With poverty strangling the lives of many around the UK, John Kirkby, founder of Christians Against Poverty, reminds us that economic justice is everyone’s responsibility.
Half a tin of beans and a yoghurt. “How long will this last you?” asks the voiceover man as the camera lingers on the saddest of fridges. “Four days,” says Holly. So begins the documentary The Debt Saviours which was aired on BBC2 this autumn. It focuses on some of the individuals being helped by the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), including Holly, who, just into adulthood and living alone following a childhood in care, is routinely brave and her courage is heart-breaking.
The programme correctly shows that a lack of income is just a part of the picture, the whole being so much more lonely and full of hurt than many imagine. I know this from my own story. It’s not the lack of money itself that is the problem, it’s how it makes you feel. It’s how it makes you see yourself. It’s devastating.
It was the early 1990s and I remember looking through the back window of our family home knowing I had lost everything, mostly through overstretching my various business interests. My girls were playing and the crushing realisation was I knew I had just lost them their home. My marriage was falling apart too. I had come to the end of the line, and I felt a failure – in my business but more importantly, as a husband and a father.
Later, at rock bottom, living in a single room, struggling to buy the basics, a wonderful thing happened: a couple took a real interest in my situation and seemed to genuinely care. It was confusing at first, but they seemed to sense just how much I needed their friendship, needed to feel valued. Of course, they were Christians.
After a time, they invited me to church, where I learned about Jesus and I just knew it was right and so I accepted Him. This became the model of how CAP works today too: we partner qualified debt counsellors with the love of the church. It’s an equal partnership, with both sides determined to see someone become debt free and know they are loved. Love is what the church does best, and it’s an underrated and powerful resource in the UK.
We’re happy to say that Holly, Ronnie and the other clients featured in the documentary all see their outlook improve. My experience is repeated again and again in the lives of CAP clients. People suffer a change in circumstances and, in the emotional turmoil of losing a job, relationship, spouse, their health, their home, their children, or a combination, their finances spiral too, at a time when they are least able to cope.
A poor perception
Everyone has a view on poverty and wants to point the finger at someone – should those in need have tried a bit harder? Been less materialistic? Should the government do more? Is poverty in the UK overstated? These are all fine, but while we’re deciding who might be right or wrong and getting our view across, that person remains in need. Chances are, if they’ve made mistakes (and who hasn’t) that person will be feeling it more keenly than anyone.
Poverty is complicated, by the way. There are no easy fixes especially when our average client family earns around £15,000. Thankfully, as it was with me, the UK church is there to show them that positive way forward. God’s army of willing volunteers break through the isolation of that situation and demonstrate Jesus. Literally thousands have come to faith in this way and we’ll never know the legacy.
It is the sign of a sick economy when the National Audit Office says personal debt is costing our economy £900m a year.
If we’ve been part of a church community for some time, we can easily forget that such care is nothing short of revolutionary to someone in real need. Salt in our positive non-judgemental attitude and light in someone’s darkness.
In fact, with so many hiding from bailiffs with their curtains shut all day, we can literally bring light too. There is huge relief when one of our debt coaches tells someone: “We can get this sorted. You have no need to hide.” In doing so, they pull back the curtains and let the light come in.
A church in Manchester
Holly was helped by Sports Village Church, in her home town of Leigh in Greater Manchester, where HMRCstatistics show more than a quarter of children live in poverty. It’s a pioneering congregation started 10 years ago by its more traditional big sister Christ Church Pennington.
Meeting on a Sunday afternoon in a local function room, it’s an informal gathering with free food and drink served before the service. The church uses various resources to support those they meet in the community. As well as debt help, it offers a CAP Life Skills Course and helps people learn good money management with the CAP Money Course. It also has a community fund for anyone in need.
Poverty relief is through providing community but it’s also financial. CAP has a head office staff of more than 300 people negotiating with banks and collection companies, working on clients’ budgets and supporting more than 600 church-based centres across the UK.
All of those who go through CAP’s debt relief are given money management principles that will stay with them long after they are debt free. Contrary to popular belief, people in debt do want to pay their debts off, if they can. However, as many of them are on a very low income with little spare, it would take them decades to achieve and insolvency can be the sensible option. This is why our head office building is called Jubilee Mill, mirroring the Old Testament’s Year of Jubilee when debts were wiped.
Justice for the vulnerable
What about the bigger picture of injustice? The Bible has plenty to say on this, of course, and CAP is and has been working behind the scenes to influence policy change and creditors’ processes for the benefit of the most vulnerable.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (CAP’s patron) recently spoke on the subject of inequality, as a member of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice. He writes that while the economy has been growing, people’s wages have not, and the commission recommends a boost in wages for those on zero-hour contracts and working in the gig economy. He told journalists: “There is injustice in the economy. People suffer from the need to go to a foodbank even when you’ve got two adults in a household and living reasonably tightly and both working. People suffer from being caught in a debt trap because they can’t replace a basic bit of equipment they need: a new stove, a washing machine, let alone luxuries.”
This is one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the years of doing debt counselling: people are getting into debt with the basics. It used to be that clients were in debt due to overspending – they had a lot of secondary debt, loans and cards. Now we see 68 per cent of people getting into arrears on an essential household bill and the credit being taken out. More than nine in 10 of CAP clients have borrowed to pay a bill or service another debt.
It is a sign of a sick economy when the National Audit Office says personal debt is costing our economy £900million a year. Debt really is everyone’s problem. It may be behind closed doors, but it’s there. We are all called to be living breathing good news to the poor, not just by hoping for the best or feeling sorry for them but actually bringing relief.
James 2:15 and 16 says: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
The Bible says we must act – and actually it just makes sense! The church network of denominations covers every single part of the UK, therefore we are perfectly placed to make a huge impact. We don’t need to go into communities because we’re already there.
The scale of UK poverty can seem overwhelming, but there will be people, families on your road perhaps – mums and dads – feeling hopeless and lost, who need you to share the hope you have.