Faith in Action – Episode 2

Sarah Chapman – Faith amid poverty


Hello, I’m Richard Sargeant and This is Faith in Action, a new podcast to discuss how faith affects the way we live and work today.

Faith is often seen as a personal comfort, and private relationship with God. But the Church today is deeply involved in practical actions to alleviate poverty and to advocate for the powerless. For example, food banks, which served over a million meals last year. Mostly, these have a Christian foundation, Christian management, and work in partnership with local churches.

It is a pleasure to be joined by Sarah Chapman, the co-founder of the Wandsworth foodbank in London. We’ve come to talk about the importance of faith amid poverty.

So Sarah, how big an issue is food poverty today?

I think it’s a very big issue for those who are currently experiencing it. In a country as rich as ours, any family struggling to put food on the table is a real issue, it is a real problem

Is it getting worse?

Stats show that inequality in London is getting wider. In Wandsworth borough where we the gap between the richest and the poorest is very visible and tangible. In the years we’ve been open, from the first to the second year there was a 30% increase in the number of people we helped in that year, and we tended to help more people more often within that as well, so Food poverty is lasting longer for the family in the situation – it’s taking longer to be resolved.

Are foodbanks the right answer? Don’t food handouts create a culture of dependence?

I think food poverty is a reality, and so it needs an action to try and resolve that. I feel very strongly that just giving out food is very short term. Necessary, but very short term, and doesn’t solve anything for that family or structurally where things are going wrong. So for instance at Wandsworth foodbank and other food banks we take our data and we make a food poverty report that we can then advocate on behalf of our guests on the triggers that have led them to food poverty to try and encourage change where change would actually benefit people and see less people struggling with food poverty.

We also have a partnership project with the local citizens advice bureau. So we have our very own CAP advisor who helps our guests tackle tricky issues from benefits issues to debt to housing. She can refer on to immigration help. So that’s great, having long term solutions. So I think that speaking out about structural issues, and practical help to resolve issues. Because at the end of the day we want less people to come to the food bank. But I still think that if a family has no food in the cupboard and no chance of getting food that week, then you just need to help them, it’s just that simple.

What has all this got to do with faith?

Well, for me personally I’m very inspired by my faith. By the example of Jesus. By his going out of his way to be with people who were on the margins of society. And all through the Bible, the constant constant injunctions to care for people who are poor, care for people struggling, care for people on the edges. To use what we have to bring justice and care for the poor is just an unavoidable fact for me, and also a great privilege and great joy to use any business skills I’ve got in that way.

The majority of foodbanks in the UK seem to be set up and run by Christians through the church, or associated with the Church. Why do you think that is?

Well I think there are also lots of people that don’t have a faith or have another faith who equally feel as passionate about tackling food poverty, and we have some amazing volunteers who are from other faiths or no faith. For a lot of them it is just the injustice of it – the not being able to believe that in our rich country are struggling in this way. But you’re right that the majority of food banks are run by churches. And again hopefully it is them reading their bibles, hearing from God, and just putting their faith into action.

How has your work been inspired by your faith?

I’ve definitely tried to make choices in life guided by faith. A silly example is when my husband and I got married we promised that we would try never to make a big decision based on money. Which is probably a luxurious thing to say. But it meant that when we were thinking do we do this job or that job, we tried to think about it from other points of view.

I definitely haven’t always felt this strongly about poverty and how my life as a Christian should be equally entwined with those who are struggling. It has definitely been a growing thing, and I can see how I’ve come quite far, though I’ve got a long way to go.

What Jesus really wants is more than our money. It is brilliant to be generous with our money. But its  as brilliant, possibly even more brilliant to also be generous with our time, with our homes, with our dining tables. Actually becoming friends with people who are struggling. I guess that’s where I think the church can have a massive impact. It is supposed to be a family and that family cares for people who are having a great time, having a bad time, have lots of money, have very little money. That can make a big difference if we were much more like Jesus calls us to be.

