In the first of a three part series on Christian involvement in social action, Sam Hailes investigates the ways in which today’s Church is joining the fight against UK poverty.
The Church has a long and impressive history of social action. In the 18th century Christians taught children to read and write in the first Sunday schools. In the same century, the advocacy efforts of William Wilberforce and other Christians helped abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
Today, social action inspired by the love of Christ happens through churches of every denomination. Whether it’s combating underlying causes of poverty such as unemployment and debt, or providing immediate help through food banks, the doors of many churches are wide open with Christians helping to meet a plethora of needs.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that over the past two decades in particular, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of Christians taking social action seriously. Over the last four years alone there has been a 59% increase in the number of hours that church volunteers have spent on social action (according to a national Church and social action survey).
The Cinnamon Network’s Faith Action Audit published earlier this year showed that the Church is responsible for contributing 288 million hours of volunteering a year. That is more than £3bn worth of time given to street pastoring, caring for the elderly, facilitating job clubs and many other projects.
OPENING FOOD BANKS
According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 3.7 million (28%) children in UK households are deemed to be ‘in poverty’. It’s a statistic that surprises many. Even The Trussell Trust – which now oversees 445 food banks in the UK – originally worked solely in Bulgaria. When the Trust’s founders were alerted to food poverty in their local area of Salisbury, they were shocked. Despite the UK being the world’s sixth largest economy, nearly one third of the UK population fell below the official poverty line between 2010 and 2013.
‘People come to us from churches across the UK,’ trustee Alison Inglis-Jones explains. ‘They, as a church, have seen a need…and they come and ask how we can facilitate a food bank in their community.’
Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors and social workers identify people in crisis and issue them with a food bank voucher. Clients can exchange their voucher for three days’ emergency food. As 99% of food banks are run out of churches, this means over 1 million people have entered a church building to receive food in the past year.
Seventy-five per cent of food banks already offer debt advice, and Inglis-Jones wants to see other services such as benefit advice added. She hopes that as underlying causes of poverty are addressed, less people will be reliant on food banks for survival.
While food banks can provide for people’s short term needs, there is also a need to address longer term social problems, and equip people to live sustainably. Unemployment continues to rise, with long-term youth unemployment having doubled from pre-recession levels.
28% OF CHILDREN IN UK HOUSEHOLDS ARE DEEMED TO BE IN POVERTY
This has led to Christians launching initiatives to help people into work. Over the past ten years Resurgo, a charity that runs its main office from St Paul’s Hammersmith, has helped 2,500 young people find jobs.
Resurgo’s Spear course teaches 16 to 24-year-olds how to write CVs and covering letters as well as make a good impression in interviews. Of those who graduate from the Spear course, 75% are still in employment or training one year later.
Chief executive Tom Jackson says the church background to Resurgo is critical. He says some have written off the Church as a ‘moralising private spirituality sect’, but Jackson wants people to ‘see church differently’. ‘When we started 11 years ago, we found ourselves sitting in between [the] European headquarters of multinational companies based in Hammersmith and, on the other side of the church, social housing and tremendous amounts of disengaged youth who were a long way from jobs. ‘We thought, “What can be done about this? What would happen if the church moved out by faith and helped these young people?”’
Jackson says that Spear helps young people think for themselves. ‘There’s very little formal lecturing…We’re trying to get them excited about why work could be a great thing for them. It’s more than a means to earning cash. It’s productive to their long-term future and living greater lives.’
He explains that the ‘predominant issue’ for the people Spear work with is a lack of motivation and confidence. ‘If you’ve grown up in an environment that doesn’t value and encourage the benefit of work, doesn’t encourage you in the role you can play, its entirely natural that you won’t be motivated or confident.
‘Most of our young people have not had [anyone] encourage them. It’s something that’s been missed out.’ While many organisations and politicians talk about giving young people skills, literacy, numeracy and job opportunities, Jackson says that alone isn’t enough. ‘All those things are crucial, but if underneath it all you don’t have that sense of confidence and aspiration then actually it’s very easy to not even turn up to an interview if you get one.’
A young person’s role models may be either ‘rap artists earning a fortune’ or someone who doesn’t work at all, he explains. Resurgo aims to motivate candidates to see that work is beneficial.
