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08 March, 2022

The Shame Game

The Shame Game

Shame is as old as the garden.

Sometimes it’s a result of sin, or perhaps another’s sin against us, and often it’s plain embarrassment on steroids.

We all experience shame, whether in our failed attempts to ask for an embarrassing medication through a mandatory mask, or in more lasting and scarring ways that shape our lives.

And none of us want those accessing essential support in our projects to feel an ounce of it.

So, how can we see shame coming a long way off, expect it and do all we can in our projects to mitigate the paralysis and mortification that it brings alongside?

There are some really practical steps (as well as spiritual ones) that seek to offer dignity alongside support, and below are some creative examples of good practice from up and down the country.

Creating space:

During a session at her foodbank in the height of the pandemic, Natalie was approached by an asset-rich, but cash poor, mother and daughter who had been suddenly plunged into poverty. The teenage daughter’s face slowly sank as her Mum had to ask at-distance (because of Covid) for sanitary items on her behalf. The pandemic has undoubtedly made dignifying these moments infinitely harder. Now that we’re able to have people in our buildings again, there are simple steps we can take to counter experiences of shame.

This might mean creating private spaces, where possible, and using small breakout rooms for personally sensitive chats, or prayer. Could we also consider offering sanitary products pre-packed in paper bags and available at the door for those who would prefer not to ask?


Building truly diverse teams (that take into account ethnicity, gender, age, accent, class, life experience and beyond) will enable more meaningful interactions, and a depth of openness. Reflecting (however partially) the people we're encountering in the make up of our teams helps us “be all things to all people".

Training teams to effectively listen and reflect, and to carefully and appropriately express their own weakness and vulnerability can help heal the divide. Our desire is never to be inauthentic, but rather to follow in Paul’s footsteps, when he says;

“to the weak I become weak, in order that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might win some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I might share with them in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:22-23


In her book, Free of Me, Sharon Hodde Miller considers whether our outward appearance as Christians acts as a bridge to the gospel, or a barrier. She suggests that, stewarded well, appearance can be missional; an active way of reconciling people from different groups and backgrounds*. I’ve heard a friend speak similarly about the way they chose to decorate their home in light of planting a church on a deprived estate.

In the most recent Jubilee+ book, A Call to Act, founder Martin Charlesworth recounts how at one foodbank clients had to navigate a carpark where expensive cars (those of the volunteers freely giving their time) occupied the nearest spaces, before entering to collect food parcels**.

How can our car parks, our clothing, and our physical spaces act as bridges (and in so doing help combat shame)?

Recognising preferences, not just needs:

Recognising preferences helps recognise personalities. When we ask the homeless person sitting on the street what their favourite drink is, we enable the answer “a decaf vanilla latte with whipped cream”, and the chance to serve a person and not just an absolute need.

One thriving project that’s allowing an increased measure of choice among its users is Community Grocery, which started on the Wythenshaw estate in Manchester. Now rolled out across the country by the Message Trust, these shops enable members to do up to three weekly shops for only £3 a time. Customers are able to select the fresh produce, as well as longer-life goods that work for them and their families. These projects are serving communities that often lack affordable grocery options within walking distance.

In Eastbourne, The Sanctuary Cafe discovered that one of the refugees they were working with was a skilled guitarist, with no instrument to enjoy. In the midst of the strictest lockdown the team left a guitar on his doorstep. Overwhelmed by their kindness, he played them in and out of their next support group Zoom meeting.

How can we recognise the preferences, gifts and skills of those we're reaching, and - where possible - draw these out?

A sense of fun: the light touch

During the Christmas holidays our son attended a club that aimed to reach families experiencing challenges at home. As well as offering entertainment, crafts, sports and two cooked meals on-site, each child left with a package designed to help them learn to be chefs themselves. The branding, and recipes were all designed in the style of the pre-prepared subscription meal kits that are currently so popular. Inside were all the ingredients and instructions for a delicious meal, and it was targeted towards learning to do it together as parent and child.

It took me about two days to realise that we had received a food parcel.

I’m sharing that experience here to say that he and I felt thoroughly treated, and isn’t that the sense we want to evoke in those we reach?

We can’t always blow the budget on fancy gift bags or bouquets of toiletries like those delivered to care homes by the Inspire group at Kings Church Eastbourne, but Terri Belsey who led the initative, is convinced these gestures can humanise and individualise our acts of kindness.

To come…

These are just some simple examples of how we can meet needs, and offer support that recognises the possibility of shame, and seeks to combat it by delivering help in sensitive and individualised ways.

Recognition and mitigation might seem too modest an aim, when we know our destination in Christ is the total elimination of shame once and for all.

Over the coming weeks, guest contributer Isabella Hope will be doing a mini-series tracing this theme of shame and honour through scripture. She will be comparing lived experiences of shame in the UK with her context in the Middle East, and asking how we as imitators of Christ can offer increased dignity and honour.

*Sharon Hodde Miller, Free of Me (Baker Books, 2017) p. 78
**Martin Charlesworth & Natalie Williams, A Call to Act: Building a Poverty-Busting Lifestyle (David C Cook, 2020)

08 March, 2022