Clergy discussing the Diocesan Priorities. (Picture: Keith Blundy)

The following text was given by The Rt Revd, Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham in the opening session of the Clergy Study Day on 3rd October at Stockton Parish Church.

The full text can be downloaded here: CHILDREN, POVERTY AND A GROWING CHURCH.pdf

INTRODUCTION

Rosemary and I were sat in Gikomero Parish church with Pastor Mark, Claudine, the Diocesan Mothers’ Union Coordinator and Bishop Jered Kalimba, bishop of Shyogwe, Rwanda.

There were 106 children aged 3-5 with 2 teachers. There was no play equipment and not a toy to be seen. This group runs 5 mornings a week for 3 hours. There are lots of games, much singing, and on the chalkboard the older children are taught to begin to read and write. They are all, also, learning some very basic English.

Whilst they play outside 60 mothers come and share their stories with us. The Mothers Union has helped with teaching childcare; they have established savings and credit groups. Each household now has a goat; the goats are breeding and creating a small income, alongside providing milk for the children. They explain how as single mothers they were treated as outcasts. Each felt isolated. The local church came alongside to support them. They talk of ‘knowing we are loved by the church’.

They are learning about food and nutrition. They are beginning small businesses in a range of ways. Their weekly savings target is 100Rwandan Francs (around 10p). They talk of dignity restored; of hope.

There is no pretence that their lives are anything other than deeply poor, and a real struggle. But no longer are their lives marked by despair and rejection. There is hope and acceptance. Many have also now joined regular bible study and prayers groups. Some come along to Sunday worship. They talk of their love God because they have found in him, through his people, the one who welcomes them.

This is one story from the many that happened during my study leave last year. It is a story that shows the intertwining and interlinking of children, poverty and a growing church. Across Rwanda, Burundi and South West Uganda we met and shared with a wide range of projects working with children, and families, in deep poverty. Time and again we saw the intertwining of children, poverty and a growing church.

In our day together the aim is to explore something of these interconnections, and seek to discern some of the ways this might equally be happening in our context.

In this opening talk I aim to share some of the outcomes from the study leave, and the thinking that has happened since. We will then move into meditating on some Scripture together; a conversation between Sophie, Bishop Mark and myself chaired by the Dean. After lunch we will work together on exploring the ways in which we are seeing, or believe we could see, growth in how we work together in a range of areas.

 

CHILD POVERTY

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was first agreed in 1989. It had been worked on for many years before reaching its final format.

This late date comes as a surprise to many people who have worked with it ever since. People tend to think it has been around for rather longer.

The late date partly reflects that as an academic discipline child poverty is a relative newcomer. Poverty of course has been explored for a long time; children have been included within this throughout. But exploring whether or not there are some specific factors that relate to Child Poverty only began to strongly emerge in the 1980s. It has grown a great deal since then.

Only in December 2006 did the UN General Assembly adopt a formal international definition of child poverty:-

“children living in poverty are deprived of nutrition, water and sanitation facilities, access to basic health-care services, shelter, education, participation and protection, and that while severe lack of goods and services hurts every human being, it is most threatening and harmful to children, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, to reach their full potential and to participate as full members of society.”

The major shift in this definition was a recognition that simple financial / economic definitions of poverty simply do not work adequately for children in a way significantly more powerful than relating to adults.

As Sir Richard Jolly puts it, “Child poverty needs to be defined in terms of key deprivations – of food and nutrition, clothing and shelter, education and schooling, access to health, perhaps above all, of nurture and care.”

I want to set alongside this reality that as far back as the Israelites wandering in the wilderness God’s people have understood God to have a particular concern for the orphans / the fatherless. Throughout the Old Testament recognition, care of, and support for the orphan are seen as a critical mark of how God’s people are to express their love for God. Alongside the widows and the strangers orphans are to be at the heart of care. Let me give you a couple of reminders,

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry …” (Exodus 22.21-23)

”You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 24.17-9)

“Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68.5)

“Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1.17

(cf Jeremiah 5.28; 7.6; Ezekiel 22.7: Zechariah 7.10f; Malachi 3.5)

In the world of the gospels children are included amongst ‘the poor’ whom Jesus seeks to reach and assure that they are the blessed ones.

The church throughout its history, at its best in being true to its calling, has highlighted the needs of children and serving those most in need.

As Pamela Couture, an American Methodist, sums it up, “To flourish children need both love – the direct interpersonal, familial, and community relationships surrounding a child – and justice – the conditions of peace and security, health, and human rights that indirectly and directly shape a child’s life.” (Child Poverty 2007 p2)

I would add further that the deepest poverty for a child is spiritual poverty. The lack of knowing that they are made by and for God. The lack of knowing that they are loved by their Maker is the greatest lack in any child’s life.

 

THE CAUSES OF CHILD POVERTY

No child chooses the circumstances into which they are born. So no child can ever be blamed for their own poverty. They are born into poverty, and thus almost certainly disadvantage or indeed into wealth, and thus almost equally certainly into advantage.

