Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, Sheffield University Chaplaincy and the Urban Theology Union came together yesterday (4th May 2017) with food bank volunteers from across the city with a big question: how do we go beyond food banks? A big thanks to Jeremy Clines, from the University Chaplaincy for bringing us all together.
The event was initiated and led by the chaplaincy Liberating Theology Group who invited Chris Allen, a sociologist form Liverpool John Moore, to come and address the event.
Nick Waterfield, Claire Dawson, and Julie Upton were asked to respond as local church leaders in urban communities where people struggle to keep their heads above water in a very unjust system. Nick and Julie are also members of UTU.
We then had a wider discussion with the thirty people present all giving their own insights and suggesting steps forward.
It seems to me that Chris’s big challenge to us was to see what more can be done to go from works of mercy to seeking justice and from giving to others to sharing with others. He also spoke enthusiastically of the need to find ways to go food together because, “food grown belongs to everyone so no one gets to be the host – we all share.”
Nick Waterfield, challenged us to see food banks as being “not about food” at all because people who go hungry in Britain are experiencing debt, isolation, and so many other indignities that to focus it all on food was to miss the point and that food banks are not all the same with different theologies, values, and approaches to tackling the symptoms of poverty.
Claire Dawson, who is researching a PhD in Urban theology, reminded us of some of the theological resources available to us from people such as Anna Rowlands and Sam Wells and introduced the ideas of Asset Based Community Development.
Julie Upton, a UTU trustee and chair of a food bank in Sheffield, picked up on some of Chris Allen’s challenge to go beyond food banks and told stories of some of the people she comes across who access food bank services and bring their wider experience of poverty.
The wider conversation told us that there is a huge amount of reflective practice in Sheffield and a great deal of energy for taking us from doing to a radical ‘being with’.
Jim Wallis, US evangelical campaigner, often uses the illustration that the church is good at pulling drowning people out of the river but less good at going upstream to see who’s pushing them in. While this image perfectly illustrates the difference between mercy and justice it is a bit defeating.
How can we be in two places at once? How can we go upstream when we are really very busy saving lives with practical action?
I prefer to say that we are ‘steam valves for an unjust system’ because our works of mercy stop the whole “filthy rotten system” – to quote Dorothy day – from exploding.
But we can also be whistle blowers by finding creative ways to put whistles on the steam valves: our debt advice agencies and food banks.
Our meeting was just 90 minutes but we got a huge amount done and in the end had three teams ready to re-connect and go deeper on three of the issues that we discussed the most: community organizing, growing food locally, exploring the theology of what we need to do.
Liberation theology is begun when we listen carefully to what is going on among those on the edge of society, ask what God is doing and find ways to act in order to bring about God’s preferred and promised future.
I think that diverse group of people did this yesterday and I was proud to be alongside them.
We looked deeply, honestly, and without romance, at the reality of food bank Britain and began to ask ourselves what theologies drove our activity. Then we started to move from activity to action as we considered a better shared future.