Ruth Young writes the second in a series of blogs exploring the issues raised in the Fullness of Life Together, re-imagining Christian engagement in our communities report.
I’m sure you’ll agree when I say that most of us, in living out our lives as Christians who want to share God’slove with others, get involved and do what we do with integrity and the very best of motivations: to use the phrase from the last blog, we engage with our communities and those most in need within them with the right intention.
For example, we want to alleviate the hardship caused by welfare sanctions and low wages, so we provide food banks. We are concerned about the homeless so we organise soup runs. We want to include people with hearing loss or sight impairment in our worship so we put in hearing loops and produce large print service sheets. These sorts of social action are commendable. From one perspective they clearly are the right services for people in these circumstances, in that they meet a sometimes pressing need. Their impact on the people who benefit from them is significant.
But is it always done in the right way? I remember, for example, hearing the story of a successful professional man who through family sickness had had to leave his job and found himself unable to pay his household bills. Eventually he had to turn to charity to help him feed his family. He described his gratitude that he didn’t have to go to a foodbank, with vouchers in hand “feeling like a beggar,” as he put it. Instead the organisation that helped him had a policy of delivering food parcels to the house. They understood the shame felt at not being able to provide for family and respected the privacy and dignity of those whose self esteem was shattered. They saw the hidden need beyond the visible one. Someone simply turned up once a week, on foot, with some carrier bags which were discreetly handed over on the doorstep: the right service with the right intention, delivered in this instance in the right way.
That’s not to say that the way foodbanks mostly operate is wrong – not at all. The problem occurs when we assume that what we are providing, and the way we are providing it, is the right, or a good way, without considering how it looks and feels from the ‘receiving’ person’s perspective. Take another ‘foody’ example: I once worked with a project that provided an evening meal for homeless and vulnerable people in a northern city. It was a great project, with a team who cooked and served a hot meal, a team who greeted the guests as they arrived, a team who sat at the tables and ate with them, a team who gave advice, one that gave out clothing…and so on. It was well attended and much appreciated. I chatted one evening to a couple of the women, and it became clear that they weren’t eating the main course. It turns out they were both vegetarians (one for religious reasons) and every week the meal was meat. When they had mentioned this, they were told that “We don’t do vegetarian.” The implication was that if they really were hungry, they would eat anything. So a project that existed to meet needs fell short, and these women who needed nutrition only got dessert, and also felt sidelined and disrespected.
A final story makes a similar point about the importance of seeing – and relating – to the individual, and not just the need. I heard recently about a foodbank in America, where at Thanksgiving they gave out tinned pumpkin and pastry cases. They noticed that these kept being returned after Thanksgiving, in case someone else could use them. It turned out that no one liked or wanted pumpkin pie! This led to a change of approach, so the foodbank, instead of making up parcels for people, started to allow them to choose for themselves what they wanted. It meant that conversations had to happen to find out what people wanted, so improved relationships between those who ran and those who used the foodbank; and it took some adjustment in the kinds of foods they stocked and supplied, but it led to less waste and happier customers.
Meeting people’s needs is a necessary and good thing to do, but it requires sensitivity and flexibility, as well as what the Bible calls ‘loving kindness’. The outworking of that calls for a deep understanding both of human nature and of God’s intentions for us. We are more than the sum total of all our needs: we have hopes and aspirations, wisdom and skills, opinions, personality and creativity. We have inherent worth. We are body, mind and spirit, made in the image of God and reflecting his glory. We all long to be recognised – and related to – as unique individuals, not just through the lens of our needs. Knowing all this enables us to do the right thing, in the right way, with the right intention. Whatever method we use, engaging our communities and getting involved in social action needs to have this kind of theology underpinning it. God intends the best for us in the whole of our lives, as individuals and in community. It’s called Fullness of Life.
Ruth Young, November 2015