Proclaim ’15: How the Church is serving the poor in our midst

Proclaim ’15: National Catholic Evangelisation Conference was the first gathering of its kind in a generation. It brought together 900 people with 20 bishops, including every archbishop in England and Wales, and invited new steps to be taken in service of sharing the Joy of the Gospel. Fr Chris Fallon from Liverpool archdiocese shares how the Catholic community in his area is responding to the call to share the Catholic Faith in focusing on service of the poor.

Why are people in our parishes hungry? This question brought together a group of lay people and clergy in north Liverpool just over a year ago. All our churches – Catholic, Anglican, Baptist and Methodist – were involved with local foodbanks and we were all concerned at seeing so many people taking the desperate and humiliating step of coming to ask for food.

We live in a rich country, with a welfare system that is supposed to providea basic level of income for everyone. Those who cannot earn enough to feed themselves and their families are supposed to receive benefits provided by the taxes of those who are better off. So why is it not working? The stories in the media about benefit cheats and scroungers do not match the reality we see every day.

We see ordinary people, many in low paid jobs, who simply do not have enough money to feed their families. So we got together, reflected on the gospel reading of the day and shared some of the stories we had heard. Our diocesan Justice and Peace fieldworker and MARCAP (Merseyside and Region Church Action on Poverty) helped us to understand the background, but most importantly, to listen to the stories of some people in our community who live with poverty and hunger. We shared their shock, pain and anger at finding themselves in this situation and at the way they are treated by ‘the system’, and we discovered that the most common cause of this sudden crisis in their lives is having their benefit delayed, sanctioned, cut or stopped altogether, though the Department for Work and Pensions denies that there is any causal link between changes in the benefit system and the increased use of foodbanks.

About 30 people from eight churches, along with agencies including our local Debt Advice Service, the Citizens Advice Bureau, local councillors and a representative of Liverpool Hope University, have been involved in one or more of our 15 meetings. At each one we reflected on the scripture readings of the day and prayed for people living in poverty, and for the wisdom to know how to make the good news of the kingdom a reality in their lives.

Having learned some of the harsh realities of how people get to the point of having to ask for food handouts, we raised awareness of these issues in whatever ways we could in our Church communities, and we discussed them with our local MPs and Church leaders. Then we read the Feeding Britain report of the All Party Parliamentary Working Group on Hunger in Britain and realised that it was addressing, with many more resources than we have available, exactly the issues which concern us.

So we asked our local Anglican, Catholic and Free Church leaders to propose that Liverpool should become one of the pilot projects for Feeding Britain. Frank Field MP and Bishop Tim Thornton, the co-chairs of Feeding Britain, welcomed that proposal. Two of us went along to a meeting of the Feeding Birkenhead pilot project where about 40 people reported on some heart-warming local steps to combat food poverty: church play schemes feeding children during the school holidays with food donated by local food manufacturers; an advice agency attending a foodbank to provide information and advocacy so that some of the hungry people could get back their delayed, stopped or sanctioned benefits and avoid having to come back to the foodbank; a digital app developed by a supermarket to let local charities know what surplus food would be available to them the next day; a utility company working with debt advice agencies to help their clients avoid having their services being cut off. We have now wound up our small local group to put all our energy into supporting the birth of a similar pilot project in Liverpool. At our final meeting we reflected on the two parables of the Kingdom in Mark 4:26-34.

In the first Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like the seed growing secretly in the ground even while the farmer who sowed it is asleep and the earth is making it grow all by itself. In the second, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to the mustard seed: the smallest of all seeds that grows into the greatest shrub of all, giving shelter to the birds of the air.

These parables encouraged us to reflect on what we have done together during the last year and to trust that the small and hidden seeds we’ve planted will bear fruit in God’s time. You can find out more about the Feeding Britain process by reading the three reports published so far, which are all available online at http://feedingbritain.com.

Fr Chris Fallon is parish priest of  St Teresa’s Church in Norris Green, Liverpool. Please see http://www.liverpoolcatholic.org.uk/Evangelisation

For more information about Proclaim ’15: http://www.catholicnews.org.uk/proclaim15

 

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