The truth about poverty?

IMG_0617Last year, we took members of several Poverty Truth Commissions to the Greenbelt festival for the first time. It was an exciting and inspiring experience – especially the opportunity for us to reflect together with Clare McBeath, our friend from the Centre for Theology and Justice. Clare collated and shared these theological reflections on the experience of being part of Poverty Truth Commissions.

 “Nothing without us, about us, is for us…”

rings the mantra.
I am sat in a small marquee at the Greenbelt arts festival listening to stories and reflections from some of the grassroots commissioners who have formed part of Poverty Truth Commissions. This is a growing movement, begun in Glasgow and now spread to Salford, Wolverhampton and Leeds, which is made up of decision-makers (councils, NHS, housing associations, universities, etc.) and local people who experience poverty. They spend a year getting to know each other through games, sharing personal stories and pairing up to go for coffee.
Each Commission has a facilitator, who uses a Paulo Freirean approach, starting with sharing stories and experiences before moving on to analysis and reflection, with the aim of initiating creative ways in which that experience might be transformed. In many disciplines this is what is known as reflective practice.
In contextual theology the same process is used but the last part of the cycle seeks to link our experience and analysis with theological reflection, i.e. to understand these in the light of our relation to ourselves, God, others and the world – to ask the big questions of life, death, meaning and purpose and what it is to be human.
As I am sat in the marquee at Greenbelt I feel a bit redundant, as I have been asked to work with the group to help them reflect theologically on their experiences. As I listen it is clear that for this group, theological reflection has happened spontaneously, but maybe unconsciously, so I decide that my role is more to prompt and help articulate what is already there. So, the following is seeking to reflect back what I have heard by way of the group’s own theological reflections.

People and their stories

I hear Jayne, Rachel, Kasia and John tell something of their own stories:
Jayne from Salford, born not into poverty
but with a background in education and work,
catalogues ‘a series of unfortunate events’
of Lemony Snicket proportions
of sexual violence and marital breakdown
of bailiffs knocking on the door
and shouting through the letterbox
but through involvement
with the Poverty Truth Commission
her story gains in confidence
and finds its voice in speaking
truth to power.
Rachel from Wolves,
has a background of being abused as a child
trauma, violence and bereavement
sending “me and the world spinning”
with doctors who don’t make sense
stumbling into the Poverty Truth Commission
Rachel has found a place
group therapist, poet and coach
a year’s journey of barriers coming down
“my head had broken from my body…
now it’s attached again”.
Kasia has lived here 10 years
giving up a stable job in Poland
to make a new life for herself
the experience of fuel poverty
where “however much I work
it is still not enough…”
For Kasia, the Poverty Truth Commission
means finding she has something to share
feeling listened to and important
“now I feel needed…
by this country…
I fit in”.
John is a facilitator
working with the commission from Leeds
helping to pull out learning
to dig deeper
and to increase participation
he speaks of the need
to re-humanise the space
both for those in suits
and those experiencing poverty
to themselves and to one another.

Some of the “deep truths” about poverty

A parable or pointing out the obvious

of invisibility
a series
of unfortunate events
often heaped upon
when the press
blames people
for the situation
they are in
having destroyed
and self-esteem
the job centre
in our target/money
/business-driven culture
then expects
the same people
to go out
and find a job
to impress
a prospective employer
by projecting
and self-esteem.

The prophetic voice

Speaking truth to power
can be hard for those in power to hear
to accept and own
that ‘we’ve got it wrong’
gobsmacked counsellors
the ‘all-powerful’
with budget control
who thought they were helping
can cry tears and be challenged
and begin to question
turning the tables
becoming people
rather than suits
as a carefully measured
and administrated
goes out the window
when confronted
with a real person’s

Brokenness and vulnerability

 Brokenness and vulnerability
are something we are usually taught to hide
‘project confidence – project self-esteem
a sense of entitlement to shape your own community…’
but what if we let our guard down
stop hiding who we really are
what if we saw the humanness in each other
revealed the brokenness in ourselves
what if civic leaders felt safe enough
to choose to reveal their own vulnerabilities,
frustrations, disappointments, failures…
what is we saw vulnerability as a strength
as the key to deeper inter-personal relationships
to confession and repentance understood
as the threshold to self-awareness
and a deeper community awareness
no longer an ‘us and them’ but a ‘we’
to walk together in humility and faith
knowing that only out of brokenness and vulnerability
comes healing and transformation
resurrection and new life?


The bleeding woman dared to touch Jesus
… and was not turned away
The woman at the well offered Jesus water
… and it was received
The Syrophoenician woman called Jesus in…
for his attitude to her race.
None of these women are named
by those who thought themselves
important enough to write the Bible.
But Jesus took time to meet with them
to find out about their lives
to understand the pain of isolation
to find the points of connection
to realise that we need to belong
to contribute, to give a little of ourselves
to give something back
Because we all long to belong
or at least those of us
who society does not include
long to belong…
to feel part of a bigger picture
to feel connected with ourselves and one another
to feel we have a purpose and value
to flourish and grow
for this is the infectiousness of hope
the experience of what it is to

Come to my table… I’ll come to yours

We accept food from our Muslim neighbours
and reciprocate by a return invitation
commissioners hold a café
and invite us to share our ideas
a meal table, a mustard seed
reveal the power of the small starting point
hospitality of food
breaking down our differences
sharing white sliced bread,
ciabatta, pitta, tortilla, chapattis together
this is our body,
this is our blood
communing with one another
for this is the promise
the new relationship
with God
and with one another
where the impossible
become possible
bringing people together…
dreaming together…

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…

What might a hu-manifesto look like?
a hu-manifesto could create change
could re-humanise a city
it would be based on equality
where everyone has a part
it would involve listening to each other
taking time to think and decide together
it would mean dropping our barriers
and not being afraid of each other
coming out of our shells
and being willing to change
accepting others
and handing over
or stepping up
to share power
it would not involve consultations
as we genuinely would not know
the answers we wanted to get
we would not be afraid to ask
the difficult questions
as to how to effect system change
it could be creative and fun
as it would be focused
on what we can do
from many different perspectives
it would be positive,
and hope-full.

I see a new heaven and a new earth…

I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where council tax bills come in white envelopes
and reminders come with the invite to speak to a real person.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where local counsellors and debt advisers
are available to chat at coffee mornings in community spaces.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where support services don’t increase stress
or create a downward spiral making it hard to get back into work.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where we invest in work coaches and business fairs
and teaching conflict resolution and inter-personal skills
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
of crazy ideas such as setting up tampon banks
and Mad Pride initiatives that promote (good) mental health.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where local people are invited into the city council chamber
to make policy decisions.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where NHS doctors don’t dismiss people with prescriptions for tablets
but have time to listen, ask questions and involve patients in their own care.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where illness and sin are seen as isolation and disconnection
and recovery is about connection, healing, new life, resurrection…
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where we have time…
time… to build relationships and trust in each other.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where life has a rhythm and a balance
that is not just 70 hours of work, work, WORK for less than a living wage.
I see a new heaven and a new earth…
where we are willing to take risks, create and play
and come up with new acts of imagination…

Tentative conclusions… or what next…?

“The truth about poverty is we don’t have all the answers, but people driving the conversation are those with experience… Poverty Truth Commissions are places where imaginative acts are taking place”.

Revd Dr Clare McBeath is Co-Principal of the Northern Baptist College and Director of the Centre for Theology and Justice.