On Monday I watched a BBC Panorama documentary on the impact of poverty on life expectancy called Get Rich or Die Young (it’s available on BBC iplayer for a year). The statistics were shocking, they looked at the most dramatic area of the country in terms of life expectancy gap, Teeside, where the difference is a much as 18 years!
As someone who has lived in deprived areas of both Bristol and now Plymouth for the last 12 years. I’m not surprised. When I first came to Devonport in Plymouth six years ago, I was made aware of the gap that exists in the city. In Devonport you are likely to die almost ten years younger than in other more wealthy parts of the city. That might be through bad choices like smoking, drugs and alcohol, it might be through addictions and the life-limiting effects of the drugs, it might be through suicide, or even through the mental scars of childhood abuse. The result is that in the poorest areas you die younger.
So how do we, as church respond? Of course some might say that poor choices play a part; why should the church have any role in people’s failure to make good choices?
I’m reminded of the William Booth quote:
“While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight-I’ll fight to the very end!”
There are some great activities of the church, like food banks, soup runs, Christians Against Poverty (CAP) projects all of which make their differences in their own ways. But the problem is that they are often done at arms-length, and in areas like Devonport, it has proved difficult to get projects like CAP up and running (I am in direct contact with them to work out how, and they are aware of the problem) due to a lack of finance, and the right number of qualified people to volunteer. It is ironic that the churches with the physical location, manpower and finance to run a project of that nature often don’t exist where the most obvious needs are.
The major issue seems to come down to the fact that while many Christians have a heart for the poor, and are happy to give money to projects or even volunteer, not many are prepared to follow Jesus and take up a daily cross and actually live among the poor.
Reading Philippians 2, one of the early hymns of the church we read that Jesus gives up his divine privileges (empties himself – εκενωσεν) and takes the form of a slave (δουλου), the lowest of the low, equivalent to an animal or a possession, in order to show us how we too should live. When there is dissent about Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (which meant the house of the poor) in Mark and Matthew, Jesus told his disciples that they will always be among the poor. He is quoting from Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and in doing so is not saying we should accept poverty, but saying that his followers should be generous in all ways to the poorest.
So how will living among the poor make any difference what-so-ever, how will it make a scrap of difference? There are two elements; firstly in living with the poor we discover something about our own poverty, Jean Vanier founder of L’Arche said “People may come to our communities because they want to serve the poor; they will only stay once they have discovered that they themselves are the poor.” The second is that in discovering our own poverty we no longer go down to the poor but find equality with the poor; nobody likes being talked down to. But if you walk the same streets, use the same shops, if you live in the same houses, then you have the opportunity to talk with the poor, not to or for the poor.
So what is the end goal? Jesus said “I have come to bring life in all its fullness”. Yes we want people to get to know Jesus and make the Spiritual changes they need, but we also need people to discover the fullness of life; not the pale imitation of life they have been sold by the world. We want people to live longer and better lives. In the documentary a lady talks about her suicide attempts and the pointlessness of her life – nobody created in the image of God is pointless, nobody should ever feel that way. The first task is to let people know that they are loved, you can only do that if you are prepared to get down in the dirt with them!