August
13
Author
Richard Wilson
Grace Advocacy

Increasingly churches are encountering more people facing financial problems and who are having to interact with a benefit system ever more complex and under pressure. In the face of this, most of our churches probably feel inadequate to address those issues – especially when connecting with bureaucracy. This is where Grace Advocacy can help.

The context
Gary Holland, the founder and Managing Trustee of Grace Advocacy believes that after the events in 2008, “we are living in an inflexion point in our history”. The financial crisis that happened probably marked the high-point of the Welfare State. Now, in the UK, poverty and hardship increasingly exist because those in need:

   • don't know what support is available
   • cannot effectively engage with the welfare state bureaucracies
   • cannot defend their rights against abuse or error.

And while from the early days of state welfare provision the government recognised the need for advocacy services alongside it – the first Citizens Advice Bureau opened in 1939 and the Legal Aid service followed after the 1949 Legal Advice and Assistance Act – in recent years the government has sought to save money by:

   • reducing the amount of welfare support available
   • cutting the numbers of frontline staff who deliver the support
   • making access to that support harder, and
   • cutting funding to the legal aid scheme and traditional advocacy services

The opportunity and vision
In these changing times Grace Advocacy believes that, “The crisis has brought with it an incredible opportunity for evangelical churches to reach the unchurched with the gospel.” But how can this happen practically?

“Many Bible believing churches guided by the Holy Spirit want to obey Jesus and be salt, light and leaven to their communities but are not sure of how to do it. They are not aware that through emails, phone calls and a commitment to walk with the needy for as long as it takes, they can house the homeless, provide a regular income to the poor, enable the disabled to become mobile, deliver medical and social care to the infirm, release the insolvent from unaffordable debt.”

The vision of Grace Advocacy, therefore, is to “empower churches to deliver effective care to the needy in their congregations and community” particularly as in these times mercy ministries meeting practical needs are often the only bridge between the lives of non-Christians and the church. In this analysis Grace Advocacy acknowledges the work of Tim Keller, identifying those Keller terms “unwebbed unbelievers – the overwhelming majority of the population: who have no connection or knowledge of the church; who are not part of a believers’ web, or are uninterested or at worst hostile to Christianity.”

This may be a challenge to the local church but it is also an opportunity.

Advocacy in action
As churches encounter those in need, they are the ones who can become advocates for those people. Experience shows that when life for people unravels their capacity to deal with many aspects deteriorates rapidly. At the practical level advocacy is the means of turning desperation into hope. The approach is summarised in this way:

“The most effective way to help the needy is not by trying to duplicate the welfare state’s resources, but rather to help them access support that already exists by acting as their advocate.”

An advocate therefore is someone who supports a person to:

   • access information, services and support,
   • understand and secure their rights,
   • express their views and concerns, and
   • explore choices and options.

The work will often also involve drawing on specialist knowledge from contacts that Grace Advocacy has elsewhere. And while getting alongside people demands time and care, it can be very successful. For example:

   • Disability benefits are often reinstated as a result of the work, with one person receiving several thousand pounds of their disability allowance reclaimed as a result of the advocacy work.
   • Dealing with a person due in court the following Monday for the non-payment of council tax, one team member had a chance encounter with a neighbour who happened to work in a legal aid firm. When they heard about the client’s case, they immediately offered help.
   • Encouraging or helping people to attend court or a tribunal for their case can markedly increase the success rate for an appeal.

Currently Grace Advocacy works with churches in Kingston, Brighton and Eastbourne and also in partnership with the Bridgwater Foodbank, but it has the greater goal to have church teams in every parliamentary constituency of the UK by 2029. Could your church be one of them? Visit the Grace Advocacy website to find out more, or email advice@graceadvocacy.org

In a fast-changing world when state provision now seems unlikely to increase but the real needs are most likely to increase, Grace Advocacy shows how we as Christians and churches can get alongside those in difficulty, and bring glory to God in the process.

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Gary Holland will be giving one of the afternoon seminars at our Churches that Change Communities conference on 16 November 2019. Book in now to secure your place.