Is “Poor Face” a “thing” and is the Church Guilty?

The concept of ‘Black face’ – where a white person paints their face black to “perform” as a black person, is thought to originated in the US South, unsurprisingly. It goes back as far as the 1830s and was still thing within my lifetime as I remember Spike Milligan doing it whenever he got half a chance. But is their a metaphorical equivalent of “Poor face” and is the church a culprit?

Food blogger and poverty campaigner Jack Monroe referred to the idea in a tweet on Thursday (15 March 2018): “ is literally a thing isn’t it.” – @BootStrapCook

Monroe became well known nationally after her genuine experience of struggling to feed both herself and her young son led to her blogging recipes for people living on a shoestring. But not content to just meliorate the system she’s a passionate advocate for structural reform and social justice too.

The first person who comes to mind for me in terms of hollywood Poor face is the character Bert from the classic Mary Poppins. With his awful cock-er-knee! accent and his cheerful simplicity Dick Van Dyke the ultimate romantic description of ‘the ‘umble poor’.

The Church, in its DNA, is missional and socially concerned but in its outlook and demographic, largely middle class. I attended a small gathering earlier this year organised by Church Action on Poverty that wrestled with the difficult question of how the church that is rich can ever call itself a church ‘of’ for ‘for’ ‘the poor’. And who in Britain calls themselves ‘the poor’ anyway? Is calling people the poor a kind of othering when the label is rarely self-ascribed.

With the huge middle-class guilt that comes with being gathered churches, or church plants that drop into our urban priority areas do we sometimes try to be just like the people around us in ways that are less than honest to ourselves? Where does humility and incarnational missiology end and ‘Poor face’ begin?

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