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01 March 2009

M is for Mercy

M is for Mercy

As the Alliance launches its Square Mile initiative, idea begins a four-part series looking at mercy, influence, life discipleship and evangelism. Hazel Southam takes a look at how churches are showing mercy in their communities...

Recession. Downturn. Credit crunch. Almost from nowhere it seems that these words have become the backdrop to our lives. They have tangible effects on our day-to-day existence. Britain's jobless figures have already hit a 10-year high. By the end of 2011, it is anticipated that 3.4 million people could be out of work. One in five of us live in fuel poverty. And meanwhile the Government is spending billions to rescue the banks - £81 billion at this point, enough to fund the UK's schools for a year.

So what can we do about this and how can we make a difference? All around Britain Christians are working to alleviate the pressure of the credit crunch on their local communities.

Ron Palmer nurses a cup of coffee and tries not to cry. He fails. Ron, 58, was a carpet fitter for 30 years working for the famous Wilton firm and running his own company. He was always working. Then in quick succession he was diagnosed with cancer, lost his house as he could no longer work and ended up living on benefits.

But when his benefits were stopped because of an administrative problem, Ron was left with no money and consequently no food. It was at this point that he walked through the door of Salisbury's Food Bank, run by the Trussell Trust and staffed by volunteers from neighbouring churches. The scheme - which is now being replicated around the UK - provides emergency food for families and individuals who have nothing to eat.

Think of Red Cross parcels, but then think of this happening in leafy Salisbury, with its ancient cathedral, surrounded by the New Forest. The appearance may be picture postcard perfect, but the reality is different. Last year, the Salisbury Food Bank provided emergency food parcels for 3,000 people. They're expecting that figure to jump by 20 per cent this year, entirely due to the recession.

Three food vouchers - given out by social services, doctors and carers - provide basic food (and a few treats) for a couple of weeks. At Christmas, special boxes included a turkey and all the trimmings, provided by two local firms. It can be enough to tide people over the gap between ending benefits and starting a job, or simply waiting for their benefits to arrive.

"Salisbury appears to be an affluent city," says organiser Mark Ward, "but there's a low-income population working in agriculture and tourism. Couple that with the high cost of housing, and people are struggling to pay their way on a low income."

And he takes it further: "There's a poverty problem in the UK, and I get very angry with people who say that there isn't. On the other hand, when I see the people that we meet, it does make me excited that we are able to help."

Trevor Feltham collects his box from the Food BankFor Ron, the Food Bank's voucher scheme and affordable coffee bar, meant the difference between eating and not. Asking for help was the hardest thing, he says. "I'd never done that in 40 odd years of work. But without it I wouldn't be here. It was too many things at the same time for me. I used to own properties in Salisbury. I worked 90 hours a week. I earned a lot of money. I never thought I'd be here. But the church and the Food Bank have given me a different way of life. I can come to the coffee bar and see people. It's good. It's given me a new life and a new outlook that I will beat this. I have hope now."

Karen Hurst volunteers at the Food Bank one day a week. Karen and her husband formerly ran a busy Post Office on the Isle of Wight and latterly a pub in Salisbury. But ill health and a 26 per cent hike in rent to the brewery left the couple out of work and in rented accommodation. She too found herself receiving food parcels from the Food Bank.

"Coming here made us feel human again," she says. "It was less about the food and more about how I felt. I came from a family where the cupboards were always bulging; we were always baking. So to open the cupboard door and find nothing there was dreadful. The way I care for people is by feeding them, and all of a sudden I couldn't make things better by feeding them."

Now she puts her baking skills to use at the Food Bank's café, making scones and cakes. "It's brilliant," says Karen. "It's restored my belief in myself."

