and rural areas. 

She also recently completed a Masters in Sustainable Development, gaining a profound understanding of the way social injustices past and present connect.

Gemma Athanasius-Coleman
Gemma, centre, during a Food For Change event

“Everything is so different here. Up north, rent was a lot cheaper, and food availability is a lot easier in cities than it is here. I didn’t have a car, so experiencing rural isolation was a shock to the system at first.

“Before, I had a 24-hour Asda five minutes from where I lived, but here everything is further away and shuts earlier. A lot of areas here are very rural, and that has its own costs and challenges (although online shopping has made that easier).

“Bus and train journeys are expensive and slow. My nearest city is Truro, which would be a 40 minutes away by car, but which takes 90 minutes by bus.

“There is a lot of tourism here, and a lot of talk about second home owners taking properties and pushing the market up. Rents are very high. I’m in social housing, but private rents are very high and housing insecurity is a big issue.

Cornwall is famed for its coastal beauty, but has a lot of hidden poverty

Gemma: I don't think everybody speaks up enough

“To an outsider, Newquay just looks amazing. You come on holiday and it is just stunning. It is like the California of England. A lot of people move here because it is like this is the dream.

“The reality when you get here is there is a lot of deprivation. There is not enough work, it is mostly seasonal, and minimum wage, and the cost of living is really high. 

“Here has more community than where I grew up, because it is a smaller population. You can feel very isolated, but the community pulls together and it really did pull together in lockdown.

“I campaign because I think I quite enjoy being a voice for people, if that makes sense. I don’t think everybody speaks up enough about what goes on. I just feel like if I can highlight that and something can change, then that would be my ultimate goal, really. Just make a difference in my local area. 

“I would say I am like 80% activist and campaigner. I find it hard, knowing there are injustices and doing nothing about it. 

“It is all about fairness and equality. Everyone has a right to live a certain standard of living. There shouldn’t be such a gap between rich and poor.

“At the moment, I’m working alongside Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum on a project looking at food and schools, and what difference it makes to children to have breakfast every day and I’m hoping to start my own Social Enterprise tackling these systemic issues.

“I’m also part of the Speaking Truth To Power project, which should build confidence in speaking up about issues. At times I feel so nervous saying I have been in poverty, but I want to break that stigma and encourage people to tell stories because that’s how things change.

Gemma Athanasius-Coleman
Gemma (pictured right with her children), has taken part in numerous events to raise understanding and press for change

Gemma: What I want to change...

Gemma speaking during Challenge Poverty Week 2022 in Cornwall

“There are a couple of issues I really want to address…

“I had a real bee in my bonnet when I did my masters and took out a loan to cover the fees. I rang the benefits people to tell them, and they stopped my income support of £45 a week. It was penalising me for doing something. The system penalises single parents for studying and I would love that to change.

“I wrote a report on it: ‘Reducing UK poverty by addressing the barriers preventing female single parent carers from entering higher education.’

“The other issue is around carers’ allowance. I can earn up to £132 a week, and receive a carers’ allowance of £70 a week. But if I go to, say, £160 a week in earnings then I lose the whole carers’ allowance. 

“So if I’m earning more than £132, but less than £200, I lose out. If I was Prime Minister, the first thing I would do is knock that on the head. I am a single person who’s given the choice of staying on a low income, or being penalised when trying to get to a higher income. I do not understand how they do not encourage people to learn. It’s not good enough at all.”

Gemma: How to be a force for change

“There was a time when I felt I needed to get into politics because they seem to be the people pulling the strings.

“But in the end, I looked into studying again, and got my masters degree. That work focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and it was really interesting to see how all those goals are linked and to understand the history of how everything works, and of colonialism, and how it all links together – and also of ways to change it.

“It is easy to get bogged down by everything, but remember you can do your bit – you can only do what you yourself can do as an individual. You can’t fix every issue – but you can make a difference. I remember to focus and do what I can do.”

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In this guest blog, theologian Greg Smith challenges churches to find their prophetic anger.

