Networks of relationships with family, friends and others in the community are vitally important to people struggling to make ends meet, a pioneering church project in Birmingham supported by Church Urban Fund, the Church of England’s poverty charity, has found.
Volunteers from Hodge Hill Church in east Birmingham, a partnership between the Church of England and the United Reformed Church, were trained to carry out a listening exercise, conducting in-depth conversations with people in their community to find out how they get by.
Church Urban Fund (CUF) said it hoped the success of the project would inspire similar exercises within Church of England Dioceses.
The findings showed relationships were a key asset, providing support to people on low incomes in their day-to-day living and when shocks such as redundancy and sickness came along.
The process was carried out using the Listen Up! Project designed by Sheffield Diocese and Church Action on Poverty. The project helps church groups to hold in-depth conversations with people in their community aimed at understanding their livelihoods and the way they use the resources at their disposal to sustain a living. The programme aims to have a transformative effect both on people living in poverty and on church congregations by forging new relationships.
One man, who had suffered a stroke, told interviewers of how he had under gone benefit sanctions after being assessed as fit for work and left without benefits for six weeks. He fell into severe financial hardship after applying for a payday loan online. By the time he reached the Open Door centre, he had hardly eaten for a week.
The Rev Al Barrett, Rector of Hodge Hill Church, speaking about Listen Up! said: “It is working on transforming our congregation - we are learning to listen better and we are learning more about our neighbours and learning better how to respond to them.
“It is also having a transformative effect on the people who are being listened to - many of them said that it was the longest anyone had listened to them for ages, or forever, and they felt quite profoundly valued in that process.
“I am hoping that in the long term it will have a transformative effect on the neighbourhood because some of the most overlooked people can be involved in changing their neighbourhood for the better.”
He added: “I think the most shocking thing has been hearing stories of the spirals that people can get into, that one knock can knock over all the dominoes and precipitate a whole load of other things and lead to a more and more desperate situation. Hearing about this first hand and in-depth has been eye opening.
“At the same time, I have seen the sheer resilience of people and their resourcefulness in terms of being able to cope even when the systems have let them down and life has dealt them really tough hands. Their resourcefulness has been hugely impressive and awe-inspiring.”
The Rev Paul Hackwood, executive chair of Church Urban Fund, said: “This exercise shows us how important it is for churches to spend time listening to people in their communities. It is through listening that we see the strength and resourcefulness of people living on low incomes and build the kinds of relationships that can lead to real transformation of individuals and communities. We would encourage all churches to think about how they can listen to people in their communities.”
The full report can be seen at www.cuf.org.uk/listenup