‘WE’VE MADE POVERTY POLITICAL, IT’S TIME TO MAKE IT PERSONAL’
A battle worth fighting…
We need to personally engage with the poor, is John Hayes’ conviction: “As nations, we’ve made poverty political and we’ve made it professional, and in so doing, we’ve patronized people in poverty and treated them as a problem. Instead, we need to become personally involved and embrace that as a privilege”
John has lived over 30 years among the poor in challenging neighborhoods in California, Cambodia and East End (London). He takes Jesus’ words literally; it is his experience that Jesus is found when we feed and clothe the poor. Yet, not so much in ‘doing good works’, but by being among them. Not regarding them as ‘a problem to be solved’, but as ‘a person with a worthwhile story’. In a local coffeeshop in East End John shares his convictions and gives examples. Some of those are the stories of the 80 staff members who are part of the ministry of InnerCHANGE worldwide, which John initiated and leads.
‘We need a paradigm shift and the church should lead the way. The church could give creative examples in engaging with the poor’, is John’s idea. But, will the church than start patronizing and moralizing again – like she did in the past? “We shouldn’t stand apart and criticize the government and think that we will do it right this time,” admits John. “The kind of paradigm shift which is needed is from top down to personal involvement; changing the us-them mentality. After all – as Christians – we are all on welfare in our hearts, before God.”
“In the post-war era we looked at the scale of poverty and thought that we needed a big answer to a big problem. We did it in a colonial way. But billions of euros, pounds and dollars down the way, we’ve come to realize that we have created dependency and taken away self esteem and initiative. In neighborhoods there are many small and different questions, which need many small answers. We need to posture ourselves to listen to the people on the ground.”
In the neighborhood of the East End, where John recently moved with his wife Deanna and two daughters, he started listening to elderly people, the original East Enders. John had to be resourceful to spend time with them. “The Brits won’t enter your home naturally, like in the States or in Southern cultures. The pubs in the neighborhoods have mostly disappeared, so I offered to my neighbor to walk the neighborhood together. That became our public space. Now I get regular calls from other elderly people who invite me for a walk.”
Concerns of people themselves
Meanwhile staff of InnerCHANGE who already lived in the neighborhood for some years, have developed relationships with Bangladeshi citizens. The complaint among East Enders is that the Bangladeshi don’t integrate in the neighborhood. The community reformer continues: “The key for engaging in the neighborhood is finding out what the concerns are from the people themselves, and what they see as solutions. Meanwhile I hold my own ideas, goals and plans loosely, because I can think up some ways of bringing the original East Enders and Bangladeshi together. But I wait and listen to what the people themselves come up with, so I can help support their plan.”
John probably won’t be comfortable to be referred to as a ‘community transformer’. Even though there are some impressive InnerCHANGE stories, John acknowledges the challenges and changes within present day vulnerable neighborhoods. Some of the neighborhoods they worked in weren’t transformed, but instead a bulldozer came in and wiped the houses away. Often people will try to move out of the neighborhood if they get a chance. “Working in these neighborhoods often feels like working on a constant moving elevator,” John admits. “But, I tell people that there are battles worth fighting, even though you know you are not going to win.”
A battle worth fighting
Despite raw reality, John draws hope and courage from history, like the Clapham Saints (see last blog), who joined forces in order to go against the mainstream to start a social reform movement in their time. “We should connect, people in cities in Rotterdam, Berlin, London, and encourage one another,” says John, who knows what it is to swim upstream. He was among the first pioneers in evangelical circles who moved with a mission intention to the inner-city, seeking social justice. An increasing number of Christians are now doing it all over the world. They seek and listen to find out about the many small questions in the neighborhood. A movement which is emerging from the inside out – and from the bottom up. Because they know it’s a battle worth fighting.