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Poverty: The Inclusive Church Resource – S. Durber

December 20, 2015

PICR.jpgAs every with this series, personal stories remind us that, behind statistics and analyses there are human beings and networks of connection. Afterwards the author looks at key theological issues. Churches tend to do things for the poor rather than asking why there is poverty in the first place.


Many communities are now a patchwork of pawnbrokers and chic boutiques, high-priced properties and social housing (like the estate where I live). Even in mainly prosperous areas, there are often pockets of poverty. Economic exclusion is an issue which confronts Christians in the UK and beyond.

Growing economic inequality within and among neighbourhoods has meant that size­able numbers of people are excluded from full participation.

Concern about poor people being margin­alised in church and society is not new. Almost two thousand years ago, the Epistle of James warned against snobbery towards worse-off churchgoers and pointed out the injustices of the rich. Other early Christian leaders too were strongly critical of class hierarchy and mistreatment of the poor. However (with some exceptions), church leaders later came to accept deep economic and social divisions, while encouraging charitable giving. In recent centuries however, many Christians worldwide have become involved in trying to understand and tackle the causes of poverty.

In modern Europe, poverty has sometimes been treated as a problem which only affects far-off countries and a handful of unfortunate or idle people closer to home.

There were varying views among Inclusive Church contact persons on how high a priority economic exclusion was for their congregations, and also on whether these congregations fully accept people facing economic exclusion, including in leadership positions. Most of those who responded believed that poverty should be a high priority for Inclusive Church as a whole, though some recognised that resources might limit what could be done.

Churches have not always been good at listening to the voices of poor people themselves and making sure that these are heard, backing struggles led by those most affected by economic exclusion and asking tough questions about the workings of a society which result in stark differences of wealth, prestige and power.

The problem of poverty in the UK continues to grow, with reports of increasing numbers of desperate people turning to food banks and tragedies as some people whose benefits have been cut die not long afterwards. Often people who are vulnerable because of sickness, bereavement or other forms of loss find their suffering worsened because of material hardship and prejudice.

It is a relief to me that the collection plate isn’t passed among us on a Sunday morning, but left on the coffee bar. I don’t have spare change to give to the church. What I have to offer is my time, my commitment, my energy, my creativity, my love and the warmest hug you’re likely to get — which also happen to be the most precious resources I have to give.

I first came to Sheffield as a student. Interestingly enough, it was my journey of faith that took me to a poorer part of the city initially. I quickly realised that the Christian Union at university and the big ‘student churches’ were full of gifted people. I felt instinctively that it was wrong for so much gifting to be located in one place, so I looked around for a small local church where I could be more ‘useful’. I visited St John’s Park, on the Wybourn estate to the south of the city, as some fellow students had run a holiday club there, and all the estate kids who’d come were involved in the Sunday service. ….I stayed worshipping at St John’s Park for about nine years, and in that time learnt more about who God is than I think I’d ever learnt before. It was a place of formation; I went there thinking I had something to give, but soon realised the boot was on the other foot. It was a place where my poverty began to be highlighted to me — my lack of community, specifically. I began to admire the local people at St John’s for the sense of community that came naturally to them, and they became my surrogate family, in a way.

Sometimes the church, so devoted in service as it is, gives itself away when it reflects on its work for the poor. There have been stories of church communities being ‘delighted’ that there is a need in their town for a food bank because this gives the church an opportunity to serve the community. Local newspapers sometimes carry pictures of smiling church members ready to open a soup kitchen or food bank and celebrating their achievement in providing resources and volunteers. Of course this kind of emergency response to basic human need is Christ-like in its generosity. But if it is not accompanied by sorrow, anger even, that there is such human need in the first place and that it has been created by an unjust society, then it becomes distorted. The very existence of food banks should not be seen first as a sign of the church’s generosity, but first as a sign of a sinful world. A church that is for the poor may well find itself rejoicing in the opportunity to serve, but a church that is of the poor, truly in solidarity with and made up of the poor, will ‘see things differently’ and will want to shout, protest and cry out

The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

He says that he is not talking about programmes of assistance (aid and service or works of mercy and charity) but the kind of attentiveness which is based on a being ‘at one’ with those in poverty. For Pope Francis, this is also not only so that we can, as a church, better understand poverty and respond to it profoundly in order to end it, but this is about understanding and even receiving God.

Unfortunately, many members of church congregations share the prejudices about poverty which are promoted in the media. Churches are often not the places of inclusion and welcome that they should be for people who are on low incomes or face other kinds of poverty and financial exclusion. And even when churches do attempt to respond to poverty in their communities, they may do so in ways which perpetuate the exclusion of poorer people, and do little to tackle the root causes of poverty.

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