When I studied this passage from Luke I found it a challenging and perplexing one. It starts off well, saying the marginalized in society are blessed. It fits with my views on social justice. But the next part, well, I have to say it unsettled me. Woe to you who are rich, who are full, who are happy and who are spoken well of. Wait a minute…He’s talking about me! But I’m rich because I work hard. Because I work hard and I’m rich, I’m never hungry. I think most people would speak well of me and I’m reasonably happy. Hey, I’m a good person! I thought God’s love is supposed to be equal for all, for the poor and the rich.
But on further contemplation maybe Jesus is not condemning the rich, he’s trying to get our attention. When our needs are taken care of, when we have a comfortable life, we can live in what I call a “bubble”. We surround ourselves with like-minded people who do the same activities, read the same books, have similar political leanings.
It can be distressing to go outside of our comfortable bubble. In May and June, my husband and I lived in Vancouver, renting a suite near First Avenue and Commercial Drive, a vibrant, diverse neighbourhood with beautifully renovated heritage homes, great restaurants and Italian coffee shops. But walking down “The Drive” you also see the poor, the hungry, the mentally ill. The middle-aged man we could hear from blocks away, shouting obscenities. The young woman, passed out on the sidewalk that looked just like our daughter. The First Nations man offering his felt pen drawings for a few bucks. I often felt overwhelmed by the need and despair I saw around me.
The policy manual for Trinity United Church states the purpose of our Outreach Ministry is to witness to God’s love in the world through our lives and actions. Of Trinity’s vision goals, the ones with a particular Outreach focus include community-building, focus on youth and young families and outreach into the community.
Two ways Outreach has tried to meet this mandate is through our participation in the Interfaith Committee and EFAN, the Emergency Food Action Network. Our involvement in EFAN has helped us to increase our understanding of the causes of hunger, our knowledge of food assistance resources currently available in Vernon and what resources are lacking. And it’s helped us to facilitate partnerships with other faith groups and service providers in order to address hunger in our community in a more efficient, coordinated way.
We’ve tried to pass on what we’ve learned to you in various ways including our World Food Day services. I want to tell you how the poverty landscape has changed since we did that first service in 2012.
FirstCall, the BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, has been tracking child and family poverty rates in BC for two decades. Every year they produce the Child Poverty BC Report Card. In the 2012 report, the before-tax poverty rate in B.C. was 16% with a child poverty rate of 14%. The 2015 report showed the overall poverty rate is now 19% and our child poverty rate has climbed to 24%. For status First Nations children in B.C. that number is 48%. The most recent report has this quote from a teacher in the Okanagan:
“…I have noticed a marked increase not only in the clearly destitute, but also in the working poor. Many… students have parents working two jobs in order to maintain a minimal standard of living and many of our other students need regular aid”
We see the results of these statistics in our Vernon schools. Since 2012, breakfast programs have been started in our high schools, run by parents, school staff or churches. In September, the Starfish Program, sponsored by Kal Rotary Club, began at Alexis Park School. Fifty children identified as severely food insecure are given a backpack on Fridays containing enough food to feed them through the weekend. A staff member at Seaton Secondary School told me they want to start a similar program for their neediest students. Teen Junction provides supper for teens five days a week. They are getting 19 – 25 kids a day, up from an average of 12 last year.
Food Banks Canada produces an annual HungerCount report to provide a national and provincial snapshot of food bank use in Canada. They count the number of individuals who use food banks and meal programs during the month of March. 96,000 British Columbians turned to food banks in March 2012. Over 100,000 British Columbians used food banks in March 2015. The percentage of children depending on food banks in B.C. also has an upward trend from 29.5% in 2012 to 31.5% in 2015.
At the EFAN meeting in April, the Vernon Food Bank reported an average of 10 – 14 new households/day requesting access to the Food Bank. After the Ft McMurray forest fire in May, the Upper Room Mission saw a huge spike in people coming for meals, with high of 6800 meals served in June, compared to 6000 meals in June 2015. They are also seeing an increase in the number of seniors, young teens and families with young children coming for meals, creating what they call a “collision of demographics” with their regular customers. At the request of Upper Room Mission staff, a brainstorming session with service providers and faith groups was held last week to find ways to release the pressure building up as they scramble to meet the needs of these diverse groups.
