Shame is as old as the garden. Sometimes it’s a result of sin, or perhaps another’s sin against us. 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.
This coming winter
Increases in the energy price cap, alongside inflation (and accompanied price rises) seem set to create a perfect storm this coming winter, whereby families and individuals who have never needed to access support will suddenly find themselves in need.
These will be individuals who are not well-versed in how projects work, what is expected, and how to articulate exactly where their shortfalls are.
How do we open our doors to those who never thought they would need to walk through them?
Crucial to this will be to see shame coming a long way off, to expect it, and to do all we can in our projects to mitigate the paralysis and mortification that it brings.
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.
In Hastings, King’s Church 1066 has created a bespoke section of their building, with a separate outward-facing entrance to make it as straightforward as possible for clients to access support. They are continuing to consider how best to utilise space (e.g. using small breakout rooms for personally sensitive chats), and form teams that are made up of mixed sexes and ages where possible.
Sharon Hodde Miller describes our outward appearance as being designed to act as a bridge, 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 an estate.
In A Call to Act, Martin Charlesworth recounts how clients at one Foodbank 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.
Likewise, for new families accessing support for the first time, are there ways we can recognise individuality (eg. adding in favourite snacks for their kids), to help mitigate the shock of personal choice in the rest of their lives being suddenly curtailed?
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 his recent and very helpful article, Corin Pilling (UK director of Sanctuary) established six principles for churches for churches to consider around running warm-banks this coming winter.
Related to mitigating experiences of shame, he asks us to consider the power dynamics that can be in play in our projects:
“Everyone likes to see themselves as a problem-solver and the hero of a situation; and the Church is no different. But I don’t like feeling as if I’m ‘a problem to be fixed’; no-one does. At a time when people’s dignity is being stripped, create opportunities for sharing skills and time, so we are tackling this issue together.”
Corin highlights how many churches are turning to asset-based community development, a model that honours the gifts and skills of each person.
So what does it look like to view those we’re seeking to reach as participants rather than passive recipients?
Corin suggests that “it’s less ‘How can we help?’ and more, ‘Great to see you. Can you help put out the chairs?’'. While this collaborative approach is more costly in terms of time, it allows deeper mutual and reciprocal relationships to be established.
A good example of this approach was demonstrated at the Sanctuary Café (a local project reaching refugees) where, on discovering that a regular visitor was a skilled guitarist, the team helped fund an instrument, asking in return that this guest play them in and out of each group meeting.
With more clients accessing our projects who are in paid employment, perhaps we could consider how to effectively harness the skills of (for example) healthcare professionals who are both in need, and also able to offer others specific support.
A sense of fun: the light touch
During the 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 leads the work there is convinced these gestures can humanise and individualise our acts of kindness.
These are just some simple examples of how we can meet needs, and offer support that both recognises the possibility of shame, and seeks to combat it by delivering help in sensitive and individualised ways.
Thinking this way has always been important, but perhaps never more so than now as we look at welcoming guests who never expected they would need access to this kind of support .
Recognition and mitigation might seem too modest an aim. But we know that in Christ, our destiny is the total elimination of shame once and for all.
Written by Rachel Wilson
*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)