A parable of sharing
A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday (7 February 2016)
Kath lives with her three teenage sons. Her youngest son has several serious medical conditions and requires intensive support. After her partner left 4 years ago, Kath gave up work to become his full-time carer. This left the family finances in precarious financial position:
‘We live very close to the edge… we don’t have many things. My 17-year-old needed a passport to get a part-time job and I had to say no. My youngest, who’s 14, has never been on a school trip, and I can’t afford the art supplies my other son needs for his course.’
The family were just about managing when their Child Tax Credits were halved without notice. Kath had arranged her finances so that she relied on her tax credits to pay for food and other daily necessities, so the effect was catastrophic.
When Kath contacted HMRC, she was told her credits had been cut because she had failed to tell them that her two older sons were staying in education. Kath says she did update them. She was assigned a case worker and given a number to call, ‘and that’s where the problem started’.
‘I called them every day all day and couldn’t get through. And every time I got put through to the answer machine we got charged. It was awful. I’d go back to the helpline and say “I can’t get through”, and they said “Well, that’s the number”. They didn’t help at all. It went on for eight weeks.’
Kath was horrified by how she was treated. ‘When our money was stopped, there was no compassion, there was no way to get support.’
Meanwhile, she was getting into more and more debt: ‘We got behind on all our bills; everything just got swallowed up, and my direct debits were bouncing.’
She became unable to meet the family’s basic needs. ‘It was freezing cold, there was no wood for the fire, I was on the emergency on the meter and I knew the lights were about to go out, and I had no food.’ To attempt to make ends meet, Kath had to rehouse a much-loved family pet, a decision which she described as ‘heart-breaking’. But this was still not enough: ‘I had no money to get my children to school… I was desperate.’
To compound their problems, her youngest son’s conditions mean he needs to eat healthily, which Kath found challenging on a small budget. ‘He can’t eat fast food; he would have ended up in hospital.’
Kath and her family survived with the help of donations from her local Citizens Advice Bureau and food bank. It took eight weeks for the decision to cut her Child Tax Credits to be overturned.
She said of her experience: ‘I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net – if they’re removed, how are families like ours meant to survive?’ 1
How do we respond to the story?
How do we respond to the reality that tens, hundreds of thousands have similar stories to share across the country – and in all likelihood hundreds even in Lancaster?
Churches and others have responded magnificently in setting up hundreds of foodbanks.
But is charity enough?
Giving out 3 days worth of food in a food parcel can only ever be an emergency response. Emergency food aid is normally something we associate with floods, droughts, hurricanes and other natural disasters in other parts of the world.
How have we got to a situation where churches are routinely handing out emergency food aid in the UK – the sixth wealthiest country on the planet?
And more importantly, do we still want to be doing it in 5, 10 or 20 years time?
In the US and Canada churches set up foodbanks 20 years ago as an emergency response – and are still running them now? Would we be comfortable with doing the same here?
In the light of the very familiar story from the Gospel of Matthew (14:13–21) of the feeding of the 5000, one might – wrongly in my mind – conclude that Jesus was a fan of foodbanks.
What is certainly true is that Jesus was fond of food – and good wine. Many of the Gospel stories involve sharing food together. Most of these stories are about celebrating food together.
Or as a colleague of mine puts it “Food makes community and community makes food.”
So one task for us today is to find ways of using food to build community.
But as Jim Wallis says: The Churches are great at pulling people out of the river: Our task is also to go upstream and ask who or what is throwing them in in the first place. This is the prophetic task we are all called to.
In this context it is important to see that food is not simply an act of charity: Food is an essential human right: Essential to life and to human dignity
In fact, according to the United Nations, the right to food is one of our basic human rights. And interestingly, our own UK Government has also signed up – at least in principle – to the idea that food is a human right.
Signing up to the principle and making it a reality for all our citizens is quite something else. And yet, in the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet, in which there is transparently no shortage of food, this should not be beyond the wit of human wisdom to achieve.
Reading the story of the feeding of the 5000 in this light, brings a whole new perspective: The story is not one of charity – but of abundance. Even when the situation does not look promising, there is enough food for everyone. The feeding of the 5,000 is actually a parable of sharing.
As followers of Jesus’ our task, as was his, is to find ways to share our abundance of food more equally, so that all may be fed. So that Kath – and the tens of thousands like her – need not go to bed hungry any more.
Director, Church Action on Poverty
- Kath’s story is reproduced from Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of food banks in the UK, Church of England, Oxfam, Trussell Trust and Child Poverty Action Group, 2014. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/emergency-use-only-understanding-and-reducing-the-use-of-food-banks-in-the-uk-335731