Sunday, 7 February 2016

Poverty in Africa and Conwy County

Sermon at St. David's Methodist Church, Craig-y-Don on Poverty Sunday,
7th February 2016.

Readings :

OT                   Isaiah 61.1-4

Gospel             Luke 1.46-55

“The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  The words of the prophet Isaiah later claimed by Jesus as his own mission statement.

I wonder what words come to mind when you think about “the poor”.  Perhaps “scroungers” or “foodbanks” or “homeless” or “Africa”.  It may be harder to bring to mind a person you know who is poor.  You might like to think why that is.

Food was constantly on my mind when I worked in Kenya.  Often we were working so hard that there wasn’t time to eat anything between breakfast at 7am and a late evening meal at around 9pm.  And at two meals a day I was better off than many of the people amongst whom I was living.

As I walked down the road – it was about a mile to the office and another half mile to our care centre, there were shack-like stalls and even a few people sat on the ground with a couple of bags of vegetables, desperately hoping that they would sell them before the end of the day, so that they could buy a few essentials themselves, perhaps charcoal to cook or a little cooking oil.

At the end of the street were the boda-boda, bicycle taxis – a cushion across the back luggage rack and a couple of spikes to put your feet on.  10p anywhere in town.  There were far more boda-boda than there were customers.  And I was taking my life in my hands if I took one as they weaved in and out of the chaotic Thika traffic.  If I didn’t, the rider might not eat tonight.

I wouldn’t have gone far beyond the end of the street before I met one of the street boys, boys whose families could no longer feed them and had sent them to the town to beg. He would say quite plainly, “My stomach is empty.”  He probably hadn’t eaten for three or four days. And the hard thing was to know that I if I offered food it would only keep him on the streets.  I had to say, “Come to our centre and we’ll feed you there.

When I turned round I bumped into a young man carrying a large plastic sack of apples.  Apples were a fairly rare commodity in Kenya, only a few places are cool enough to grow them.  Being a rich westerner I could buy five at 3 pence each.

I had to concentrate as I walked along the uneven pavement.  Partly out of wariness of pickpockets – our deputy manager had been hijacked a few yards outside the bank despite the armed guards on the bank step.  Partly to deal with a huge variety of hawkers and shoe-shiners.  Partly because I might trip over the beggars, many of them blind and severely disabled, who littered the pavements.

A little further, I passed through the market.  The stalls were heaving with some of the best fruit and veg you could buy anywhere.  I was lucky, I could afford it – indeed it seemed ludicrously cheap to me – most of the locals couldn’t.

Finally, I got to our office block, past the armed guard, up to the fourth floor.  On the third floor I would greet Esther who ran a kiosk, photocopying for the rest of the building and making a living selling bottles of soda pop to the office dwellers.

A little later, I would walk down to the interim care centre.  If I pulled a sweet out of my pocket, I would be buried under a pile of twenty or more boys pushing and shoving, desperate to make sure they had one.

Lunch took four hours to cook at the care centre – a charcoal fire – one big pot.  The budget didn’t run to much with thirty to feed and we had to be careful not make things too different from the homes to which we wanted the boys to return.  So it was ugali again as it was the day before, would be the next day and so on for the rest of the week. Ugali is maize meal with a little cabbage in it.  Once a day.

But in some ways the Kenyan street boys were lucky.  It’s a warm climate and life happens in the public spaces.  The poor can be seen.  The rich and poor rub shoulders in the street.  The solutions are relatively clear.  We provided food, intensive rehabilitation, family support, education and work training.  The success rate was as high as 90%.  In three years, the number of street boys was reduced from 450 to a handful.

Not so here. Many of our poor in Britain live their lives eking out an existence hidden from the public gaze.  Here we live our lives mostly in private.  The rich and poor rarely meet.  Politicians wrangle over solutions and are often the cause of the problems.

Debates about poverty very often descend into a mass of statistics and prejudices.  The Child Poverty Action Group claims that 3.7 million children, about 30% of all children live in poverty.  The government has a lower figure of around 20%.  Whichever one you take it seems a very large number.  But rather than come alongside the poor to find solutions, politicians debate whether the large increase in the number of foodbanks been caused by the availability of free food or by a vast increase in those who cannot make ends meet?

But the numbers and the prejudices obscure the people.

So why are the poor so difficult to see in Conwy? On the tax credit map, Conwy is in the top 10% of local authorities in the UK for tax credit claimants, far higher than Rhyl or the North East of England. Conwy’s poor are invisible because they are at work.

Hands up if you have been out to a local restaurant in the last six months.

Hands up if you have bought a bargain in a local shop.

Hands up if you have had a coffee with a friends in a local café or hotel.

I’ve done these things too.

The poor are working in our hotels and cafés, supermarkets and pound stores, often part-time, seasonal and on zero hours contracts. Every time we get a good value meal, a shop bargain or while away our time over coffee are we providing custom so that others have jobs or colluding in their poverty?

I don’t know the solution although I do think the Living Wage campaign is important. Paying people decent wages puts the power of choice, the power to alter one’s conditions of life into people’s hands.

When Jesus read Isaiah’s passage, he read from the Septuagint version, “I’ve been anointed to bring sight to the blind.”

Perhaps we need to look a bit harder for solutions.

We can start by looking through the eyes of the Magnificat.

My beloved has noticed me and loved me,
a nobody from among the powerless poor.

Important though money and food are, the starting point here is recognition and power.  The negative is to recognise that one of the key facets of being poor is to be powerless.  Others make judgements about you and take decisions about you.  Well not you exactly, because if are poor, you are faceless.  You are not recognised.  You are a label, scrounger, benefits claimant etc.


But all that greed, all that exercise of power at others expanse is vanity.  Because in God’s kingdom:

The greedy who hold onto their wealth will see it all crumble and vanish. 

The dispossessed on the scrapheap will be empowered one with another.

If we are working to bring God’s kingdom a little closer here on earth, we are being asked to do more than replenish the foodbanks, worthy though that is.  We are being asked to seek out and notice the poor, to recognise the image of God in them and to challenge the power structures so that they are freed from the captivity of poverty.

What most of our street boys wanted and most of the poor here want most is love, care, respect and empowerment.

Some of you, I know, were at the mosque in Llandudno Junction yesterday.  In conversation with one of the elders, he mentioned that some Muslims thought that they were good Muslims if they could recite the 99 names of God.  But he said, if you call God the all merciful, you are required to show mercy, if you call God the all-forgiving, you are required to forgive.

If we follow Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbour and understand the recognising God in the other means lifting them up, empowering them, food and a fairer society will follow as day follows night.

May God bless you in all you do.


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