There is a very good book, I don’t know if you’re read it –  Make Poverty Personal by Ash Barker. He’s a guy who up to a few years ago was actually living in a squatter camp in Bangladesh with his young family. They had a baby there and a toddler, living in a shack. They were so inspiring, saying that yes, it is tricky living like this sometimes, and you do want stuff that you can’t have because of the choices that you’ve made. But it is worth it. And I think that’s the thing that I would love me to understand more. But churches and Christians across our country to understand more, that any sacrifice we make for Jesus is absolutely worth it. And I think if I fully understand that, then it could be revolutionary.

The church occasionally gets criticised for being political. Do you think that faith will always be political, and cannot be separated from those debates. Or do you think that often it is better to focus on the personal needs of individuals, the food bank clients.

I think the bible is very clear that we are called to speak up for people, and against injustice. And if that is on a structural or political level then we need to be talking about that. It is very important to help people personally, but long term you’ve got to look at what’s going on at a deeper level. I think it was Desmond Tutu who said ‘When you’ve fished enough people out of the water, then you’ve got to go upriver and see why they are falling in. It’s just a fact that in Wandsworth, nearly half of the people who are referred [to the foodbank] by care professionals it is because of problems with benefit delivery, benefit change, benefit delay, or sanctions. So it’s not trying to make a party political point. But it is trying to reveal the truth. And stand up for injustice where there is injustice.

And if you were Prime Minister, and had the ability to craft Welfare policy, what would you do?

Just off the top of my head? Some of the particular things I would change are things like zero hours contracts that are impossible to budget a family’s anything on. Low pay. We have people working all hours working two jobs. And it just doesn’t keep pace with the rising cost of rent food and fuel. The backlash against the living wage – a few companies are saying “That would be 10% of our profits” And I think, well that’s fine then – you’ve still got 90% of your profits, and actually people may be able to feed their children now, living in London on those wages. I think what I really object to, and what I would do differently, is that you see the demonisation of poor people, of people who have a disability, people that have poor mental health, people who are just on a low income, people who didn’t get far in their education, as if all of this is their fault. And therefore we don’t need to care. And I think it really adds to people’s feelings of shame and guilt when they come to places like the food bank. Why they often will cry at the food bank. Or often talk about having walked up and down five times outside before they plucked up the courage to come it. And why the most common positive comment that people say is that ‘it was great coming here, because you didn’t judge me.’ And I think at the moment people are feeling a lot of negative judgement. A lot of stereotyping. I think that would be a good thing to avoid.

What’s the future for food banks in London?

Well the dream future is that we all close down and go and do something different because we’re no longer needed. However I’m not sure that’s going to happen any time soon. I think we just want to get better at what we’re doing. To get better at speaking out about the triggers that are driving people to the food banks. We want to get better at offering people all the support and signposting we can to help them resolve the crisis that has led them to the foodbank. And anything we can do to get them on a more even footing.

So, for instance this week, we heard that one of our food bank guests had come to the foodbank at St. Marks. And while he was there he was helped by a lovely volunteer called Peter who also volunteers at the job club in Putney, which is in the same building as our food bank on another day. Peter invited the guest to the job club, so they went there and had an hour together working out a CV, applying for some jobs, and we just heard to say that he has got to the second stage and hopefully should hear in the next couple of days if he has got a job. And that has all happened within two weeks, and that’s just coming in a crisis situation, but being offered a longer term support, and then hopefully he will be on his feet and not need to use our services. But like we say to all our guests, you’re always welcome to pop back for a cup of tea or coffee. And quite a few of them do. Or actually when people are back on their feet they’ll bring food for other people as well.

And if anybody listening to this wanted to bring food or contribute, what’s the best way they can do that?

Well, thank-you. They could look on our website – and there is our most wanted foodlist. And they could drop that off at St. Marks food bank, or our other centres when they’re open. Or they could do an online shop, or they’re welcome to donate money that we can just spend on what we most need.

Sarah Chapman, thank you very much.