Have mercy

Schemes like the Food Bank in Salisbury, which is based in the Elim Church, lie at the heart of the Christian faith, according to the Alliance's executive director of churches in mission, Dr Krish Kandiah. "The only way that some churches are visible is in the fact that there are loads of cars parked outside the building," he says. "If the church ceased to exist would anyone in the locality notice? For people to take the Christian faith seriously they need to see a visible expression of that. We are looking for a way that the Church can demonstrate the good news practically in order for people to see the relevance of the good news. We want to be proactive in blessing the communities that we are part of."

From this desire springs Square Mile, a new Alliance initiative that was launched at Westminster Chapel on 5 March. Its aim is to help create "4D churches" enabling Christians to make a practical impact on the square mile around them through projects just like the Food Bank in Salisbury.

Its four major themes are mercy, influence, life discipleship and evangelism. Mercy sounds old fashioned, even hard to comprehend, but essentially it means compassion - the kind of compassion that sees churches run everything from food banks to afterschool clubs. It will be the aim of Square Mile to help churches find the most efficient ways of doing this, learning through others' experience.

The difference that this does and could make is incalculable. Kandiah says it was the fact that his local church "got out onto the streets"' in his home town of Brighton that made him want to find out about Christianity.

Along with the Alliance, member organisation Faithworks has long lobbied the Government for a level playing field for Christian-based social care projects. The argument has been: why should funding be denied just because a project is run by a church?

"We want God's love to come through us and that's why we do this"

Faithworks' spokesman Brendan Fox says that Christians have "a theological imperative" to make a practical difference in their community, plugging a gap that the state cannot fill. "The idea of being salt and light is core to our faith," he says. "If we disappear from the community, then how much have we been salt and light in that situation?"

And he warns that the next few years will be a pivotal time for church-based projects as the economic crisis bites. "There will be more need during the credit crunch. People are struggling to make ends meet. The church should be at the forefront of helping meet those needs," he says.

Giving hope

In Winchester, a team from Christ Church is doing just that through a debt counselling scheme set up by church member Peter Russell. Within a year, what began as a personal call from God has grown to a team of five people working part-time.

Like Salisbury, Winchester has a leafy, affluent image. It costs more than £18,000 a year to educate a child at the famous private school, Winchester College. But, says Russell, there are pockets of deprivation. One person in 30 lives on benefits.

The team members spend a day a week helping clients with their financial problems and organising repayment of debt. "We are in the business of giving people hope," says Russell. "Our first client was terrified that she was going to be put in prison because she wasn't paying her debt. We have seen a little transformation in her life. We want God's love to come through us and that's why we do this."

Relaxing at Yarmouth's Memory ClubIn Yarmouth, St Andrew's Church has established a Memory Club for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's. A second scheme has now been set up at the local Methodist Church.

Mel Thomas, 74, who founded the club five years ago, says she hopes that the scheme will be replicated across the country. "People with dementia feel that they are untouchable because they are not 'normal' anymore. They feel that they are not as they were," she says. "We welcome them and show them love and normalise how they are. Our service is based on love and faith. They come in very down and go out laughing and joking. We boost their confidence and self-esteem."

She continues: "People come to church for weddings, christenings and funerals. Why can't we offer God's help and provide a service for people and get the community involved with the church, rather than waiting for people to come to us, which was always the way in the past?"

All around the UK, from a youth project on the Isle of Lewis to a pregnancy counselling service in Carlisle and a children's centre in Enfield, churches are answering this question. They aren't waiting for people to come to them. They are going out and showing mercy to their local communities. And that is what Square Mile plans to enable and encourage.

To help Christians engage in 4D mission, the Alliance has produced:

  • A DVD-based course for small groups, featuring projects around the UK and input from leaders such as Shane Claiborne, Mark Greene, J John and Elaine Storkey.
  • A daily journal to help Christians explore mercy, influence, life discipleship and evangelism - and take action.
  • A central hub for mission resources for you and your church. For details, visit: www.eauk.org/squaremile

For information on Food Bank, visit: www.trusselltrust.org or tel 01722 411244.

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