One of the starkest testimonies of our time in SW Uganda came in conversation with Sue Hughes at The Potters Village in Kisoro. This is a hugely impressive work that only began in 2007 to rescue abandoned babies. It has grown and developed significantly very quickly. They regularly take in babies abandoned at birth, thrown down a latrine, left out in the bush to die and brought in and left at the gate. They monitor development very carefully. They are quite clear that at 9 months old there are some presenting signs which commonly indicate such abandonment even when rescued very quickly. The baby somehow appears to register the being ‘not wanted’ and it shows.

This ties in closely with the now long understood importance of attachment through pregnancy and from birth. Love grows from being loved. Trust develops from being loved. It is the lack of love which is most crucial in every child’s life.

A simple definition of poverty will lie in the financial circumstances into which each child is born. However lack of money is always going to be too limited a definition of what causes child poverty; just as provision of more money is always going to be too limited a response to relieving child poverty. Poverty as a whole is far more complex than simply a matter of finance and economics; although they do matter.

Some want to strongly stress the personal causes of poverty. They will suggest laziness and an unwillingness to work. They can cite certain verses in Scripture like,

‘A slack hand causes poverty’ (Proverbs 10.4)

‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.’ (Prov 6.10f)

Or St Paul, ‘If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.’ (2 Thessalonians 3.10f)

Those who seek to suggest poverty is caused by personal failure will highlight dependency on alcohol, drugs or both as another key cause of poverty. They will look to education as one answer. There is a recognition that often these personal factors build on one another. But at the end of the day there will be a contention that many are poor through their own fault. Children then born into such situations might need removing and being cared for elsewhere.

Now there is some truth in some of this analysis. Some individual cases will fit a profile where the person has brought themselves through their choices into poverty.

On the other hand, there are those who will argue that poverty is caused by failed social structures. The very structure of society, and of the wider world leads to poverty. So on an international canvas trade deals that keep the rich nations rich and fail to help the poorer nations develop fully contributes far more to poverty than any individual choices people make. In our own context education systems, work structures, how work is created and shared out, and much besides leads to structural causes of people having less opportunity in education. Poor housing leads to poorer health outcomes. Poorer health hinders educational outcomes. Fewer opportunities mean that those in poverty are more likely to stay there. Children born and raised into such situations are far more likely to end up in a repeating pattern. Social mobility is largely a myth. Poverty is essentially structural.

Scripturally there is much that agrees with some such analysis. The framing of the law with its clear injunctions about care for the orphan, the widow and the sojourner all point to establishing a structure that supports people rather than letting them down. The strong inveighing against injustice in the prophets, like Amos, implies a deep critique of a society that has allowed its structures to become favourable to the powerful and successful and tends to lead to injustice for the poor.

When we focus specifically on children’s poverty; if it is about the lack of provision of food and nutrition, clothing and shelter, education healthcare, and nurture and care then we have to say that it is often the structures at every level of our world that tend to be a major part of the problem.

If Amartya Sen is right in suggesting that the focus on lifting children out of poverty needs to be on, ‘poverty as a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life’ rather than on economic growth and GDP then structures that deny children choice and opportunity have to be confronted.

Personally I believe that the balance of Scripture is that how we behave towards one another; how we seek to care and provide for the poor, especially children; how we seek justice and right living heavily outweigh individual choice when it comes to why people find themselves in poverty. We must certainly take note of personal choices and decisions that might lead someone into poverty, that could be avoided. But overall we are often dealing with people being caught up in a web of poverty from which it is very hard to break out. For children in poverty they find themselves in a family or social structure that places them in poverty. They cannot be expected to take the blame, and as a community we should take the responsibility of seeking to ensure they have every opportunity to make choices that lead them into a place of better opportunity. Within this we cannot completely set aside the question of money. But this will not simply be about ‘How much?’ But also about systems of payment and how people are helped and supported in learning how best to handle and use the money that they have. Levels of pay and social support matter, but not simply as bald figures.

 

MOTIVATION AND VISION

I want to turn now though to reflect a little on motivation and vision. At each of the main projects I visited I asked those who founded them, or have become the key leaders what motivated them to begin in the first place, and to keep going. I also asked them what vision they had at the outset and whether or not over the years it had changed. I finally asked them whether there were any particular Bible verses, stories or themes that have been central to their thinking and action.

What I had not anticipated was that in relation to the projects I was looking at the founders fell into 2 groups. They first group had grown up themselves in deep poverty, and had been given an opportunity, usually through education, to develop out of it. They wanted to give back in thanks to God for their own lives and ensure others had similar, or rather even better opportunities, than they had been given themselves. The other group were from relatively privileged backgrounds, were scandalised by what they discovered to be the reality of poverty and have determined to work to enable many to be lifted out of poverty. Compassion and a heart for greater justice drove every single one of them. They were all realistic that they could not change everything but they believed that working with others a significant difference could be made to many lives. They were all people of hope.

