Emily Parker spoke with author Natalie Williams about her new book 'A Church for the Poor', what poverty looks like in the UK today and what's being done in churches to tackle social problems.

Natalie Williams
Natalie Williams

Emily: First of all Natalie, tell me about yourself and what life looks like for you day to day.

Natalie: I work for Jubilee Plus, which is a national Christian charity that helps churches in this country engage with the poor in their communities in a variety of ways: networking, research and training. The rest of the time I work for Kings Church in Hastings. I oversee social action and communications.

Emily: What do you define poor to be?

Natalie: In the book we really explore that question: who are the poor in Britain today? Also, even myself, I'm from a working class background and I wouldn't necessarily have called myself poor, although I grew up in a home that was a lot poorer than maybe the national average in this country. We're not pinning it down too much in terms of, you have to have this, or not have that, but looking at poverty in general terms; relative poverty as what do you need to live viably in this society? We look at what sort of things are included in poverty. Are you poor if you can't afford a toothbrush, or you can't afford two meals a day, or those sorts of things and that's our starting place for poverty in the book.

Emily: Can you tell me more about how you got to the place of being able to define all of the different poverty areas?

Natalie: We look at poverty in its broadest sense, so not just material or economic poverty, but also relational poverty, because a lot of people in our society now don't necessarily live close to family members. So if they get into crisis they can't just move in with a family member. So there's a real relational poverty. There's spiritual poverty, which is essentially not really knowing the God who created you. There's also aspirational poverty, where you feel like you have no hope for a better life for yourself, or your family. So we look at four types of poverty in the book and we think all of them are real issues in Britain today.

Emily: Why do you think that poverty needs to be higher up on our agendas?

A Church For The Poor

Natalie: First and foremost for Christians it should be very high on their agenda because the Bible makes it very clear that God has always been especially concerned about the poor. He has always seemed to have a bias towards the orphan, the widow, the person who's been forced to flee their home, and for the oppressed. The Bible is pretty clear that if you are a follower of Jesus that you should care about the needs of those who are afflicted, or distressed, or oppressed in any way. So that's from a Christian point of view.

For everyone in general, poverty in this country seems to be growing at the moment. Working for a church where we run a Foodbank among other projects, we are also seeing so many people coming in facing crisis and really desperate. Often they are in work, but life has got out of control, or one thing's happened that's pushed them over the edge. It's part of what we are designed to do, show compassion for other human beings and that's why I think it's so vitally important.

Emily: You've just mentioned the Foodbank and it's one of the most recognised projects today, which is being discussed not only in Parliament but in local councils and is reaching thousands of people in this country. Of course we dream of a day when these projects don't have to be set up, but how much of an impact can be made if people actually got off their seats and tried to make a difference to address some of these areas?

Natalie: The projects that churches run across this country are having a massive impact. Part of what we do at Jubilee Plus is we do research into whether projects are changing people's lives for good. We've done research into what Christians are doing in terms of elderly care, what churches are doing in terms of debt relief and debt advice.

Time and time again what we are finding from our research is that where churches are involved in these issues they are making a positive, measurable difference to the lives of many people in local communities. If you change one person's life by helping them it's worth it anyway, so it's not always about quantity, sometimes it's just about quality as well. But part of the reason we've written the book is because it's like a rallying call to the church in particular to really step up and engage increasingly. Not just in terms of projects, but also those of us who are in churches, we benefit hugely from family, from community, from feeling like we have a great support network around us. That's something we really believe should be shared and accessible to those who are in need in our country today.

Emily: You've just mentioned the difference between focusing on quantity compared to quality. This is, in some ways, a really big mind-set that some people do have. What do you think needs to be done to be able to start to challenge the mind set towards quality?

Natalie: I really love this quote by Mother Teresa, 'Help one person at a time and start with the person nearest to you.' Most of us in our daily lives can so easily walk past the person asking for change on the street, or even have conversations with people. I've done it in church where someone's said, "We're really struggling financially this month," and my response has been, "I'll pray for you." Well, the book of James in the Bible says what good is it if you say bless you, but you leave someone hungry?

Authors Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams at the book
Authors Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams at the book launch

For quite a long time Christians have had a bit of an attitude of, if I can't tell you about Jesus then maybe I won't help you with your immediate need. But in the Bible we see Jesus help people with their immediate needs all the time. He fed people, healed people, set people free and sometimes He didn't seem overly concerned about their deepest spiritual need.

There's a story where 10 people get healed and only one comes back to thank Jesus. We don't then read that Jesus went chasing after the other nine saying your healing is being revoked because you weren't grateful. So often we have an attitude of, if people aren't grateful enough, or if people demand the help, or if we think a certain group of people doesn't deserve our help, it's so easy for our views to be shaped by the media narratives that are out there, or by politicians, or by social media, rather than by what the Bible says we're supposed to be doing.

Emily: The church can be seen at times as very traditional, shut off and not in touch with society. What do you think are some of the key areas that need addressing without taking away some of the meaning of the gospel?

Natalie: I'd say we're in a new day over the last five to 10 years, where churches really are at the forefront of helping people in crisis and I think that's being recognised again.

Emily: If anybody wants to read more about this, or get a copy of the book and find out more about Jubilee Plus how can we do so?

Natalie: The book is available on all sorts of websites, Integrity Music, Eden, Amazon, those sorts of places and our website is jubilee-plus.orgCR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.