"The poor you will always have with you..."


I’ve just started to reading Banker to the Poor by Mohammad Yunus and have been thinking about my place in the great machine of western civilisation. It’s a thought that’s difficult to nail down, comprising of many things: what I buy, where I live, what I do and being salt and light should affect these things.

I wanted to put a few thoughts out there that have come up in conversations and meetings with others to see what comes back.

As a Christian, I’ve wanted to reconnect my faith back into my actions. From early experiences I’ve found that this is a difficult thing to do. It’s easy to get discouraged by the lack of opportunity to make differences, help people to change, and bring real benefits into people’s life rather than creating another dependency. I’ve felt that everything I’ve tried to do thus far on a local Christian/church charity level seems to be focused on band aid solutions and being a crutch (meeting the need now) rather than an actual solution that gets people to a point of pride in their lives, where they no longer need the help of the church at all (in the physical charitable sense).

Whilst much of the west has enjoyed an extended period of surplus, poverty remains stubbornly in many areas of the world (John 12:8), and in the west. This is especially difficult when status is so heavily based on merit (thus to the western mind, the poor are only there as they have no merit). In this western context, I got to thinking about what makes someone poor. The best I could think of is that they are people continually put in places of dependency; on governments (social security), money lenders, charity hand outs etc. There of course other reasons why they are poor, but my thought about what defines a poor person in the west is their dependence, and the fact that they are trapped there.

So how much of this dependency is created by our western mindset? Governments, like churches, love to talk about things from afar, without getting down to where the action is and understanding the situation and thinking outside of the box to solve problems, rather than create a new dependency. Helping the poor has become a show piece for politicians, knowing that they don’t have to win their vote because of apathy or lack of education. For example, in Britain, a single mother working a part time job to support her children is on housing benefits to make ends meet. If her employer offers her some overtime, she has to report this to her local authority. On doing so, they will stop her housing benefits (for six weeks while they consider her application), and she will fall go into arrears on her rent – thereby rendering the overtime a waste of time. When she gets her application approved, she will then get the housing benefit back, by which time the overtime has ended, and she will have to tell her local authority again (another six week wait) that her situation has changed. If the middle classes were in this situation, there would be hell to pay – but this woman is completely dependent on a system that will continually screw her over every time she tries to get ahead. So do we get angry about this (rant shout and campaign), or is there something else we can do for this woman that will stop her being dependent on the Government?

It would seem that when people are helped with little involvement from themselves, dependency occurs and change is avoided. Of course the social state was never intended to do such things by the people that set it up, but like all things, times change and challenges change. To rest on ones laurels is to invite defeat.

There are loads of things we’ve been talking about/doing over the past little while – credit unions, local business support, debt counselling, helping people to create grocery lists etc. – but I’m interested in seeing what others are doing out there and how that can help in sharpening the focus of our ideas.

So rather than getting overwhelmed, and leaving it too the state, how can we tackle this challenge laid down at the feet of the 21st century western church. This is one of those key things that is supposed to define our Christian mission, and I know I fall tragically short…

Tim Southcombe