This article is part of Public Spirit series on Faith and wellbeing.
The Trussell Trust was founded in 1997 to work with homeless children in Bulgaria. In recent years, partly due to the ongoing debate about welfare reform, it has become better known as the organisation that runs Britain’s largest network of food banks. In this article, Ewan Gurr, the Trust’s Scotland Development Officer, writes about the charity’s Christian roots and motivations, and how its work to combat food poverty relates to wider questions of empathy and social justice.
Those of us who are frontline practitioners working in the voluntary sector are never far from the horrific detail of what poverty does to our fellow men, women and children. One story that remains with me came from a young widow called Natalie living in Perth, which is a city at the centre of one of Scotland’s least deprived local authorities. She got in touch and described the struggle to sustain herself and her eight year old son on Widowed Parent’s Allowance and Child Tax Credit. Her monthly expenditure outweighed her income mainly because of a mortgage she and her husband had taken out together before he passed away. With no awareness of any food provision in Perth, I made a call to a local church only 100 yards from Natalie’s home where I reached an elderly church deacon who assured me he would take her some groceries.
A week later, I got in touch to find out how things were going. Natalie spoke fondly of the care and compassion she experienced. She shared that the church deacon not only bought her a variety of groceries but also a roast chicken, which she had never had enough money to purchase since the death of her husband three years earlier. However, what most astounded her was the fact that this man bought her a bouquet of flowers, which appeared to reflect the value he placed upon her as a human being. She began to cry as she explained how special such a selfless act of generosity made her feel. It also gave her great delight to tell me that she had been able to secure a part-time job as a cleaner since our last conversation.
“Elected officials should not only visit those who run foodbanks but interact with those who use them. When issues become people and statistics find faces everything can change.”
As a Christian organisation, The Trussell Trust is inspired to respond to the needs of those experiencing the brutal effects of food poverty. Across our network of over 400 foodbanks and 1,000 distribution centres we see the consequences of cuts to the welfare budget, minimal employment opportunities for those seeking work, static incomes for those in work and exponential rises in food and fuel costs way beyond the current rates of inflation. All of these issues impact people with names, faces and stories of their own. Recently, while addressing the Welfare Reform Committee at the Scottish Parliament, I strongly recommended that elected officials in attendance not only visit foodbanks and those who run them but interact with those who use our services out of sheer desperation. When issues become people and statistics find faces everything can change.
The Apostle James wrote: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is to look after orphans and widows in their distress…’. He is essentially saying that compassion towards a widow is an indisputable act of worship. For centuries, a Jewish carpenter who spent himself challenging injustice and gave himself as a scapegoat for humanity has motivated followers to a faith intertwined with human suffering, and it is that same belief that motivates Christian charities such as The Trussell Trust today. In the ancient Near East, the family was the major welfare resource. In welfare terms, a husband was responsible for social security and children were akin to a pension plan, but if you lost a husband to ill-health you were vulnerable to eviction, starvation and, potentially, death. In his commentary on this passage the late theologian William Barclay says: ‘[W]orship is empty and idle unless it sends people out to love God by loving one another…’.
“I am driving for a society where the destructive nature of food poverty is exposed and where communities continue to pull together in solidarity with their neighbours.”
The generous deacon that visited Natalie reminded me of the words of the American Reverend Timothy Keller who said: ‘[Historically] church deacons served as the first public social service structure in [some] European cities…’. With over 2,000 biblical references to care for the poor, widow, needy, orphan and victims of injustice, it is unsurprising that acts of compassion have been high on the religious agenda for several centuries. The church has played an active role in education, healthcare and welfare from medieval times in the United Kingdom through to the middle of the twentieth century. On account of the publication of the Beveridge report and subsequent policy action that followed, it has been suggested ‘that [after World War II] the state began to assume more and more responsibility for the provision of welfare services’. However, this did not diminish the role of the voluntary sector but simply challenged it to respond to other emerging needs.
In a month’s time I will deliver a keynote session at a conference taking place in Perth looking at the question concerning what kind of society we want to live in. Of course, this is very topical for Scottish men and women as we approach the independence referendum in September 2014. This fundamental conversation is one which we, as a people, are grappling with at the moment and it is one I have been asking myself. What kind of society do my wife and I want to live in, what kind of world do I want to create for my nineteen month old boy and what kind of place will we leave for future generations to inherit? One of my favourite writers, the late Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, once addressed the corporate church saying: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.’
In that context, I think I will start that session by stating that I am driving for a society where the cries of widows like Natalie are heard, where the destructive nature of food poverty and its underlying causes are exposed and where communities continue to pull together in solidarity with their neighbours to work together for a more socially just and sustainable future. Needless to say, Natalie is the reason Perth now has a foodbank.
Ewan Gurr is the Scotland Development Officer for The Trussell Trust and is responsible for pioneering, supporting and developing foodbanks in Scotland, of which there are currently 45. Additionally, he is the former Project Manager of Dundee Foodbank, which has been operating for eight years and is currently Scotland’s busiest operation reaching over 6,000 people per year.
 The name has been changed to preserve the identity of the individual.
 BBC Democracy Live, Welfare Reform Committee – Scottish Parliament, 04/03/2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/scotland-26432858 / From 1:11.30-1:11.57 [accessed 16/03/2014]
 James 1:27; All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™
 William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Edinburgh: Saint Andrews Press, 1976), 71
 Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2010), xviii
 Justin Davis Smith et al., An Introduction to the Voluntary Sector (London: Routledge, 1995), 11
 Ibid., 19
 Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education (United States of America: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1985), 122
The image of San Diego Food Bank is included courtesy of the US Navy and has been released into the public domain.