Every year, Church Action on Poverty provides a placement for a volunteer who is participating in the Jesuit Volunteer Community programme. This year’s volunteer, Nick Franklin, is administering our work on Poverty & Homelessness Action Week – as well as carrying out a second placement at a centre supporting homeless people. He has written this reflection on his experiences so far.
Like many of my contemporaries, I began the JVC year with some sympathy for those less well off than myself, but a total ignorance about their situation and most importantly, how to rectify it. My placements were an abrupt introduction to a side of life in the UK which is kept astonishingly well hidden. Upon arriving in Manchester, I walked around town by the steps of the cathedral without noticing anything in particular. It was quite a surprise then to return there on the first Monday of work to find that the passers-by and ´tourists´ were in fact the users of the Booth Centre, the homeless of the city, and the grey container was not being used by the cathedral builders, but rather to store the thousands of tins of Harvest Festival donations.
It was the first of many frankly awkward realisations that the haves and have-nots do inhabit the same world, and that whatever the divide of background, we are all cast in the same image of God.
For me, this is the crucial reason for enacting social justice. We all make mistakes, deserve more chances, enjoy good fortune and misfortune. It feels more like accident of birth rather than any fundamental virtue on my ´side´ which allows me to live within a comfortable margin for error, and those I am serving this year on a razor edge. Indeed, just as God never ceases to offer us love and mercy, we should surely aspire to the same.
The placements offer a helpful balance between the national and personal perspective. Church Action on Poverty has been investigating several aspects of the ´Poverty Premium´, whereby poorer people pay over £1,000 more for basics such as food, energy, and credit every year. I looked into ´rent-to-own´ stores, which sell goods like TVs and fridges through weekly installments for those who cannot pay the full price immediately. Invariably, this costs more in the long run. That around 90 percent of these shops are located in the bottom 30 per cent of deprived areas of the country is clearly both integral to their business model and manifestly unjust. Church Action on Poverty have also been busy enacting a charter to regulate high-cost payday lenders in parliament, as well as lobbying government for a formal inquiry into the trebling of food bank users over the past year, probably owing to the economic squeeze on real wages and austerity cuts to the benefits system.
It has given me a proper awareness of the realities of poverty today, and shown some of the ways to make good will effective.
Conversely, working at the Booth Centre has endowed these statistics with names and faces and stories. They say that charity begins at home, and it is obvious to me that both ´top-down´ and ´bottom-up´, direct and indirect, approaches to social justice are necessary. It has been inspirational to see how much can be done from a tiny centre which looks more appropriate to Lilliput in Gulliver´s Travels. Similarly, the compassion of the army of volunteers and the unending avalanche of donations helps to restore even this cynic´s hope. More than mere emergency aid, the range of activities – from curling to drama – indicate a concern for the whole person. Our December performance of A Christmas Carol was not the most polished to grace the Royal Exchange, but the satisfaction of mastering Dickensian language and the joy of inhabiting a particular character is incredibly precious and not something you expect to come under the remit of ´social justice´. Nor is it possible to give a definite value to the most touching moments so far, like buying a suit for a homeless man so he could ´look respectable´ as he put it, at his mother´s funeral.
Of course it has not all been fun times and happy camaraderie with the service users, and sometimes it is easy to imagine that all this effort is in vain. But as the Orthodox Jews of Higher Broughton, where the Manchester community lives, might say in the Talmud:
´It is not your duty to finish the work, yet neither are you free to desist from it.´
Pirkei Avot 2:16