This is a guest post from Robert Carack, a member of the local Church Action on Poverty group in Sheffield. We invited Robert to report back from a conference which took place in Sheffield on 23 February 2013.
We cannot affect the cuts being made in welfare, but we can deal with the effects of the cuts. Someone asked 2,000 years ago “Who is my neighbour?”; and in the answer it was said that some passed by and someone stopped. Do we pass by or do we get involved – and if we get involved, how do we give the help needed?
‘Listen Up’ is a project that asks the local church to listen to those experiencing poverty with an open mind, seeking to hear not what they want to hear, but what the actual experience is. Jane Perry of Church Action on Poverty told us what the truth is on the ground. It might surprise some, such as the gentleman who is looking forward to Universal Credit because it will make his benefit simpler to understand. One of the conference attendees felt her church did not know how people were coping or suffering under the cuts, but she raised the issue: how do we talk to our neighbour, how do we offer ourselves to them to help when the current trend in society is not even to know the person nextdoor?
Each community is unique and has its own problems, but in this the church has a strong advantage: the church is in the community and values the individual. Churches need to speak out for their communities as instructed in the Bible, so that people in power understand the experiences of those in poverty. The scale of change going on at the moment is immense, so it is important that the stories in our communities are told. But the local church needs first to listen to those stories itself.
We need to understand how people get by, and by understanding we can get alongside.
‘Listen Up’ does not ask the individual to complete a questionnaire. ‘Listen Up’ starts a conversation with a person to find their situation and experiences, in a way which values the individual. The whole emphasis is on informality. As one delegate remarked, the current regime of benefits results in what are called ‘interviews’ but are really interrogations of the individual; so our approach must be more sympathetic. However, we have to be careful that some action, however small, is taken as a result of the contact; and we also need to bear in mind that poverty is not restricted to monetary issues, and in talking to people we will discover others.
The Government has said that we need a debate on welfare, which in turn begs the question, what as a society do we want? A society that walks by on the other side, or a society that gets involved? But who should provide welfare? Is it the state? Is it the church? Is it families? Is it employers? Is it trade unions? Is it charities?
Whilst we might get caught up in these big questions, we must not lose sight of the effect on the individual. It was to people on the margins Christ went, not to deal with the big issues but with their immediate problem. ‘Listen Up’ is a way to make a connection with individuals in our communities, to value them and give them a voice.