Interestingly in all the situations I visited there was some commitment to justice from the very outset. No one had simply begun out of compassion that something must be done without some thought for the injustice that led a child to be in this situation. There was also therefore some anger about why children were in poverty at all. Anger that led to creative action. They would all note that the longer they had served in the areas of ministry in which they engage the mix of compassion, anger and a desire for justice had remained although largely through the experience and insight gained the working for justice had grown without lessening the levels of compassion. They all saw people working for justice from anger who had lost compassion. None of them liked what they saw when this happened.

When it came to Bible verses and images then I was slightly surprised at what emerged.

Very few mentioned as core to their biblical motivation the Old Testament laws around orphans, nor indeed the prophets cries for justice. Then neither did the stories of Jesus welcoming the children or placing a child in the midst of the disciples. The regular top of the list was the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who came to bring life in all its fullness. John 10 twinned with the story of the lost sheep arose regularly. Very often it was a combination of the theme from Jesus teaching.

This led me to noticing time and again how often in a Burundian, Ugandan or Rwandan home the one pictorial image of Jesus, either in a poster or often in a wood carving was that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In these he is always carrying, or leading, a lamb rather than a sheep. Quite explicitly on occasions I was told that the lamb reminded people of the little ones, the children.

Now it would take much more time and research than I was able to undertake to really explore this more fully. But it was highly noteworthy. Jesus the Good Shepherd caring for the lambs was the primary biblical motivator for caring for children in the deepest of need. Jesus cares for them and wants to care for them.

 

WORKING WITH FAMILY AND COMMUNITY

So where has that led me since in my own thinking about our commitment to children, poverty and a growing church?

It has made me more passionate than ever to speak up for children in poverty and to work alongside all people of good will to seek to lift children out of poverty.

This has meant a commitment to try and keep talking about the importance in children’s lives of adequate housing, good education, decent healthcare including ensuring health is seen in its fullest dimensions, but above all it has to be about love and care. I deeply long that all children will know that they are loved. So parents need to be helped to know that the most important thing they give to their child is love. A key test for children’s wellbeing is ‘Are they being loved?’

So I have returned afresh to my good friend Keith White’s powerful book, ‘The Growth of Love’. Here Keith combines his academic expertise, his lived experience of community family living for decades and his complete commitment to keep the child in the midst. He highlights the five essential elements of healthy child development as

Security:– ‘there is always somewhere to shelter and hide in the fiercest storm; a rock that will not move when everything else seems to give way’

Boundaries:- ‘meaning norms, acceptable behaviour, rules and the like’ … we cannot exist without boundaries … they are a prerequisite for true freedom’

Significance:– I am and I matter

Community:– Family and beyond; we all need community bigger than family

Creativity:– we humans are little creators.

This leaves me though with all kinds of questions of how we engage a culture which is so driven by economics and by the cult of the self and self-fulfilment in grasping that love truly does matter more than anything. But that this love is all about seeking the best for the other not for myself? That this love is truly expressed by one who laid down his life for his sheep?

I remain convinced that sharing the story of the God who made us and who redeems us from our self centred destructiveness is the most critical thing that we do. Telling the story of Jesus to children matters deeply. For in him they find the one who welcomes them and assures them that the kingdom of God, the loving rule and reign of the Creator of all things, is theirs. They belong. They matter. They are loved.

It also leads me to want to ask what a growing church which has loving children and families in poverty and walking alongside them helping them grow in love and seek justice will truly look like in each local setting. I have seen what it looks like in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. It looks frail. It looks hazardous. It looks like it could easily fall apart. It looks like its members will regularly mess up, but will also be helped back through love. It does not look very successful, although in number terms it might be. It does have a lot of joy in the midst of sorrow. It has lots of smiles. Children love to play and sing and pray. It is a community in which members help each other – and sometimes fall out with each other. It is highly non institutional although being part of an institution makes it viable.

I am unsure what it looks like here but I see signs of it in many places; though often schools, or church or community halls rather than Sunday mornings.

 

CONCLUSION

So I come to a close deeply dissatisfied with what I have shared. I do not know if I have communicated at all just what this deep passion for children and poverty and growing the church is about. But I do hope some deep sense of the interconnectedness of the three has emerged.

I really do think that taking Jesus seriously about children and poverty are critical to seeing the church grow in all its dimensions. To not give priority of some kind to children and the poor means any thought of church growth that is truly significant is to miss something of the heart of God.

 

 

Suggested Reading

The Growth of Love – Keith White – BRF

Global Child Poverty and Well-Being. Edited by Alberto Minujin and Shailen Nandy – Policy Press

Child Poverty – Pamela Couture – Chalice Press (USA)

Seeing Children, Seeing God – Pamela Couture – Abingdon Press (USA)

Development as Freedom – Amartya Sen – OUP

Global Poverty – Justin Thacker – SCM