THERE’S POVERTY OF VISION, OF LIFESTYLE
‘Financial well-being is extremely important, but that’s not the only indicator of poverty. There’s poverty of vision, of lifestyle. There’s the wealth of going out and making your way in the world, being part of a community and doing that well. That doesn’t have to be counted simply by adding extra zeros onto the end of your income. ‘People need to be earning well and providing for their families. But that doesn’t have to be mega bucks. Our view is that as long as people are being paid properly, they will benefit in many other ways through work.’
How Resurgo helped me
Ricky had spent two years job-hunting, but nothing seemed to work...
I spoke to employers and worked hard on editing my CV but I never got any responses. I tried everything I could think of to improve my chances of getting a job, but nothing seemed to work. I was really struggling for money and felt under a lot of pressure from family and friends to get a job.
I started going in to Jobcentre Plus and overheard Chris, one of the coaches at Spear Harrow, talking to someone else about Spear so I went and asked her what it was about. She told me that Spear helps get you ready for work, and you visit companies to see what the workplace is like, which sounded really interesting. She said Spear stays in touch with you for 12 months after you finish the course, which sounded brilliant. I figured I had to nothing to lose.
Joining the course, I was struck by the level of personalised one-to-one support Spear offer; it felt so personable. It was so helpful to have a dedicated coach to support you through the process of looking for work and to talk through anything outside of work that was having an impact on me. Learning about the power and victim mentality on the course really made an impression on me; I realised I’d seen myself as a victim for a while, blaming everything else, but now I realise I do have options, I can be proactive, and so it’s really changed my outlook.
After visiting i2i Events Group for our company visit on the course, Chris helped me put my CV together. A few days later, they called me in for an assessment and they offered me a marketing internship! Now I’m focused primarily on email marketing, using Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and learning how to code; it’s an amazing opportunity.
Whatever I do next, Spear will always be the foundation: it’s taught me how to be proactive, how to be confident, and how to be a leader in the workplace.
LAUNCHING JOB CLUBS
Over the past 15 years, Christians Against Poverty (CAP) have been combating what it calls the ‘national problem of debt’. The average UK household owes £2,293 in credit card debt alone and will owe close to £10,000 in debts such as personal loans, credit cards and overdrafts by the end of 2016 (PwC report, March 2015).
CAP says it provides the ‘best debt help service to those with the very least’. But in recent years, the charity has observed how many clients get into debt after being let go from work. ‘You lose your job and there’s several weeks where you won’t have
any income. Things get desperate and you end up getting into debt,’ says CAP’s Paul Archer.
Having acknowledged unemployment as a fundamental trigger to debt issues, CAP launched Job Clubs. The clubs are run by churches and provide a job seeker with community support, one-to-one coaching and a ‘really interactive, engaging course where people can learn practical tools to help them find work,’ Archer explains.
While Resurgo has focused on supporting young people in London, CAP’s Job Clubs are open to all ages and operate nationwide. But a variety of secular organisations already run similar job clubs, so what makes CAP different?
‘The community support,’ says Archer. ‘What [job seekers] say they need is someone who has time, who cares about them, who is there for them. Most providers aren’t able to do that because of payment by results
and funding constraints. Because we’re working through churches who naturally do community, we’re able to provide that and it makes a huge difference to people’s lives. Knowing you’re not alone is really important. ‘Some of the top words people use to describe unemployment are “useless”, “worthless”, “embarrassed”, “bored”, “pathetic” and “depressed”. Being unemployed has this horrible effect on people.
‘Being in a community that encourages you and cares about you lets you know that you don’t need to feel like that. You’re not on your own. That makes all the difference for someone who needs to confidently walk into a job interview. They’re going to be able to lift their head high because they’re loved and supported by their local church. That’s the USP of CAP Job Clubs. Local church is going to make that difference.’
How CAP helped me
Gordon from Reading shares his story…
I lost my job in June 2013. I was in debt and in danger of losing my house. I was a single person following a family break-up and have three teenage children. It was a precarious situation. Eighteen months later I hadn’t managed to find a job and I’d been using credit cards, which were getting to the limit. I had no more credit left. My savings had completely gone. I was in danger of having to sell the house. I didn’t know which way to turn, and only by chance a colleague in the organisation I did voluntary work for invited me to come along to a job club he went to. It wasn’t CAP-run, more of an informal chat session, signposting people in the right direction. When I explained my situation, someone suggested I get in touch with CAP. I thought, ‘Who or what’s CAP?’
