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Fighting Food Poverty: Practical Care + Political Activism

I was pleased to see that Church Action on Poverty (CAP) and Oxfam’s report “Walking the Breadline: The Scandal of Food Poverty in 21st Century Britain” was the lead story on the front page of the Metro newspaper recently.
This report is a stark reminder of the reality of life for more than 500,000 people who are forced to use food banks in the United Kingdom.

Niall Cooper and his team at CAP have done a great job over many years to highlight and campaign against the reality of poverty in the U.K.

It is a critical time for such a campaign, because first, we have a government that simply does not care enough about people in poverty.

The austerity measures, punishing cuts in public spending, rising unemployment and underemployment and radical benefit changes are adding up to a cocktail that is hitting the poorest hard.

In the Day Centre for homeless people that we run at West London Mission, we have lost our largest government grant.

Yet we are seeing more people than ever coming in who are sleeping rough as a result of the benefit changes. Demand continues to rise and resources are lower than ever.

Second, the church is doing a great job, alongside many others, in practically making a difference to those who are affected the worst.

The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that works in partnership with local churches, coordinates most of the food banks in the U.K.

In my line of work, as well as in the many established Christian homelessness charities, church night shelters for homeless people have grown at an incredible rate in recent years.

In London alone, these shelters provided accommodation to more than 1,200 people this winter. More than ever, churches are rolling up their sleeves and putting their faith into action.

The most powerful aspect of CAP’s report is the way it uses real life stories and the practical action of churches as the basis for its political commentary and its recommendations.

The work of the church’s food banks gives unarguable evidence of the shocking levels of need in the U.K. It is this link between the practical and the political that gives power to what is being said.

This link is not always an easy one to maintain. Sometimes, the simple messages that are needed in political rhetoric don’t sit too well with the complexity and messiness of delivering services to those affected. But when the link is made, it is a powerful synthesis.

This cannot be read as easy armchair commentary from a comfortable position. Rather, it speaks of a church that has its hands dirty in helping people and which is angry about the conditions that cause the poverty.

The report provides a good balance of appreciating the work of the food banks while also raising concerns about their growth: “Food banks provide a vital emergency service to the people they support but they do not address the underlying structural causes for the growth of food poverty.”

It captures what Desmond Tutu was getting at when he said: “Christians shouldn’t just be pulling people out of the river. We should be going upstream to find out who’s pushing them in.”

Helping people practically is vital, but in doing so we should find the evidence, motivation and anger for political activism “upstream,” which addresses the structural reasons behind their poverty.

But this is not so popular. It often makes many Christians nervous and it is telling how few of the more conservative Christian groups and networks retweeted and promoted the report.

It reminds me of what Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

This report is vital reading. Share it with your friends and print off copies for your church. When we bring together practical care with political activism, things really can start to change.

Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. His Twitter feed is @jonkuhrt.