What is poverty?

Published on: 1 September 2019

Simply a lack of money to pay your way - or more extensively no access to health provision, education, safe water and housing? Or is it an emptiness of spirit or loneliness? Biddy Collyer hosted a discussion with Anna Heydon, Peter Howard and Lorie Lain-Rogers to tease out the definition of poverty in a world of plenty.

International development agency Tear Fund says the definition goes deeper still and that its roots are in broken relationships. Using the fall in Genesis as the starting place, it says that this is where it all went wrong, not only affecting our relationship with God, but with each other and with creation. It is clear to see that we are out of balance with the natural world and that the impact of this is felt most keenly by the poorest, through famine, flooding and disease.

As we talked, one thing we were clear about though was that any restorative action needed to be bottom-up, not top-down. The “Lady Bountiful with her basket of food for the poor in the village” style is just demeaning to everyone. God made us equal.

Anna spoke of the work of The Poverty Truth Commission. They have piloted programmes in Glasgow and Leeds, bringing together the “experts”, that is, those who have a direct experience of poverty, with those who make and implement policy, to help them understand more fully the realities of life for those who their policies affect. The experts get the opportunity to talk to power. The experts set the agenda for the meetings. It is not about blame, it is about building relationships and listening to each other.

This way of working towards much-needed solutions is echoed at the end of Darren McGarvey’s book, Poverty Safari. Brought up in a poor area of Glasgow by an alcoholic mother, he too was one of the experts. The book tells his story, one of drug addiction and unemployment. However, by the time he reaches his thirties, he has a revelation: just pouring in more money will not solve the problems. He is part of the solution. Having found his voice – and pen – he now speaks publicly on poverty and no longer plays the victim card. In doing so, he has found dignity and a sense of purpose.

Part of Darren McGarvey’s way out of poverty was having access to his local library. These were places where he could go to get quiet time and access to books, a place that expanded his mind and opened him up to a new way of thinking. Lorie chipped in: “But now libraries are all being turned into community centres, and the number of books has gone down.” In Anna’s experience, libraries are one of the few places for people who are homeless in Great Yarmouth to go for the day. The atmosphere is relaxed and tolerant and there are literacy lessons and a chance to read the newspapers as well as books.

Our thoughts then turned to education and Lorie, having been a teacher when comprehensive schools were introduced, felt that such large schools have not helped social mobility. Unless parents are highly motivated, some children can fall through the gap: “I taught in a secondary modern and we raised the aspirations for those kids with really good music and drama as well as the other subjects. Now there is no money for music, no money for the arts at all.”

Anna knows of some Christian families in the Great Yarmouth Borough who have made the conscious decision to send their children to schools at the centre of their communities over more prestigious schools further away. “I believe that God has used their decision to encourage their children to be fully immersed in the local education system and community to build strong relationships of mutual blessing and to demonstrate the love of God for the areas where they live, work, study and worship.”

Both Anna and Lorie are directly involved with charities who understand the idea of the need to work alongside the people they want to support. This is achieved by bringing them into the decision making of the organisations, although this brings its own challenges. If you haven’t been exposed to working to a committee structure with set ways of working, it can be difficult to find your place in it and to make your voice heard.

One young woman Anna heard speak at a conference was training for ordination. Coming from a working-class background she unaware of the different conventions that were operating. She said, “I believe the church and the leadership of the church should be as diverse as the people God has created.”

One example of diversity that Peter talked about was the Holt Community Café Association, one of a growing number of Places of Welcome. “Most people only see Holt as a place of wealth but there are long-term effects involving mental and physical health, such as loneliness, low self-esteem and wellbeing.” According to the organisation End Child Poverty, 27.4 per cent of young people in the district live in child poverty, above the national average of 26.9 per cent.

Out of those who attend the Community Café, at least 70 per cent consider themselves physically, socially or mentally challenged in some form which includes loneliness, isolation, ill-health and dementia. Open one lunchtime a week, the café is run by local Christians to provide love, friends, conversation and good food in a safe place, and now sees between 70 and 85 people each week.

Peter shared three stories that illustrate this love in action:

One young woman came into the café in a state of anxiety and depression. She had lost everything, was in a half-way house and was struggling to cope. Through her new friends in the café, she has turned her life around and is now one of the leading volunteers in the café and giving back to her community in many ways.

An elderly lady who was isolated came in one day and said she had not spoken to anyone for two weeks. Now she has so many friends that she cannot walk down the High Street without people stopping to talk to her.

The team at the café invited the local Adult Learning Hub to join them. Now four or five of those who came to be helped are working as volunteers, with one achieving his Level 3 Hygiene award.

Anna agreed these stories are a great illustration: “There is something powerful about someone coming intentionally alongside you, recognising the potential and skills you have got and investing in you. That in itself has huge practical and symbolic value as well. Doing as a human what God is doing for us.”

The developed world was shocked when Mother Teresa said: “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty – it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

Spiritual poverty is so much harder to see than physical. It can get hidden beneath the accumulation of wealth, the busyness of everyday life or work. I didn’t recognise that this was why I felt so empty in my thirties. I had everything I had ever wanted. Husband and children I loved, a nice house and comfortable life. The emptiness drove me to seek a resolution for it and that took about six years until finally I became a Christian. When I surrendered to Jesus, it felt like my world turned from grey to colour. I found a new purpose and sense of worth, even discovering gifts I didn’t know God had given me.

Peter begged to differ somewhat in his view: “Material inequality is what the prophets were addressing in the Old Testament when they spoke of justice/righteousness (the same word in Hebrew!) and what is addressed by the good news in both the Sermon on the Mount and in Luke 4:18. For me, spiritual poverty is something experienced by the victims of inequality, on both sides of the divide. The solution, depending on where you stand, is repentance or restitution.”

Lorie chipped in: “People, whoever they are, need to know that they are loved. It is not that all who are rich are sinners and all who are poor are saints and if we swopped the two round it would work. It wouldn’t change anything. We are all sinners, equal before God and we all have a destiny to grow into.”

We agreed that the trouble is that many people do not know that what they are feeling is spiritual poverty and, like me, will try to find things to fill that hole. It is just that too many people miss the blessing because they look in the wrong place. For as the New English Bible version of Matthew 5:6 says, “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

“God’s world is designed for all to flourish without oppressing others,” said John Wesley. If we believe that to be the case, societal transformation is possible. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can make a difference.

Wesley’s understanding that we grow spiritually by ministering to the needs of others means that by opening ourselves up to the love of God in Jesus, we will all be richer than we ever knew to be possible.

Anna Heydon is a Development Worker for Imagine Norfolk Together, working with churches in the Great Yarmouth area to encourage their work in and with the local community.

The Revd Canon Peter Howard is the Urban Officer for the Diocese of Norwich and retired in 2016 as Vicar of St. Francis Heartsease. He supports clergy and churches in engaging with ministry in poor communities.

Lorie Lain-Rogers is a churchwarden at St Peter and Paul, Bergh Apton, was a co-founder of Seven Cs Community Project and is a local charity trustee.

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