I started the process for CAP to manage my finances and creditors. I didn’t know such organisations existed that would work with you in that process. For them to be able to take on dealing with your creditors so you wouldn’t get all the letters and [the] threat of bailiffs coming round…was a huge relief.
Debt is a terrible thing to live with. It keeps you awake at night. You worry all the time. Your whole world is collapsing around you.
There is something different about CAP. I’d gone to a couple of job clubs from the council and they weren’t Christian-run. CAP’s approach in dealing with people was a very uplifting experience. Previous job clubs were run in a very clinical manner. You come out afterwards thinking, ‘I’m not better off. It hasn’t changed anything.’ But coming away from a CAP meeting was quite an uplifting experience. The way they dealt with you, the way they spoke with you…It started to lift me out of a mentally dark place into a much
better place. CAP were very good at having that empathy with my situation.
While I was going to the CAP Job Club, a member of the Vineyard Church had a job vacancy. I landed that job when I was right on the cliff edge of either bankruptcy or insolvency. That was in March this year. I’m still in that job now. I’m gradually recovering.
I can’t help but think, ‘If only everybody could come across a CAP job club.’ Not everyone is as lucky in life. But for those who do come across a CAP Job Club are going to
be very fortunate people.
ENGAGING IN POLITICAL ADVOCACY
Liam Purcell from Church Action on Poverty says that in the past few years, people in front line services are observing not just relative poverty, but absolute poverty. The statistics bear this out, with more than 10 million people in the UK with income below 60% of the inflation-adjusted 2010/11 median (this is termed ‘absolute low income’ by the Department for Work and Pensions).
Purcell says Britain is an ‘unfair, unequal society’. And while churches are ‘very good’ at pulling people out of the river, more people need to go upstream and ask who is pushing them in.
Much of Church Action on Poverty’s work is centred on advocacy. Purcell believes the Church should have a ‘prophetic voice’, holding leaders and governments to account. He accuses the government of ‘trying to define child poverty out of existence’ by changing the way in which it is measured. He talks about the ‘injustice’ of a society that has ‘massive divides’ between rich and poor. Those on low incomes are ‘exploited and treated differently from those who are better off,’ he says. ‘It’s the kind of thing the prophets talked about in the Bible; they spoke of unfair measures and oppressing the poor.’
POVERTY IN THE MEDIA
Just how realistic a picture of UK poverty can we ascertain from the impression of the poor given by our media? Research from Christian charity Jubilee+ found that although TV networks are ‘increasingly preoccupied with the subject of benefits and poverty’, the coverage often perpetuates the myth that poor people are ‘undeserving’. Both Purcell and Inglis-Jones say they’re angry about how those on benefits are portrayed. Purcell says ‘supposed documentaries’ such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street reinforce negative stereotypes.
‘You almost never hear the voices of those who are experiencing these issues. You don’t hear people telling their own stories. Often there’s a huge disconnect where people don’t know what the realities are for people on the ground.’
And Inglis-Jones is critical of what she calls the ‘scrounger rhetoric’ seen in ‘certain sections of the press’. The reality, she says, is that, ‘People want to be back in work. We shouldn’t decry people who are on benefits. We should actually say, in a supportive way, “What can we do to get you off, and back in work?”’
In five years’ time the Cinnamon Network’s Faith Action Audit will be run again. It’s expected to provide further evidence of the growth of the Church’s involvement in social action. But while many churches are actively seeking to address and speak up on social issues, Cinnamon Network founder Matt Bird points out that there are 50,000 branches of the local church in the UK and many remain ‘too internally focused’.
‘Most churches will not be involved in week-by-week community service and engagement,’ he says. The lives of 1.4 million people are already impacted through Cinnamon Network recognised projects alone. But if more congregations across the country respond to the challenge of being ‘salt and light’ in the world, this already high number could sky rocket.
If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s this: the potential of the Church to change lives through work in local communities is monumental.
How to kick-start social action in your church
What the Cinnamon Network can offer your church:
There are 28 different Cinnamon recognised projects for churches to choose from. Matt Bird says, ‘It’s not just about taking a project off the shelf because everyone else is doing it. It’s about being driven by both the resources your church has and the needs of your community.’
2) Micro grants
Cinnamon offers churches a micro grant of £2,000 to help a start-up project in its first year.
What training can you enrol in? Church volunteers will benefit from training in the necessary skills in order to effectively run a Cinnamon affiliated project.