Today, a new resource is being launched for churches who want to be more inclusive of congregation members who are in poverty. It contains notes and ideas from Church Action on Poverty – and a testimony from Revd Ali Dorey, based on her experiences of our own ‘Listen Up’ project. In this video clip and extract, Ali explains how she was herself changed simply by listening to people’s stories.
Revd Ali Dorey is Mission Development Coordinator for North Sheffield Estates. She took part in Listen Up! in 2013 and 2014.
Although I am writing my story in a book all about poverty, I am definitely not poor, at least not in the financial sense of the word. I was brought up in a leafy suburb of Bournemouth on the South coast of England, by parents who had bought their own property…
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… When I went for coffee after the service, I was passing the hatch when someone threw a jay cloth at me and said, “Give that a wipe will you, love?” And I knew I was home…
In 2011, I was licensed as a mission priest to work on a large group of estates in North Sheffield made up of predominantly social housing. About a year after I had started in this role, there were various discussions in the diocese about the potential for a piece of work looking at the impact of the Government’s welfare reform programme. The methodology was an empowering one (using Asset Based Community Development), enabling interviewees to also be interviewers, and it built on the natural propensity of many local Sheffielders to tell their story. We decided to pilot this project, which we named ‘Listen Up’, in a couple of estates in Sheffield, and then to roll it out to other areas in the diocese…
When we came to actually doing the structured conversations, we found incredible openness in the people we listened to. It was quite hard to find people who weren’t suspicious that we were from the DWP, checking up on them, but the church connection by and large helped people to be less suspicious (there was a surprising amount of respect for the Church of England among most people we spoke to). Once people had agreed to engage with Listen Up, they were very open about their livelihoods and shared a lot of their strategies for survival with us. We also quickly realised how far they were from the stereotypical “scrounger” that people on benefits were being portrayed as by some of the national press.
Listening to people’s stories was frightening, because for most of them, things had happened that could easily happen to anyone, especially given the current economic climate. In most cases, major life events that were totally out of people’s control had conspired to mean that they had ended up on benefits. Most of them also struggled with long-term health problems themselves or within their close family unit, which seriously affected their ability to earn enough money to survive…
When people who are relatively affluent sit down and properly listen to people who are relatively poor, and vice versa, everyone leaves the encounter changed.
1. Both affluent and poor people may find themselves listened to and cared for in a way they have rarely experienced elsewhere (which can be very hard for both to handle).
2. Once you have seen and heard first-hand the poverty that people are living in, you can’t “unsee” it. You never see the world in quite the same way again (and this is as true for those who have been very active political campaigners against the wealth and poverty gap as for those who have not been so engaged politically). The look in affluent people’s eyes coming away from these encounters is similar to the look you see in the eyes of a missionary who has lived in a completely different culture for some time.
3. The experience of being listened to properly, deeply and compassionately, changes people. Immediately, they become a person, with a detailed story to tell, rather than a statistic, or someone to be judged by what can be seen on the surface.
As someone who is more affluent, Listen Up has created a distance between me and some of my fellow church-goers.. I find it increasingly difficult to live with the apparent contradiction between what we preach, pray, read and sing about in church services and how involved we choose to be with those who are destitute on our doorstep. A sense of anger at the injustice of the situation has grown in me, but I am not sure that most people in church really care. I often find that we in the church are the slowest to listen and to show compassion, rather than the fastest, as I would have hoped, given the example of the life of Jesus.
But then I remember how I was, before I had these extraordinary encounters. How I knew poverty was there, but felt scared to get directly involved and actually be friends with anyone who was poorer. There’s the fear that you will be overwhelmed by people’s needs, and then there’s the even greater fear that people might actually love you. Then what do you do? When someone who is from a totally different background, who has no money, turns out to have more genuine compassion for you than some of your family and friends, and certainly than your friends at church?
Poverty: The Inclusive Church Resource is launched today, 26 November. Church Action on Poverty supporters can order copies at the special discounted price of £4 – just quote the code INCPOV1 when you contact the distributor:
Norwich Books and Music
13a Hellesdon Park Road
01603 785 925