Rich churches in poor areas: what we get wrong…

When my younger son was about six, I remember arriving at Sports Day to find him struggling to tie up his trainers. I rushed straight to his aid, knelt down beside him and started to tie the laces for him.

Immediately at my side I caught sight of his teacher.

‘Mrs Oborne,’ she said. ‘Please don’t do that. William is quite capable of tying his own laces. If you give him time.’

I’ve always remembered that reprimand.

Because it taught me the difference between doing something for someone and encouraging or enabling someone to do something for themselves.

As a parent, we start off doing everything for our children. They are truly helpless. But we can't go on that way. We would be a bad parent if we did. If that were the case, our children would become a terrible burden and we would become, for them, unbearably controlling.

There comes a time, I came to see, when the right thing for me to do was to sit beside my child and allow him to struggle with his laces. To be encouraging maybe, but to allow him to learn to do this job for himself.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I wonder what those of us who minister in relatively rich churches can ‘do’ to support people and families around us who might be described as poor or deprived. Sometimes some of the most affluent inner city church communities live cheek by jowl with some of the poorest people.

The usual response to this situation is that we should be doing more for our poorer neighbours.

But can we do this without inevitably making the people we want to help feel as though they are ‘a problem.’ That only we have the solutions they need – either in knowledge or money. That they must always be the ones to receive. That they must feel thereby humiliated by their lack of something and our ability to provide what they lack?

An Episcopalian lawyer, William Stringfellow, reflecting on his experiences in the 1950s and 1960s living in East Harlem, notoriously the poorest neighbourhood in New York City, says

The premise of most urban church work, it seems, is that in order for the church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, goods to distribute, and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The Church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer except the Gospel, except...the courage to reveal the Word of God as it is already mediated in the life of the poor.

In other words, I think, it is more important simply to seek to be in relationship with poorer people in our parishes. Not to think so much about what we can give them, or do for them – but what we can receive from them in a true equality of relationship.

We mean well when we identify people or situations as ‘problems.’ But this belies an arrogance that we are the haves and they are the have-nots. We then cease to be able to enjoy the particularity of a person or see that person as the principal source and activator of their own well-being.

My window cleaner has just done a great job cleaning my windows and has fulfilled his contract to do a job for me that I do not have the skills to do myself. But this is not the way to see how we relate to others in our society, where we see and presume the needs that they may have.

We may find the challenge of solving other peoples’ problems as inspiring. But they, feeling as though they are problems to be solved, will find such an approach humiliating.

Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. All our neighbours.

So let’s do that.

Not by thinking what can I do for them. But by thinking how can I have a relationship with them, a give and take relationship, in which I love them and enjoy them for simply who they are. The way God does.

Posted by Martine Oborne