Getting alongside those who are suffering

Our local group in the North East used the opportunity of Church Action on Poverty Sunday to reflect on some big questions, and get involved in the End Hunger campaign. Group secretary Pat Devlin shares some of their thoughts and learning.

What does it mean to be a poor church, for the poor?

These are words taken from the inaugural address of Pope Francis and we have seen many examples of how he tries to embody this gospel value in his own life and actions. But what does this mean for our own local churches?
This is a question which Church Action on Poverty has wrestled with for more than 30 years.  Sunday 26 February was Church Action on Poverty Sunday, when we were encouraged to think about what this means for each of our parishes.
On Church Action on Poverty Sunday, we asked: if our churches are to be communities that put the poorest first, how must we change? How can we be more inclusive? What must we let go of? How can we allow God to transform us into what Pope Francis has called a “poor Church for the poor”?
This year, the ecumenical service to mark Church Action on Poverty Sunday in the North East was hosted by St Michael’s Church, Byker. The church is in the heart of the Byker Wall, perched on the top of a hill with magnificent views of the river and bridges. The church too has been magnificent in its day, but to make it more manageable for today’s community and congregation, and following biblical tradition, they have literally pitched a tent in the main body of the church, creating a warm homely space for worship. There is still plenty of space around the tent to have a café area and space for children and young people’s activities, and a good number of them provided a fairly boisterous accompaniment to our service.
We heard about some of the initiatives of the church in Byker, like the Raby Cross Café which offers budget meals and a welcome to all – and had served meals for 50 children during half term week, when they would have gone without because of the lack of free school meals during the holidays.
After the reading of the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, Father Bill Rooke helped us to reflect on how our churches could be transformed into Poor Churches for the Poor. He said he had no clear vision of what that would look like, but he was sure it meant being willing to go at the pace of the slowest and not excluding those who are already excluded.  He spoke of getting alongside those who are suffering and being willing to experience that pain ourselves. Then Bother Robert, from the local Franciscan community, led us in prayer before feeding us with his home-made bread and soup.
20170225_120239 (1)St Mary’s Church in Hexham were already engaging with these questions before Christmas. But, to mark Church Action on Poverty Sunday, they invited both shoppers in Hexham and their own congregation to ‘Step up to the Plate’ and engage in the ‘Big Conversation’ about how to End Hunger UK. Many of our churches are supporting food banks – but have we stopped to ask why people are going hungry in the UK when we still have one of the leading economies in the world?
The ‘Big Conversation’ invites people to think about what needs to change to prevent the need for food banks, and to write their key idea on a paper plate.
20170226_102842St John Of Beverley parish in Haydon Bridge did this after Mass and collected donations for West Northumberland Foodbank. The plate messages are photographed and uploaded to the campaign website and social media and sent to the local MP. It is just the start of a campaign dialogue which we hope will bring an End to Hunger in the UK.
icon_logo-01Could your parish stand alongside people who are struggling and join in this Big Conversation, which will continue throughout March, as a small step towards becoming ‘A Poor Church for the Poor’?