Poverty in small towns…

A few years ago I found myself in the middle of one of those internet ‘spats’- you know the sort- a discussion forum kind of thing that becomes increasingly acrimonious and strangely hurtful.

It was a surprise for several reasons- firstly the discussion ranged across several different Christian sites, and a FB group which I had set up in an attempt to make connections around ‘emerging church’ types of issues. You would have thought that Christians would know better than argue about doctrine and practice wouldn’t you?

Secondly I was surprised how difficult I found the discussion. Insulated by cyber-space and in discussion with people I did not really know, I was still vulnerable. I think this was because I was so hungry for connection at the time, and the end result was the opposite of this. It felt like such an opportunity lost.

And finally because I felt something that I carried as a strength (my commitment to social justice) came under direct attack.

The issue raised was the ‘Emerging Church is middle class’ one. The evidence for this was that it tended to attract white, male, professional Christian malcontents, who lived in the suburbs.

Mixed in with this was a bit of a issue of funding- it was suggested at the time that the resources released to and by these groups tended to go no-where near the disenfranchised and marginalised parts of our society.

One of the protagonists was part of a church planting movement, whom I will not name, but clearly was fired with a passion for urban outreach, which for him meant moving out of the suburbs to live and witness in the city amongst the people in the greatest poverty and the greatest need. I admired and was challenged by his zeal, but pointed out that this was not the only way that the emerging church communities might engage with their context. I listed some of the ways that my own community tried to do this-

1. Many of us worked within caring professions- social work, community work, youth work.

2. Several of us where unable to work for health reasons, but still volunteered in LINK clubs, charity shops, community action.

3. Our group itself was made up of a fairly broad spectrum of people- several with acute MH problems, others in later years, and our activities were certainly not heavy on resources- everything we did was on a shoestring.

4. And we looked for partnerships with other community groups all the time- locating what we did in the middle of our town, not out in the comfortable outskirts (if indeed there are any!)

I also talked about the nature of living and working in rural/small town Scotland- the hidden poverty and stigmatising that can be part of such places- and how suggesting that poverty only existed in cities was rather silly.

None of this cut any ice. From his point of view, I think that social work was part of the problem, certainly not the solution, and all the rest was justification for not doing what Jesus wants us to do- which was to move to the city and work with the poor.

I think in some ways, I kind of agree with him. The comfortable life we live in Dunoon is a far cry from inner city streets. The question of how this integrates with a trying to live as followers of Jesus has exercised my thoughts constantly.

And no-one is a harsher critic of Social Work than I am- even though to blame my profession for poverty makes as much sense as blaming the police for crime, or ambulance drivers for car accidents.

But the fact is, I am here. My kids are here. My friends and my community are here. The measure of the life we live is how we might seek to live out lives full of Grace wherever we find ourselves.

And we should be careful about imposing our own passions and our calling on others. I wonder how things have gone for my friend. I genuinely hope that they have gone well, and that  good has been done in situations of real need. But my experience has been that wisdom comes with miles travelled- and a few failures/successes along the way.

The discussion is ancient history now but the reason I am raking it up again is because of a newspaper report I read today about my little town. Mortality and poverty rates are the third worst for any area across the whole of the Scottish Highland area. Only the Merkinch area of Inverness and Alness, south Wick have poorer measures. I sort of knew this instinctively, but it is still a surprise to see it confirmed by wider measures.

The picture of the whole county is similarly challenging- 18000 of the 60,000 people of Argyll and Bute live in poverty, and our take home pay is 9% less than the national average.

In the mix are high levels of alcohol abuse. Reports from the courts in our local paper are almost all alcohol related.

All this means that inequalities in health have worsened- those in poverty are likely to suffer poorer health than 10 years ago- and these people are also more vulnerable in the current economic climate, as public services are squeezed, and low paid jobs become more competitive.

How do you do anything about this? What combination of micro and macro interventions might begin to change it all? Whole reports have been written about all this (remember the Black report?)

It is never easy- but for sure, one important component is the heart and strength of the communities we are part of. The wellbeing we experience through connection and shared purpose and meaning. The learning of tolerance and respect despite all the usually opponents to these things.

We do not have all the answers- I am no Messiah, but this sounds to me like a calling. A Jesus kind of calling…

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