“The churches in Northern Ireland are too posh-looking, their hedges are too high.”
This was the assessment offered by Margaret Blair, a volunteer at The Gap Christian outreach project in Coleraine, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence. Blair’s interview was part of a piece by reporter Mark McCleary on a new Northern Ireland branch of Church Action Poverty (CAP).
Organised initially last year, CAP Northern Ireland was launched on Sunday January 31, 2010 at the Moravian Church on University Road in Belfast with an information session and worship service. CAP-NI is an ecumenical organisation concerned with raising awareness about the high levels of poverty in Northern Ireland, and encouraging both politicians and people at the grassroots to act to alleviate it.
A presentation by Rev Dr Scott Peddie, the minister at the Old Presbyterian Church in Templepatrick and secretary of CAP-NI, highlighted the persistent levels of relative poverty across Northern Ireland. Relative poverty is defined as living on 60% of the average income.
Peddie quoted statistics from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that put the level of relative poverty in Northern Ireland at 20%, compared to 9% in the UK.
Peddie also cited a 2010 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on devolution in the UK that concluded that of all the regions, the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland had been the least effective in addressing poverty.
This probably comes as no surprise to people like Margaret Blair, who are deeply engaged with those who struggle daily to make ends meet. In the absence of concerted action by our politicians on poverty, it is left to people like those working at The Gap to support those who are falling through the cracks.
This may be more people than we think. The Sunday Sequence report revealed that the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK is higher than it has been in 30 years. On Sunday evening, Peddie pointed out that Northern Ireland has some of the highest rates of fuel poverty, pensioner poverty, and poverty among people with disabilities.
The challenges associated with consistent poverty are made more complicated by the legacies of the Troubles. Most of the deaths that occurred during the Troubles were in areas that are today marred by consistent poverty and still divided by ‘peace walls.’
As long as poverty remains – and the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow – the chance of peace truly taking root in Northern Ireland is compromised.
CAP-NI sees the churches as ideal vehicles both for lobbying politicians to make better policies about poverty, and for instigating grassroots initiatives that will fill in the gaps at the local level.
At Sunday’s launch, Peddie said that a politician had told him that poverty wasn’t a ‘sexy’ issue, one that would get people excited or that would win votes. And as Margaret Blair implied in her interview, alleviating poverty isn’t something that the churches have taken up with gusto.
Some of Northern Ireland’s churches can be seen as exclusive clubs for the middle classes. ‘We won’t get needy people through the front door,’ is how Blair put it. This especially seems to be a problem in loyalist areas. A hard hitting report by Philip Orr, New Loyalties: Christian Faith and the Protestant Working Class, offers a devastating critique of the failure of some Protestant churches to engage with working class loyalism.
But poverty visits Catholics, Protestants, and the ‘others’ in our society, so it is hoped that the ecumenical character of CAP-NI will allow for information-sharing and co-operation across denominations and faiths.
CAP is a UK-wide organisation and its website, as well as the CAP-NI website, offers a number of resources for congregations and individuals to ‘get started’ on addressing local poverty. For example, there is a Lenten study that outlines the Gospel imperative to ‘preach good news to the poor,’ that might be utilised to inspire local congregations to begin their own initiatives or to get involved in the much good work that is already being done.
For more information, visit the CAP-NI website.