The Vicar writes...
All Saints' is the first place of worship listed in the phone book, so we occasionally get calls from people who are looking to the Church for help.
Some who phone are obviously pranksters, like the person who called me at two o'clock one morning wanting help with some Latin translation! Some calls are from those who are after a 'fast buck' and who are not in genuine need at all. But occasionally we are contacted by those who really are down on their luck and who turn to the Church in desperation.
That happened to me some months ago when a young mother phoned from the other end of the city asking if the Church could help her as she had little or no food left to feed her family over the weekend. Her benefits hadn't come in and she hadn't had a referral to one of the city's food banks.
My wife and I did a shop for basic supplies - bread, milk, cereal, eggs, bacon, pasta and tinned beans - which I took to their home. What I saw, when I entered the house, I can only describe as 'abject poverty'. The family literally had nothing. There were no carpets or sofas to sit on and virtually no home comforts at all. In over thirty years of ministry I have never seen such such poor living conditions. As I drove back down the Mumbles Road that morning I asked how, in modern affluent Britain, people could be in such need.
I'm glad to say that the local social services and food banks did come the family's aid. But even today, in our own city, there are many who really struggle to make ends meet and children who go to bed at night hungry.
The recent resignation of the Works and Pensions Secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, has not only highlighted some deep divisions within the ruling Conservative party it has also sparked a much needed debate about the government's intention to cut disability benefits by billions. Mr Smith described the move as 'indefensible', especially in the light of proposed tax breaks for the rich, and questioned the Prime Minister's assertion that 'We're all in this together'.
Most of us would agree with the need for the government to balance the books. The 2008 financial crash brought the days of relative plenty to an end and almost bankrupted many countries around the world. But there is a growing perception that it is ordinary people who have been paying the price for the folly of the bankers and politicians in the past. One recent UK study, by the Social Marketing Foundation, reported that the rich are now 64% richer and the poor 54% poorer since the financial crisis of eight years ago. We see this in the enormous rise in the numbers of people turning to food banks around the country, many of whom are in poorly paid employment.
I write, this on the Monday of Holy Week, after reflecting on the set Bible passage for the day from John chapter 12. It was the account of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with costly oil in preparation for his oncoming sacrificial death. Her actions scandalised many of the onlookers and angered Judas who argued that the oil should have been sold and the money given instead to the poor. Jesus' reply was 'The poor you will always have with you but I will not always be with you.' I don't think for a moment that Jesus was telling us to resign ourselves to the fact that there will always be those who are poor and to do nothing about it. Instead, I think his words are a challenge to us. They are a call to action. For much of our Jesus' teaching is good news to the poor.
It now looks likely that the government will, in the light of public opinion, come to some compromise on the cutting of state benefits. As we respond to the very real financial challenges facing our country there is the feeling that we should be 'all in it together'. But I very much hope that the poorest among us, especially those who bear the cross of disability, do not suffer disproportionately as we seek to balance our books!