In March 2021 people from six parishes and five schools across the diocese came together via Zoom to begin our Firm Foundations programme. There were some teachers, a school chaplain and a governor, a parish secretary, SVP members, a foodbank co-ordinator and other volunteers – all there on behalf of their communities, and as part of their response to the increasing poverty and need in their areas.
From the start of the first lockdown families and individuals – many of them already struggling financially – began to feel the effects of job losses, furlough, long-term sickness, bereavement, shielding and isolation. Parishes and schools rallied round, with many setting up foodbanks or finding other ways of providing direct relief, while existing projects saw demand increase, by up to 400%. In April 2020 we began distributing supermarket vouchers through 123 parishes and schools, enabling vulnerable families to supplement their stretched budgets, and alleviating the pressure on foodbanks.
However, foodbanks and vouchers are not long-term solutions to debt, unemployment, benefit cuts and poverty, whose roots and effects go much deeper than the contents of a fridge. If someone is struggling to buy food they are also struggling to buy other essentials and pay bills, are likely to be heavily in arrears, anxious, stressed and easy prey for lenders, including loan-sharks. All this and more fed into our Road to Resilience, in which we aim, through different programmes and resources, to equip parishes and schools to look beyond direct relief to ways of building up stability and resilience within their communities
Firm Foundations is a key part of this. Taking its inspiration from Jesus’ reference to a house built on rock, which is stronger in the face of a storm, the programme aims to train Money Champions who can work with others in their communities to build up financial resilience. Sessions are led by Pat Fernandes, a Financial Inclusion Manager at Advice4Renters, and include input from other organisations, plus opportunities for the group to network, share their experiences and ideas, and give and receive support. There is also the opportunity for one to one mentoring and support from Pat or one of her colleagues, and access to information about possible grants and other helpful schemes.
The Money Champions have begun to implement what they are learning, depending on their communities’ needs. One parish has run a survey of parishioners and those who come to their weekly food distribution to gauge the best way forward; another is planning to set up a ‘debt café’. The schools have been using the information in their newsletters, and in one to one conversations with parents. There have been some individual successes, for example one participant reported: “I gave a Green Doctors leaflet to a client and asked them to pass it on to their landlord who were resisting getting a new boiler. I believe this helped them to make up their mind to actually go and get a new boiler.”
We’re aware, as Jesus said, that the harvest is great: and for the people served by our parishes, schools and projects, it consists of many interwoven needs – for financial and material help, yes; but also for dignity, hope and solutions offered with empathy and care. We’re therefore preparing to start training more Money Champions in January 2022, and there will be an information session on November 25th at 6pm.
And please pray, as Jesus asks us to, for the Lord to send labourers to this particular harvest.
Fr Richard Nesbitt of White City Parish, has witnessed the impact of Firm Foundations in his community since a couple of his parishioners took part in the course in 2021.
You can hear his endorsement of it in this video: