Pope Francis says, “If we want to help change history and promote real development, we need to hear the cry of the poor and commit ourselves to ending their marginalisation”.
Much of Church Action on Poverty’s work is rooted in simply listening to the stories and experience of those who live feel marginalised by living in poverty in 21st century Britain.
“See me as an individual, a person, a human being. Don’t think because I’m on benefits you can judge me or make your mind up about me without talking to me.”
“I’m made to feel like a second-class citizen. I’m made to feel embarrassed, ashamed. I’m made to feel unentitled to benefits. Recognise we don’t claim benefits through choice but through need and circumstance.”
The media is complicit in this. A 2014 study of 10 major media outlets found that only 4% of articles gave significant space to the voices of people in poverty. More troublingly, researchers have also found that misleading news coverage of poverty and the benefits system actually prevents thousands of people from claiming vital social security benefits, with up to one in four eligible people either delaying or failing to make a benefits claim because of the perceived stigma attached to doing so.
But are we any better in the churches? There is a lot we can learn from hearing voices from the margins. Take Patrick Philpot, a Salford resident, on and off, for nearly 50 years, who has not had an easy life. In 2016 he left prison with £4.20 and did not receive benefits for 16 weeks. He went to a food bank and a breakfast drop in centre, and there, through Church Action on Poverty became a member of the Salford Poverty Truth Commission. Through the Commission, Patrick has been able to share his twin passions for faith and politics, and draw on his own personal experience of life at the margins to help make a positive contribution to the life of the city – working with a range of civic and business leaders to come up with new ideas to tackle poverty across Salford.
“I had been out of mainstream society for a long time, and I was watching the approach the group took. I saw a group that had potential to have an influence in different areas of society, and they started knocking on doors gently. You can feel the love growing in the group, and see people’s commitment. It’s very simple and it’s what’s lacking, not just in relation to poverty but in British society – simple love and understanding.”
Of course, God is already at the margins, listening to those voices we have not heard or want to hear. St Francis of Assisi, inspiration to Pope Francis and many others, learned this lesson long ago through an encounter with a leper, a person such as he had formerly feared and shunned, but now embraced.
But for Patrick, the reason to be involved is much more simple:
“I honestly believe social care is just about Christian values – not theology or doctrine, but just unconditional love, kindness, compassion and humility. We can’t all have ten jobs and four careers. The truth is, people in poverty must be understood and respected and we have a moral obligation as human beings, that if we see someone less fortunate, to say ‘I can lend a hand’.”
So what are your plans to listen to – and amplify – the voices of those on the margins where you are?
Voices from the Margins is the theme for Church Action on Poverty Sunday, 11 February 2018. www.church-poverty.org.uk/sunday.
Niall Cooper is Director of Church Action on Poverty.