Hannah Rich explores how food banks are community hubs which can’t be moved online.
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I can’t remember the last time I set foot inside a bank or wrote a cheque on a physical piece of paper. I pay my rent through a banking app on my phone while stuck in traffic on the bus. It only takes me a couple of clicks to transfer money owed to a friend. It is almost as if my entire financial activity is set up to avoid human interaction as much as possible. I’m not the only one.
My ninety–two year old grandad recently told me, with a hint of sadness, about his reluctance to get a bank account until it became impossible to collect his housing benefit and pension without one, and his frustration at the ease with which he is told to ‘check online’ when he queries anything. Gone are the days when collecting his pension was synonymous with passing the time of day with the lady in the post office who’d notice if he didn’t come one week and check up on him.
The retail bank RBS last week announced plans to close a quarter of its branches across the UK, as customers increasingly bank online rather than in person. The bank reports a 73% increase in mobile banking transactions over the last four years, alongside a 40% decrease in visits to its high street branches. The trend is also true of high street sector more broadly, with a greater number of transactions taking place online and through mobile banking apps.
But not all transactions can be done online or on your phone on the bus.
Food banks, unlike other banks, involve human contact by their very nature. Customers have to physically go to a church hall or warehouse and collect parcels of food from another human being. CUF’s 2015 report Church in Action describes food banks as ‘community hubs’, which fulfil a purpose beyond simply giving out food parcels and may become established in their local communities.
According to CUF, 66% of churches are involved in running food banks, whether that is managing one, hosting one or collecting for a local one. The majority of these also offer additional services: some give cooking lessons or debt counselling alongside their provision of food packages. Most provide a cup of tea and a chat for their visitors.
The same is true of the growing network of night shelters run in and by churches. They are not just anonymous spaces to sleep, but places where volunteers and guests eat together, play board games together and build relationships. The Places of Welcome initiative in the West Midlands, supported by CUF, is another example of local community organisations including faith groups providing unconditional welcome, hospitality and conversations. These are all places where people become known by their first names, rather than the first letter of their passwords.
Unlike high street banks and post offices, churches are physical spaces in the heart of every geographic community, buildings which are not about to disappear in favour of the internet. The potential of the church to maintain spaces and services which prioritise human contact, in a way the contemporary high street does not, is therefore huge. Social action of the sort offered through food banks and night shelters cannot be digitised and taken out of the realm of human relationships. In short, church halls and all that they hold cannot be replaced by a few clicks or reduced to a smart phone app, and that is something to be valued.
The role of relationship in social action, and its implication for discipleship and church growth, is one of the aspects I hope to explore further over the next three years of the joint CUF–Theos research project which you can read more about here.
Hannah Rich is a Researcher at Theos. @hannahmerich