A recent article by Jo Moore on Grace + Truth highlighted a significant issue: that unconditional generosity can so easily lead to dependency for the recipient. Those of us who have been active in this kind of work recognise the sense of entitlement which easily develops in response to whatever welfare provision or charity that is offered.

Christian professionals and campaigners in the poverty and development industry have long recognised that generosity is not enough. The arguments are well rehearsed in the context of international aid in Corbet and Finkett’s book When Helping Hurts

Strong reaction

But Jo’s article also provoked a strong reaction in me. My own church, alongside other faith and community groups and our council, is deeply involved in this ministry. Personally I spend many hours in supporting and organising such work. 

We are one example of the hundreds of churches, mosques and community groups who have been eager to respond to the urgent needs of people struggling with poverty and a precarious life. In recent years, over 2,500 food banks have been established. And now, in response to the current cost of living crisis, thousands of ‘warm welcome centres’ have opened too.  

While these initiatives provide essential first aid to people in crisis, and may even save lives, they remain problematic.

Digging deeper

Jo is right to dig deeper in trying to find out what kind of help can make a significant and real difference to people’s lives, so that they can move beyond the crisis of an empty larder. 

So in her (as in most other) food banks, customers are asked some questions, and attempts are made to address underlying issues. If the questions are asked sensitively and if there are good referral pathways to other agencies who can help with issues such as employment, debt, addictions and domestic violence, much good can be done. 

Transactional

However, the key to success is building long-term relationships of trust. Mutuality always trumps charity.

Sadly, the model of the food bank industry is fundamentally a welfare-client  transaction conditional on a referral from an organisation that holds power. This is simply not well fitted to building relationships of solidarity and providing personal dignity. Improved models of delivering food aid are emerging, such as food co-operatives, pay-as-you-feel markets, and Local Pantries. 

Transforming relationships

But there is also a strong case that anti-poverty work is most effective if located, not so much in projects and para-church organisations, but in the gospel and local churches that are deeply rooted in the life of economically struggling local communities. Here it is that deep, honest and life-transforming relationships can best be built.

The case is well and passionately argued in Mez McConnell’s The Least, The Last and the Lost (see my review).

Burden on individual

Jo’s questioning of people who visit the food bank seems to place a great burden on the individual, and to locate the causes of poverty firmly in personal behaviour and attitudes. A survey for The Evangelical Alliance in 2015 (p14-15) demonstrated that this interpretation of UK poverty is almost universal among Christians. In my view this is misguided and can become a dangerous form of victim blaming. 

We need to have more understanding and sympathy for the complex factors which underlie the struggles people face as they confront economic disadvantage. These include family and social class background, where they live, educational disadvantage, poor housing, health and disability issues, trauma from violence and abuse, and powerlessness against the system. Structural injustice and growing inequality are problems around the globe which cannot be ignored.

Going upstream

Therefore we need to go upstream, to investigate underlying causes of poverty and injustice to bring prophetic words and campaign for political change. We need holistic analysis and a programme of action on multiple fronts.

We can take inspiration from my friend Bob Holman (if you don’t know of him do follow the link), who combined Christian integrity, compassionate community work and a structural and political analysis of poverty.  His approach shows how Christians really can be good news to individuals, our communities and our country.

Personal responsibility

This does not mean we can deny individual agency and personal responsibility, for that is central to the human condition. People created by God and placed in society are moral beings. It is often right to challenge people with a word of ‘tough love’. Darren McGarvey, an expert in the field by lived experience, has explored this brilliantly in his books such as Poverty Safari and his recent Reith Lecture.

In short, Christians we need to go beyond the charity of food banks. We need to build honest relationships in community and work alongside people who come presenting a need. But we also need to raise our voice to change the inequality and injustice that has led to the rapid rise of so many services providing for basic needs. We need a prophetic anger about why we are even in this situation in the first place.


This article first appeared on the Grace + Truth blog and is reproduced by permission. 
Greg Smith lives in Preston, Lancashire and enjoys an active retirement following 40 years of urban church and community work. He is an honorary associate research fellow with the William Temple Foundation. 

