Speaking Personally: Christine Allen

Christine Allen 

Christine was Progressio’s Executive Director for 11 years.  Before joining Progressio, she worked for more than ten years in the area of housing, poverty and social exclusion in the UK as Head of Public Affairs at the National Housing Federation. In June 2012 she  moved to Christian Aid as their Director of Policy & Public Affairs.

Where do you think your commitment to justice and peace comes from?
I am from Liverpool and I think it’s fair to say that we have a strong sense of social justice and fairness in a city that has been treated pretty badly by the media and politicians. I moved to London over twenty years ago, like many of my fellow City-zens in search of better opportunities. I was incredibly lucky as my opportunity came in the form of CAFOD. But what stops this concern for social justice turning into a chip on the shoulder? The strongest foundation came from my parents. They taught me, through their actions and kindness, what sort of person to be. Even when my father lost his job and the family struggled financially, my mother would still cook a dinner for the elderly man next door. Church was part of our lives but it was a very practical faith. They didn’t got to mass everyday, but my parents lived out the Gospel imperative of Matthew 25, in a quiet everyday fashion. I was involved in the YCS (sister of YCW) at school and that certainly helped me to see how a faith was living and relevant as I lived my life in the world. It gave me an understanding of the See-Judge – Act methodology and as a global movement gave me an insight into the issues of the world. I then went on to study International Relations and Philosophy for a degree. It was after I graduated and I returned home to Liverpool that the next major milestone in the commitment to justice and peace took place. I answered an advert in “The Liverpool Echo” for an assistant Justice & Peace Officer for the diocese. I was still kind of filling a gap as I had been offered the chance to do an MSc at the LSE (Politics of the World Economy!) When I started that job it was like I had discovered this alternative world where I really belonged, with other people who were committed to issues not just out of a political ideology, but because of a deep connection with their faith and an awareness of the imperative of the Gospel. When I was a student one had to keep pretty quiet about one’s faith. The Chaplaincy didn’t see the relevance of soup kitchens and toy collections for striking miners’ families to faith… and the SWP couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to be religious, let alone a Catholic. So the bringing together of life and faith was something done often on my own. Thankfully the SJA methodology gives you a lot to work with. Once I’d discovered J&P, well it was like coming home. Of course, Liverpool Archdiocese is a special place, but I also met and became great friends with J&P people from around the country. It was that experience that enabled me to never do that MSc, but follow an amazing career path where I have been utterly blessed by people who have inspired me along the way.
What for you are the most important areas of concern today?
My job at Progressio, and shortly with Christian Aid, reflects a concern for poverty, global inequality and planetary abuse that is positively sinful in our world today. Poverty and how we see it – Organisations who seek to tackle poverty need to raise money, and governments have to justify development spending by talking about aid and relief. But so often the images and the language used imply a passivity and victimhood of the people who are poor. It’s very easy for the media to create a division between the honourable poor who wait for our largesse to save them, and the feckless scroungers who are milking the system. So for me, a real concern is how we are encouraged to see people who are poor. How does that compare with the first and fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching that calls for respecting the dignity of the human person?
Inequality, especially global inequality is linked to the question of how we see poverty. Firstly it isn’t just “out there” – there are elites and rich in every country of the world and deep, deep divisions in our own society. The challenge for us is to make the connections between countries, and forge links. This picks up another important tenet of Catholic social teaching – solidarity.
Planetary abuse – I can’t help where I was born, but I can do something about my lifestyle (my six year old daughter’s passion for shopping however is another challenge!). There have been some improvements in awareness and engagement with environmental issues over the last twenty years, but it’s still far from being mainstream. Politics remains hugely shortterm. Catholic social teaching still has a little way to go to really reflect on this, although Pope Benedict is surprisingly outspoken in this area, but the concept of intergenerational justice is growing. In other words, what kind of world are we leaving for our children?
What sustains you in your commitment?
I am amazingly lucky to be able to work in this area – organisations like Progressio, CAFOD (and Christian Aid) are powerful beacons of hope in our society. They are places where the practical change that we want to see is made real in an empowering way, where solidarity can be experienced. Having spent eleven years at Progressio, it’s been a major source of commitment despite the challenges. It’s full of inspiring people, doing amazing things – whether overseas or here in the UK. I have been able to meet incredible people, see life-changing things and be humbled by their work, dedication and effort, often in the face of outstanding odds. I find ways to sustain and nourish my faith outside of this context too, of course. But, like so many other J&P folk, I’m part of a kingdom in the making, right around the world.
What are your hopes for a Church like ours in the 21st Century?
“ A church like ours”! The church of compassion, of love, of activism and comm