I recently watched a BBC Panorama documentary on the impact of poverty on life expectancy called “Get Rich or Die Young.”
The program reported from Teeside, United Kingdom, which has the country’s worst health inequality: The life expectancy difference between rich and poor areas is as much as 18 years.
As someone who has lived in deprived areas of both Bristol and now Plymouth for the last 12 years, I am not surprised by such shocking statistics.
When I first came to Devonport, in Plymouth, six years ago, I was made aware of the gap that exists in the city. Here you are likely to die almost 10 years younger than wealthier parts of the city.
It might be through bad choices, like smoking, drugs and alcohol; or through addictions and the life-limiting effects of the drugs; it might be through suicide or even through the mental scars of childhood abuse. Whatever the reasons, in the poorest areas like these, people die younger.
I imagine similar circumstances and disparities exist in cities across the world.
So how do we, as a church, respond? Some might say that as poor choices play a part, why should the church have any role in people’s failure to make good choices?
I am reminded of the William Booth quote: “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end!”
There are some great activities of the church, like food banks, soup kitchens, Christians Against Poverty (CAP) projects, all of which make their differences in their own ways. But the problem is that they are often done at arms-length.
The other problem is that in areas like Devonport, it has proved difficult to get projects like CAP up and running due to a lack of finance, and the right number of qualified people to volunteer.
It is ironic that the churches with the physical location, volunteers and finance to run a project of that nature often exist where the most obvious need is least in a city.
The major issue seems to come down to the fact that while many Christians have a heart for the poor and are happy to give money to projects or to volunteer, not many are prepared to follow Jesus and take up a daily cross.
Reading Philippians 2, one of the early hymns of the church, we read that Jesus gives up his divine privileges (empties himself) and takes the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7), the lowest of the low, equivalent to an animal or a possession, in order to show us how we too should live.
At the dissent about Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (which means, “house of the poor”), Jesus told his disciples that they will always be among the poor (quoting from Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
In doing so, he is not saying we should accept poverty, but rather that his followers should be generous in all ways to the poorest.
But how will living among the poor make a scrap of difference? There are two elements.
- In living with the poor, we discover something about our own poverty. Jean Vanier founder of L’Arche said, “People may come to our communities because they want to serve the poor; they will only stay once they have discovered that they themselves are the poor.”
- In discovering our own poverty, we no longer go down to the poor, for nobody likes being talked down to. But if we walk the same streets, use the same shops, live in the same houses, then we have the opportunity to talk with the poor, not to or for the poor.
So what is the end goal?
Jesus said he has come to bring life in all its fullness. Yes, we want people to get to know Jesus and make the spiritual changes they need, but we also need people to discover the fullness of life – not the pale limited option of life they have been sold by the world. We want people to live longer and better lives.
In the documentary, a lady talks about her suicide attempts and the pointlessness of her life. Nobody created in the image of God is pointless, nobody should ever feel that way.
The first task is to let people know that they are loved. You can only do that if you are prepared to get down in the dirt with them.
Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth, United Kingdom.