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‘We pray for the day when the food bank isn’t needed anymore.’ Hannah Rich reflects on how Emmanuel Church in Northampton is beating the budget blues.
‘We pray for the day when the food bank isn’t needed anymore.’
Food bank volunteers are gathering in the office at Emmanuel Church on the outskirts of Northampton to pray for those they will meet this morning – including the prayer that one day their work won’t be needed. Perhaps it seems more striking because the church is situated in the middle of an out–of–town shopping centre where stores are already beginning to gear up for Christmas. Jo, the food bank co–ordinator, points out how strange it would seem to any of their neighbours that a quiet day is something to celebrate.
Today is not, however, a quiet day. In the first hour that it is open, 11 clients come through the doors – many of whom have children in tow because it is half term. In total, 59 people are fed today. When the food bank first opened seven years ago, they averaged six clients a week. In 2017, they fed 3000 people including 1200 children and the 2018 figure is on course to be even higher.
They all have their stories of what has brought them here and yet the service on offer is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the needs of the local community.
The county council in Northamptonshire hit the headlines earlier this year when it effectively went bankrupt and announced plans for unprecedented levels of financial savings in order to balance the books. For all the talk in this week’s Budget about ‘the era of austerity coming to an end‘, cuts to public services here are likely to get deeper in coming months. Just last week, a local homelessness charity was itself made homeless and told it would be evicted from its premises in the town centre.
The list of places to which volunteers can signpost clients for further support is shrinking by the month. One of the food bank team tells me that when she recently contacted over 75 local charities and other agencies that refer people here (and vice versa), a significant number of the emails bounced back because the organisation in question had folded or lost its funding. In Northampton, as is the case in many places across the country, the church is a constant at a time when other community spaces are disappearing and local government finances cannot be relied upon.
‘For every person who walks into the office and says ‘is this the food bank?’ there’s a raft of people out there who haven’t got the courage to do that,’ says Lorraine, one of the volunteers who comes from another local church to help with referrals. ‘We’re just following the Maker’s instructions really, because what little we can do to help feed people is not enough, never enough, but also sometimes we can be the first contact that people have in terms of support.’
Every food bank visit here begins with a cup of tea. You can visibly see the relief in some of the clients’ faces and shoulders at being given half an hour to sit and eat a buttery toasted teacake while the volunteers busily prepare their food package and perhaps top up their gas and electric cards.
Universal Credit is being rolled out in Northampton next month and the volunteers at Emmanuel are already braced for the anticipated increase in demand as people wait five weeks for their first payment. It will likely absorb much of the extra stock that has come in recently thanks to local schools and churches celebrating harvest festival.
For the last year, the Emmanuel Group of Churches has also run a project called FISH (Food in School Holidays) at a local primary school. The premise is simple: providing a hot meal and a fun activity for families one lunchtime a week when school is out. During the summer holidays, as many as 120 people came each week, with over 600 guests in total. Children’s services have been identified by Northamptonshire County Council as one area in which significant cuts will be made, and the full effect of this on local families has yet to be felt. Today, in October half term, there are at least 60 visitors.
It might not quite be the feeding of the five thousand, but I still marvel at the seemingly never–ending supply of hotdogs with onions and ketchup, as the queue grows in the school hall for seconds and then thirds, followed by Swiss roll and custard. At the back of the line, two boys are jousting with balloon swords crafted by the children’s entertainer. There are tears when another little girl’s balloon poodle bursts, before the smile swiftly returns when another one is conjured up.
After lunch, there is a magic show which all the children are invited to join in with while their adults have a breather and chat to each other. There are not many other free community spaces on this estate and on a cold October day, it is a rare chance to get out of the house and relax without even having to find enough small change for a cup of tea. At one point, they are putting the world to rights so loudly that the magician waves a wand in their direction with an instruction for ‘the mums to keep the noise down’.
Relationships and the offer of a chit–chat is important back at Emmanuel too. Jean, who is in her eighties, volunteers as a befriender in the café. She used to work behind the counter, but found that serving food and hot drinks got in the way of the conversations. ‘I’ll talk to anyone. They’re all God’s children aren’t they?’ She underplays her role, as do many of those who volunteer here, but the ministry of wandering around, offering a chat and a listening ear is clearly invaluable. She tells the story of how she first came to church, met a friendly face and now tries to model that to everyone who comes into the café. It is 1 John 4 in action; loving because first she was loved, befriending the lonely because someone befriended her first.
The council in Northampton may have no money left, but I’m not sure there’s a Budget anywhere which would stretch to balloon animals for every week of the school holidays, less still one which could account for the friendships that are formed here. Asked to describe this church, one woman I spoke to told me, ‘I think it must be one hell of a happy place for God!’ I’m inclined to agree.
With thanks to Revd. Haydon Spenceley and everyone at Emmanuel Northampton.
Image by Seanbear available under a Shutterstock license
Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity. @hannahmerich
Posted 30 October 2018
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