“Our greatest power is not in the respect that others have for us, but the service we can offer others. In every action we carry out for the sake of others we lay the foundations for restoring the dignity of our people and communities, and in so doing allow us to better heal, share and care.” (Pope Francis – Let Us Dream, pp 127-8)
Last month a short video of an extremely long queue went viral. Along Wembley’s Ealing Road, not far from the stadium and new developments, several hundred people spend their Saturday mornings queuing patiently, stoically, for two or three hours, in rain or bitter cold, in order to get food from a foodbank run by London’s Community Kitchen.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Wembley, another queue forms simultaneously, whatever the weather, outside English Martyrs Church, on Blackbird Hill. A small team of volunteers – including the parish Caritas Rep – receives a weekly delivery of food from the Felix Project, which is then distributed to the fifty or so people who rely on these donations in order to give themselves and their families a few nutritious, filling meals. The contents of each bag of food might only be worth six or eight pounds – less than the price of a book, a luxury Easter egg or bouquet of flowers. But when life is eked out in pennies and tough choices, there are no treats, no flowers – not even a £1 bunch of daffodils – and no books, not even cheap paperbacks from charity shops.
When someone lives with the desperation of poverty, £6 is immense, and a £6 bag of groceries is worth standing in heavy rain for.
And I am troubled by those queues, and the desperation they signify, in 21st century London.
On the 23rd March we kept a National Day of Prayer and Reflection, pausing to remember all those who have died during the past year. We know the figures for those who have lost their lives – over 126,000 – but there are so many other losses too: of physical and mental health, jobs, income, relationships, solvency… of hope, dignity, dreams and security. Whether they were already struggling pre-pandemic, or previously felt in control of their lives, an increasing number of people now feel stressed, powerless and trapped by their rising debts. The need to isolate and shield has exacerbated this in many cases, as people lose the contacts which might have provided them with support and perspective.
Pope Francis reminds us
“This crisis has called forth the sense that we need each other, that the people still exists.” (Let Us Dream p 46)
and the multitude of new foodbanks, community kitchens and other projects and initiatives, mostly run by volunteers and reliant on donations and other voluntary networks, are a testament to this.
They continue to provide an immediate, direct response to the impact of the loss of income, whereas our Road to Resilience also aims to restore hope and dignity. Over the past few months I have worked with a financial inclusion manager who is also part of the Caritas family, putting together and publicising a programme called Firm Foundations. Our aim is to train “Money Champions”: volunteers from parishes, schools and projects around the diocese who will learn how to support people in debt with empathy and sensitivity, through individual and community initiatives.
The inspiration for the programme’s name comes from Jesus’ words, speaking of a house built on rock: “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been built on rock.” (Matthew 7:25). It reflects our hope and our aim, to build up resilient people and communities, who can be buffeted and shaken by the winds of adversity, but still remain standing. It also reflects our desire to remain rooted in the Gospel and our values of dignity, compassion and love.
This week our first cohort of fifteen Money Champions from around the diocese will begin their training, and also begin to network, support and learn from each other. It’s an exciting time for us all, but also a time when we’re especially aware of the people for whom we’re doing this: the people in our communities who will queue for an hour or more on a raw morning in order to get some free food.
If you would like to know more about the Firm Foundations programme, please contact Silvana Dallanegra