Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Patronising the poor, as Christians do sometimes

This is a rant about something that cropped up in our life group (that’s a midweek church meeting in someone’s house for all you non-churchey folk) last week.

We were talking about stories in the news and one of the stories led into a discussion about poverty, social exclusion, and how many areas of Wales may benefit from money being pumped in to improve things, but the people who live there don’t really see the benefit.

One person then came out with a classic comment about how ‘in poorer areas you do see that they have a better sense of community’. I don’t know why but that just tweaked me.

There is something so unbelievably patronising about that viewpoint. ‘Oh, those people living down in the slums, they don’t have all the nice things that we have, but they do have a better sense of community, so that makes it okay that I’m richer and they’re poorer.’

Somehow the fact that the poorer ends of town have a ‘better sense of community’ justifies inequality. But here’s some news. I live in one of the poorer parts of my city and I’m not so sure this mythical ‘better’ community exists. True, I’m on nodding, and even first-name, terms with some of my neighbours, but that’s because I don’t have a long drive and high hedges to act as a buffer zone. But I wouldn’t say we were mates.

You only really understand a community when you live in it. So, saying ‘oh there’s a much better community down in Grangetown, or up in Llanedeyrn, or [insert whatever crummy end of town you like]’ is only really possible if that’s where you live. Proximity and a dense population are not the same as community, whatever people may think. But it helps us to sleep easier in our comfortable middle-class beds to think that them poor people might not have the same comfort, education opportunities, aspirations, hopes and dreams down there in poorville. But at least they’ve got one thing that’s better than we have. Community.

A few years ago I was in a Baptist church in Grangetown. A large proportion of the membership didn’t live in Grangetown. They had been born there, bettered themselves and moved out – to Dinas Powys, Penarth, Llandough, and so on.

But they had this mindset that revolved around the church building. Every suggestion for outreach or evangelism was centred on that church building – knocking on doors in the neighbouring streets, having a ‘church fun day’, running a stall at the Grangetown festival. And those things are all well and good, but they weren’t based on relationships or communicating with people we knew. Why? Because the people we knew were generally people living in Dinas Powys, Penarth, Llandough and so on.

That church had a very set form of mission. ‘We want to reach Grangetown.’ I was told as much when I asked people why they had this fixation on knocking on strangers’ doors instead of talking to parents at the school gate where their kids went to school. ‘Oh, people wouldn’t come to church here.’

Why not? People come to IKEA here. (In fairness, IKEA wasn’t built back then, but there were other things people came to in Grangetown.) People travel. It’s not unheard of for people to cross a city to go to a church they like. (I do, now!)

But then I got it. You see it was about reaching those poor people in Grangetown with the gospel. You know, Grangetown, the place we all left as soon as we could afford to. So, even though we didn’t know anyone who lived there anymore, we would ship in, do some evangelism, and then ship out again. They needed the gospel and we would give it to them. Then we could retreat a safe distance, secure that we had done our duty of evangelism.

How patronising is that? To knock on someone’s door and tell them the good news that God wanted to share their lives, and then bugger off to another part of the city because we didn’t.


  1. I think you have hit on something really valid there.

    Which is why I respect Phil Whittall and the North Shrewsbury guys a lot.

  2. I like this post Jon! So true.