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Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield embarks on an Urban Poverty Pilgrimage - a journey in search of moral and spiritual significance.

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield, has embarked on what it describes as an Urban Poverty Pilgrimage. About 40 or so of our members – often dressed in parkas and wearing walking boots – turn out to tread the streets of Sheffield. On our journey, we visit foodbanks and other church-based poverty alleviation initiatives, to learn more about their work and how best we can help to promote and support it in our church communities and wider afield. Consequently, there is often a practical focus to the talks that we get to listen to, and to the discussions that follow. 

Yet, our members are aware that a pilgrimage needs to be more than practical in its focus if it is to embody its traditional meaning, which, for Christians, we suggest can loosely be described as a journey in search of moral and spiritual significance. As such, our walk is peppered with prayer points at which members offer prayers to God for spiritual guidance to help us better understand the causes of poverty in urban contexts, as well as to discern possible solutions to it.

A community theologian who was well versed in the challenges that stem from urban poverty ― as well as in ways of alleviating it ― was Father Kenneth Leech. Ken was an Anglo-Catholic priest who spent a large part of his working life in the East End of London, working with those living in poverty and/or experiencing social exclusion. He chose that path for his ministry, believing:   

In all that I have written there are two central Christological truths. The first is the truth that Christ is found, now as then, among the poor and lowly, on the edge, at the margins. The second truth is that to be en Christo, to be icons of Christ, we need to follow his way of lowly servanthood, and because Christ is found among the poor, our response to the poor becomes both a diagnostic test of our Christological orthodoxy, and a sign of judgment.

Cited in D Bunch and A Richie (eds), Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2009), page 134

Ken’s contribution to urban mission was thus centred on a belief that when the poor speak, it is God’s voice that we hear. In our urban pilgrimages we always strive to place a primacy on hearing the views of those who are experiencing poverty, and those who work on a day-to-day basis in supporting them. For Leech, ‘the Christian way’, was to follow Christ’s way of lowly servanthood ― which is to say, to be among the poor, and to make their cause for justice, a cause for everyone, and that is our aim, too. 

Urban Poverty Pilgrimage is one way of doing that, by linking prayer with protest. In some respects it is a form of protest ― a way of raising concerns about urban poverty and its causes simply by being on the streets, waving banners, making a noise, sharing a moment with kindred spirits, sparking some interest from well-meaning onlookers, and following it up with press releases, social media campaigns, and sometimes with political lobbying. As such, Urban Poverty Pilgrimage fits with an approach to Christian discipleship that places much weight on Jesus’s statements: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, and: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’

Poverty runs antithetically to human flourishing, being an impediment to human creativity and fulfilment. From a Christian perspective, it is hard to see how it could ever be consistent with advancing the Christian concept of the ‘common good’― that is, a sense of moral obligation which members of a community share that impels them to want to look after the common interests of all members, and not just the interests of some members at the expense of others.    

Pilgrimage involves travelling, often treading where you’ve not trod before, or seeing it afresh as if for the first time. Certain disciplines, both spiritual and theological, are involved for a pilgrimage to be a pilgrimage and not a sight-seeing tour or a mere confirmation of conviction.  As a journey into moral and spiritual significance, pilgrimage must always be open to new revelation to personal challenge and conversion.

Among the helpful disciplines are:

Being Attentive: being awake to the vibes, the smell, the look, the feel of a particular urban locale and what is going on there — this can lead to intercession and to lamenting prior to any desire for solutions, but this is only the beginning of urban pilgrimage and not its fulfilment.

Being Silent: being reduced to silence in the face of poverty and the tragedy of the urban, with such silence leaning towards the strange presence of the holy and the sacred in the most unlikely places, which induces humility in the pilgrim and protects them from false understanding, false protest, and false solutions. 

Being Open: against all the odds, spotting the signs of the Kingdom, the triumphs of the Spirit, the resilience of the ‘faithful ones’ and the generosity of the ‘impoverished ones’, which leads to a wider perspective and a challenge to previously perceived stances.

And thus, and only thus: Offering the urban situations visited to God with thankfulness for what has been revealed and how it has been a converting ordinance for the pilgrims.

And also: Celebrating the creativity and resilience and solidarity in the midst of toil and struggle, of oppression and disenchantment. 
So, if our pilgrimage does not reveal the sacred in the midst of the urban and Christ’s presence among the poor (Leech) how are we to discern the signs of the times let alone the signs of the Kingdom; and if our pilgrimage does not bring us to “lowly servanthood” (Leech) how are we to develop responses that do not impose abstract (ready-made) solutions but are truly responsive to this particular urban locale, respecting its actual residents as having their own agency and their own God-given perspective that may illuminate our own? 

In a true pilgrimage, it is we who are changed, converted, reconciled, and made new.  And this is no less true for a pilgrimage into the urban, amongst the poor.  Protest and action need to be rooted in the pilgrimage itself, not as add-ons or unwanted gifts but as integral divine-gifted outpourings and outworkings of the unpoor-faithful among and alongside the oppressed poor.  

Dr Joseph Forde is Chair of Church Action on Poverty, Sheffield, and is author of Before and Beyond the ‘Big Society’: John Milbank and the Church of England’s Approach to Welfare (James Clarke & Co, 2022).

Revd Dr Ian K Duffield is Director of Research at the Urban Theology Union, Sheffield, and is editor of Urban Christ (UTU, 1997).

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Pantry members, volunteers and supporters have always cherished Pantries’ focus on dignity - so we were pleased recently to see its importance being recognised by an influential group of MPs.

The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee has published this report into Food Security.

As part of their research, the MPs visited several food organisations and projects in Liverpool, including Blue Base Pantry.

A sense of dignity and choice

The report had this to say:

“We applaud the work being done by charities in Liverpool and around the country to support those in need of food aid. In particular, the Pantry model of food aid provided a sense of dignity to users, as well as choice, and is something we would encourage other food aid organisations to consider where possible.”

A volunteer in a Pantry hoody carries a crate of peaches

The report also acknowledged the additional support that Pantries provide, noting that other advice and support organisations are often also present at the Pantry.

The committee received and heard evidence from a wide range of organisations, including large national charities and public sector bodies.

Another excerpt from the report says: 

“The Trussell Trust said that providing emergency food parcels to people facing an income shortfall was “not a sustainable solution”, adding that “nothing can replace the dignity of households having enough income to buy the food they need for their family”.

“The Local Government Association (LGA) was one of several organisations to call on the Government to take steps tackle rising food insecurity and expand access to access healthy and nutritious food. The LGA said income presented the ‘most significant barrier’ to an adequate diet, prompting it to propose a benefits system that reflected ‘true living costs’.”

Aerial view of Houses of Parliament

Dignity: cross-party praise

The committee consists of six Conservative MPs, four Labour MPs and one SNP MP.

The committee report said that it welcomed the “substantial support packages” from Government, but said: “The Government should examine whether the totality of support to lower-income households, including from central and local Government and charities, is sufficient to ensure household food security without the need to regularly use food aid organisations and publish its findings within six months of the publication of this Report.”

It also said the Government should undertake a detailed assessment of the costs and benefits of extending free school meals in England.

Much of this echoes what Pantry members tell us time and again, and what we said when we launched the Your Local Pantry So Much More report in July.

Government must step up to secure dignity for all

When communities come together around food, they can do and be wonderful things… but Pantry members and volunteers are also witnessing the acute harm being done by soaring living costs, coupled with inadequate national support systems.

Charity has never been the long term answer to food insecurity. We need so much more than that.

We need national commitment and we need Government to step up. Everyone should have access to good food – and that means all incomes need to keep pace with rising living costs.

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

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