“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
― Mother Teresa
Ever since our latest YAV retreat in Scotland this past February, I’ve been mulling over the definition of poverty, and the way in which its addressed in our communities. While the history of sectarian issues in Belfast account for a lot of the division felt between communities, we can’t dismiss how poverty plays just as big of a role, if not bigger. One of the Glasgow volunteers, Iona, talked about her experiences witnessing the “poverty of childhood” as she’s grown up in Scotland and started working with the church. . .which left me wondering: is poverty just monetary, or is there much more to the 7-letter word?
This morning the 4 Belfast volunteers met with Diane Holt, the Thrive Ireland and Tear Fund Ireland project coordinator to learn a bit more what poverty looks like in Northern Ireland.
Just some of the statistics we covered looked a bit like this:
-In the five years between 2006/7 and 2011/12, the poverty rate among adults aged 16 to 29 rose by 8 percentage points to reach 26%.
-Northern Ireland’s working class male life expectancy is 17 years less than that of a male from a middle class background.
Looking at these statistics, it’s easy to see how a community can be so divided based on class principles. Addressing poverty encompasses so much more than evaluating an individual’s income; it’s also about increasing quality of life (education, health, every day resources), empowering marginalized voices, addressing conflict, and creating connections that provide individuals and families with a loving community.
So how does the church respond to these class divisions? Diane found that her time working with The Link in Newtonards saw middle class Catholic families and middle class Protestant families having little issue creating relationships, but it was harder for middle class Protestants to connect with working class Protestants. Maybe class is the bigger issue here.
While churches are quick to put together a relief fund for third world countries, raise money for members in the congregation, or seek to create connections with neighboring Christians, they quite often look past those issues of poverty that exist in their own communities, right on their door steps. I was reminded of conversations we’d had in Glasgow about the priority areas, and the lack of outreach to those overlooked individuals and families. How often are children robbed of an adolescence, or told they aren’t worthy of anything? How often do we claim those on welfare are just lazy individuals? How often do we convince ourselves others are dealing with alcoholism and addiction by choice and an unwillingness to change?
I’m learning that as a church, we need to re-evaluate the way in which we look at “mission,” “outreach,” and “community.” As Diane mentioned, too often our churches fall into the “Believe, Behave, Belong” structure, wanting only to build on the numbers of Christians in the church instead of loving and meeting those living in our communities where they are, providing for their needs first and foremost. How many times have we seen a new person walk into a church and either A) Don’t take the time to introduce ourself, B) Are more concerned if they are a Christian instead of getting to know them first, or C) Think they wouldn’t ‘fit-in’ with the congregation? This structure is damaging to the church, and more damaging to those with whom we are trying to build relationships.
Instead we first need to make people know they Belong, and then the Belief and Behavior may follow. We need to make addressing poverty a priority. We need to stop boxing-in God. We need to stop claiming ownership over the church, and acknowledge that God’s house is for anyone and everyone, no matter where they are in their relationship with Jesus (or lack-there-of). We need to “use our loaves” and show more love. As a volunteer, I need to remember how important the relationships are that I’m creating with people every day. It all starts with an introduction.
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
This was a bit more of a relfective blog post, so if you’d like an update of the past month, check out my newlsetter here! : Belfast YAV Update #8