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Low-income communities are being disproportionately affected by church closures, pioneering new research has revealed.

    • Pioneering new research shows church closures are disproportionately high in low-income neighbourhoods
    • Study looked at closures over a 10-year period
    • In-depth discussions bring new insight into church life at the margins
    • Church Action on Poverty calls for radical review of priorities by leading denominations

Church Action on Poverty launched its Church On The Margins work in 2020, and has spent three years studying closures across Greater Manchester over the past decade, and talking in depth with people in low-income areas.

Today, ahead of Church Action on Poverty Sunday this weekend, the charity publishes two reports into its work, and calls on some of the country’s biggest denominations to address the issue.

Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, says: “Churches, at their best, are thriving hubs at the heart of their communities – open and inclusive to all believers and everyone else. Churches at their best connect with and support the local area through local collaborations, shared spaces and resources, and genuine community. This new research shows that low-income communities are being disproportionately affected by church closures, and that has ramifications for Christians and entire neighbourhoods – but if national church leaders reinvest instead of retreating, then churches can help whole communities to thrive and build better futures.”

The research was inspired by the Church of Scotland’s ‘Priority Areas’ approach which has committed substantial additional resources to mission and ministry in the deprived communities for the past 15 years.

The first report is entitled Is the Church losing faith in low-income communities in Greater Manchester? The researchers mapped closures in Greater Manchester over the past decade in relation to the indices of deprivation, across five denominations (Church of England, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches).

The key finding was that significantly more churches have closed in low-income areas than in more affluent areas. Of the denominations, only the United Reformed Church had more closures in affluent areas. Reasons cited for closures included declining attendance; buildings falling into disrepair and unaffordable upkeep; and a lack of clergy, but these do not explain the imbalance between areas.

Church Action on Poverty commends the Methodist Church’s own ‘Church at the Margins’ programme, which commits over £6 million into missional activities led by people and churches on the margins over five years. While the Church of England has committed substantial funding via its ‘Low Income Areas Fund’, we call for greater transparency on how Dioceses spend the funds, and the extent to which funding decisions are accountable to the communities it is intended to benefit.

Mr Cooper says: “We call on other denominations to make substantial long-term resource commitments to churches and communities on the margins, as the Gospel priority for the church over the next decade.”

The second new report is called: What does it mean to be a church on the margins?  It is based on in-depth conversations with people and congregations ‘on the margins.’ It documents frustrations with barriers around disability, literacy, class, language, leadership and power within mainstream churches.

The voices and stories shared were powerful and insightful, and combined faith and a desire for action.

Both reports point to wider questions about denominational priorities and structures, and the allocation of resources. People leading denominational work are often distant from people with experience of living on the margins of society.

The reports are also being sent to church leaders, to invite responses, and the charity will soon begin a new phase of the programme, to try to address some of the issues and divisions identified.

Researchers did find positive examples where local churches have adapted, such as by moving to a new community location or developing a new image and approach, and found reflection and flexibility are crucial in the long-term sustainability of churches in low-income areas.

Churches are often seen as White, middle-class spaces. To reach more people, churches need to reflect the diversity of the UK, including working-class people, communities facing racial injustice, people with disabilities, LBGT+ communities and many more.  Churches also need to welcome more trainees from working-class and Global Majority Heritage backgrounds, and include training around issues affecting low-income communities, including inequality, poverty, social and racial justice.

 

Merseyside Pantries reach big milestone

Transforming the Jericho Road

Partner focus: Meet Community One Stop in Edinburgh

Thank you Pat! 40 years of compassionate action

Halifax voices: on housing, hope and scandalous costs

The UK doesn’t want demonising rhetoric – it wants to end poverty

Sheffield Civic Breakfast: leaders told about mounting pressures of poverty

Artists perform for change in Manchester

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield: annual report 2023-24

6 people holding cut-out numbers, reading 150,000

Merseyside Pantries reach big milestone

Transforming the Jericho Road

A photo of two volunteers in Your Local Pantry aprons, beside a photo of two members shopping

Partner focus: Meet Community One Stop in Edinburgh