Our provincial government has made some improvements in the last four years. In 2015 they eliminated the claw back of social assistance amounts when single parents receive child support payments from their ex’s. For single mother Rebecca that’s meant she no longer needs to use the food bank, she can feed her daughter Sophey higher quality meat, cheese and produce and they can afford proper shoes. She’s also considering the new Single Parent Employment Initiative where she continues to get income assistance benefits for a year while attending an approved training program and for a second year if she gets a job. But B.C. still does not have a poverty reduction plan with targets and timelines; something anti-poverty advocates have been calling for for decades. Income inequality is growing across Canada with B.C having the biggest gap between the richest and the poorest.
So those are “the woes”. What are “the blessings”? How can we as a community, as a congregation, as individuals possibly affect change on the huge, complex, uncomfortable problem of poverty and hunger?
We can learn more about the causes of poverty and the solutions recommended by researchers and front line workers. We can demand meaningful, long-term action from our politicians. For links to the reports I’ve referenced today, I’ve left copies of a handout called “Food Security in Vernon” on the table outside of the office.
We are so fortunate to have the Social Planning Council of the North Okanagan. Under the very able leadership of Executive Director Annette Sharkey, it coordinates the Partners in Action Committee, which focuses on homelessness, affordable housing and food security. They work in partnership with the business and nonprofit sector, different levels of government and community volunteers to create meaningful change in our community.
It also encourages service providers to work together. The Upper Room Mission provides meals to Gateway Shelter and Teen Junction and bagels to school breakfast programs. Vendors at the Farmers’ Market donate leftover produce to the Food Bank, which is then shared with Upper Room Mission and Teen Junction. Many dedicated people volunteer at these agencies and at school breakfast programs, the Good Food Box and the Saturday Street Lunches. The Alliance Church offers a hot meal twice a week at The Arbour on 27th Street. At Trinity, we brought donations today for our food bank. White Gift Sunday donations have helped the homeless at Gateway Shelter, men working to escape the grip of addiction at Bill’s Place and high needs pregnant and post partum women at the Pregnancy Outreach Program. We provide an annual Christmas dinner for a whole school. And today we will break bread and share companionship with our neighbours at the BBQ after this service.
Several studies have been done on children with impoverished and sometimes abusive childhoods who, despite this, become nurturing, productive adults. One of the hallmarks of these resilient kids is having at least one supportive person in their lives. Mary Ellen was one of these children. A member of the Muskeg Cree Nation, her mother was Scottish and her father Cree. Her childhood included poverty, physical abuse, domestic violence and alcoholism. She says “I had some pretty bad turns in my childhood which really could have crushed someone, but I had a few people who helped me out – a teacher, a sibling”. She went on to get a Doctorate of Law from Harvard and became the first Aboriginal woman to become a judge in Saskatchewan. In 2006, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was appointed as the first B.C. Representative for Children and Youth where she was described by some as “a relentless thorn in the side” of the BC government, working tirelessly for 10 years to improve and often save the lives of our most vulnerable youth.
In closing, I would like to read a letter we received after one of our World Food Day BBQs, that I think illustrates the most important thing we can do:
“To The Trinity Church.
I am writing to thank all of you for the BBQ you held today and were kind enough to invite the homeless and less fortunate people of our community to.
What I found most impressive is that the members of your church sat down and ate with me and also allowed me to enjoy conversation with them. There is a saying ‘Practice what your preach’, and you showed that you agree, ‘All men are created equal’.
Never underestimate the power of an act of kindness or prayer.”
God of our lives
you are always calling us…
inviting us to…
new ways to care,
new ways to touch the hearts of all…
remind us that you can bring change and hope
out of the most difficult situations.
Food Costing in B.C. 2015. www.phsa.ca/population-public-health-site/Documents/2015%20Food%20Costing%20in%20BC%20-%20FINAL.pdf
Food Banks Canada HungerCount report 2015. www.foodbankscanada.ca/Hunger-in-Canada/HungerCount-2015.aspx
2015 Child Poverty Report B.C. Report Card. still1in5.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2015-BC-Child-Poverty-Report-Card-WebSmall-FirstCall-2015-11.pdf
Social Planning Council for the North Okanagan website www.socialplanning.ca/
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