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07 July 2017

Have we at last remembered the poor?

Have we at last remembered the poor?

Marianne Clough is national PR manager for Christians Against Poverty.

With the image of the burnt shell of Grenfell Tower, has our society at last remembered the poor? Three weeks ago we woke to the shocking news of the fire at Grenfell Tower. The same morning that the image of the tower was on our TV screens for the first time, new findings were released showing that one in ten of CAP's debt clients has no bed – and one in three struggled to afford the most basic items of furniture.

Last week, the Trussell Trust revealed Oxford University's research into foodbank use. It showed three quarters of those that needed their help had ill-health, a third suffered poor mental health and half of households included a disabled person. Nearly eight in ten of this vulnerable group were chronically hungry.

This won't be news, of course, to those living in the poorest areas of Kensington, Middlesborough, Manchester or Blackpool or the other poorest households across the UK. Their every day is a grind of trying to cover the basics of living while under the stresses that have brought them there. Financial problems are often the tip of the iceberg. The rest, unseen, is a mix of poor housing, illness, disability, bereavement, unemployment, violent relationships, addictions and more. 

Many are hoping that one outcome of this shockingly preventable fire will bring about, at the very least, a fresh view on poverty. We need that fresh perspective because somewhere along the line, our society has stopped listening to the plight of the poorest, finding it easier to blame them instead.

The power of being listened to is life-changing, as many churches have found when they hold a "poverty hearing" - opportunities for those with direct experience of poverty to speak for themselves and encourage those in power to really listen to their stories. There's also that first realisation of a new Christian that they are heard and seen by God; their invisible struggles are seen and cared about by the God who loves them unconditionally, and can transform daily living. In a smaller way, when we drop everything to concentrate on someone, it can have a transforming effect. For someone in need, it can literally be a life saver. 

But overwhelmed as we are in modern life, with information coming at us from all angles, it can feel like we've listened when we haven't. We've just nodded while looking at our phone - it's not the same thing. Our other listening problem: our impatience can fill the gap so we end up understanding what we expect to hear that person say. Worse still, we decide not to engage at all because our prejudices make us think we know what that person will say. That teenager, that pensioner, that taxi driver, that person who is not like us or doesn't vote the same as us. That wealthy person, politician, refugee.

Are we setting aside time for listening as Jesus did with Zacchaeus in Luke 19 when he called him down from that tree and invited himself round? Jesus listened to Zacchaeus, spent time with him, ate at the table with him, showed him that he was seen and loved by God Himself. Zacchaeus wasn't financially poor, but he was spiritually poor, and it was in his poverty that Jesus met him and heard him. And in turn, Zacchaeus heard Jesus.

So how can you listen to your neighbours this weekend? How can you seek out and support those who are weighed down with trouble? How can you be as Jesus to them?

Image: CC Devlin Ralph