Inspired by Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church, for the poor”, Church Action on Poverty is exploring how churches can do more to stand in solidarity with people in poverty. We’ve invited many prominent Christians to share their thoughts on this. Their reflections will appear here, and in a new publication to be released soon. Today: Martin Johnstone, secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church & Society Council.
A couple of years ago, in October 2014, I had the incredible privilege of spending four days attending a conference hosted by the Vatican during which Pope Francis spoke powerfully about what it meant to move from being a Church that cared about the poor to being one in which the poorest in our world are the heartbeat of the Church’s life.
This remarkable gathering didn’t just talk about the possibility of a Church of the Poor. It sought to embody it with participants, primarily from the global South, who were themselves urban slum dwellers, rural farmers and waste pickers. One of the images which will remain with me for the rest of my life is of a huge rubbish bin being pushed through St Peter’s Basilica and then placed on the alter next to the most famous communion table in the world from which the Eucharist was celebrated.
It felt truly a sign that the poor are at the heart of the Church.
Part of what I understand to be happening at this time is a movement of the Spirit of God which involves a movement of the Church’s centre of gravity from Europe (and North America) to what was, in the past, called the Third (or developing) world. This is also, naturally, a movement from the rich to the poor. Many of us in the rich world find such a shift hard to comprehend, surrounded as we are by the decline of institutional religion and the apparent rise of secular fundamentalism where we are frequently more focused on survival than encountering Christ at the margins.
There are, however, glimpses of that reality in our midst. For 15 years, I had the incredible privilege of supporting the Church of Scotland’s work in its 60 poorest neighbourhoods.
The Church of Scotland has been very unusual – some might say unique – in deliberately bending its mainstream resources towards the very poorest people and places over much of the last 20 years.
In 2001 its General Assembly noted: “priority for the poorest is the gospel imperative facing the whole Church, not just the Church in our poorest communities.” In subsequent years it has sought not just to talk about this priority but to embody it.
This has not meant that there has been great numerical growth, but that the Church is still there when so many others have walked away is, in itself, a sign of God’s abiding presence. On a daily basis many incredible things happen. Food is shared. Prayers rise to heaven. Children laugh. People work for justice. Gospel stories are lived out. Lives are transformed. It also enables the Church in this part of the world to connect with the Church in the global South, to play our small part in the movement to become (or to return to being) a Church of the Poor.
I have a simple prayer for the Church.
I pray that one day soon
I will be part of a church that
when we pray for the poor,
We will pray for ‘us’ and not ‘them’.
I pray for a Church that
will not only have the courage
to work for the poor,
to struggle with the poor.
but will also be of the poor.
And I pray that one day
there will be no poor people
in the Church of Scotland
because there will be no poverty.
And I pray to you,
the God of miracles,
the God of the rich,
the God of the poor.