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Paul Bickley asks how faith–based charity agencies can maintain their ethos, while acting responsibly towards clients and funders. 11/10/2018
What would you do if you were saddled with crushing personal debt – unable to pay utilities bills amounting to thousands of pounds? Or if you’d taken payday loans to plug a gap, putting some food in the cupboard for you and your baby, only to find that you couldn’t make the repayments and the debt just kept piling up?
It’s almost too much to contemplate, just like it was for Mick – the first client profiled on BBC Two’s documentary on Christians Against Poverty, Debt Saviours. Staring at an £11,000 electricity bill, he rubbed his forehead and muttered – mainly it seemed to himself – “What the fuckin’ hell have I done? What has happened? Why have I ended up like this?”
People kill themselves because of debt – research shows that those in this situation are twice as likely as the general population to consider suicide. Mick expressed indifference at his own future – “I’ve got to that stage where if I were dead tomorrow I wouldn’t give a shit. My wife’s gone. My mum’s gone. My dad’s gone. My little bro’s gone. I’ve nowt particularly to live for”.
Mick – and the other CAP clients profiled in the documentary – have two kinds of problem. One kind is practical. Rent arrears, unpaid utility bills, payday loans and credit card debt – the daily choice between heating and eating. This is the kind of problem that state agencies could help resolve, though the truth is that at the minute, they’re more likely to be making it worse (witness Holly with £5.50 left for two weeks, £4 set aside for a bus ticket to Wigan for a Maths and English assessment mandated by the Jobcentre).
The other kind of problem is one that can only be described as a radical loss of hope, usually brought on by a crisis in their relational lives – a lost parent or sibling, a broken marriage, a business failure. In the cases we saw in the documentary, at least, it’s not just that prospective CAP clients face almost insurmountable financial problems. It is that they face them alone. Getting someone out of debt is only half a job, the rest can only come with friendship, community and new meaning.
So the documentary rightly showed not only how CAP negotiates with creditors to see people lifted out of debt, but also how they listen, befriend, counsel, and encourage.
It also showed CAP debt counsellors praying, offering their clients literature, and taking them on breaks where they would hear talks on such nefarious subjects as forgiveness and self–confidence. It also had lingering shots of CAP founder John Kirkby in enthusiastic Christian worship (the only purpose this seemed to serve was to play up the religion yuck factor: these Christians are not kindly and uncertain Anglicans in the mould of Tom Hollander in Rev, but full–on evangelical weirdos). The not–so–subtle subtext was that CAP may be saving lives, but their work is not kindness but exchange. Our help for your attention, our support, but at the cost of prayers and proselytism. While Christians lauded the documentary, others were left squirming.
Though the answers implied by the documentary makers were – in my view – too cynical, the questions are real enough. How should faith–based agencies maintain their ethos, while acting responsibly towards clients and funders? Is it ok to speak about faith with ‘the vulnerable’? Is it ok to pray for someone in that situation, with all the potential power dynamics at play?
We covered much of this ground in our 2015 report, The Problem of Proselytism. We argued that the key test is not whether a project, programme or service is sufficiently secular – such an approach assumes people see their own problem in purely material terms, and that they have no spirituality which might be relevant either as a help or a hindrance.
Rather, it is important that organisations are person–centred, transparent about who they are and how they work, practice informed consent, and that services are not conditional on conversion. If these principles are observed, then the ‘problem’ of proselytism will not be such a problem after all. CAP’s debt counselling, evangelical though it is, clearly passes these tests.
With those principles in place, there are a huge variety of legitimate approaches, from a ‘low–fat’ approach where organisations with a religious ethos who nonetheless align themselves broadly with secular values, to ‘full–fat’ interventions where the name of the game is whole–life transformation (e.g., some faith–based drug rehab centres). CAP is clearly not ‘low–fat’ (there would be no controversy around them if they were) but neither is it ‘full–fat’ – only a tiny minority of CAP clients become Christians. Praying for is not preying on.
I thought there was another question nagging at the documentary makers. The first words in the programme were from a (journalist?), asking John Kirkby, “the more successful you are at helping people, are you propping up the welfare system… are we sleep–walking into an American style welfare charity system?”
Alongside the religious–charities–only–want–to–convert trope is the charity–enables–small–state narrative. On the left in particular a growing and effective charity like CAP pushes all sorts of buttons, just as much now as it always has. As one contributor to a Mass Observation survey on voluntary action in 1947 said, “I detest charity… pretty well all such work should be done by the state; or at any rate at state charge. I have no sympathy with the ramshackle condition of charity in general; flag days, hospital Saturdays and all the rest of the rest of the lazy, thoughtless, humbug that takes the place of real socialism”.
And though it’s an old fear, it is one which will re–emerge with new force in the coming years. The superficial analysis is that charity – particularly religious charity – is part of the problem, only to be solved when the state re–occupies the ground it has vacated. This just doesn’t work. To my knowledge no state agency has ever provided the support that CAP provides. Their workload is no doubt increasing, but it pre–dates austerity. They help those who have fallen under the wheels of market and state. After all, if you wanted to see coercive power exercised over the vulnerable, the best place to look would be in the local Jobcentre.
Rather than critiquing charities like CAP, we should reflect on what they do well – the relationships, the patient listening, the offer of not just a technical fix but also the invitation to community – and ask how public services can learn from them.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.