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Faith in Practice

A new challenge

Hannah Kowszun

Born in Jamaica before moving to poverty in the UK, Joel Edwards is best known for his former role at the Evangelical alliance.  He now works with Micah Challenge, an international organisation that empowers Christians to help tackle global poverty.

FIP.jpgI was eight years old when I left Jamaica and I didn't think about poverty until I came to London. Right up until I got married I never even had my own bed! We were poor in my family - single parent, free school meals, free school uniforms. I still remember the stigma as a teenager - a house captain in my school - having to queue up for my free school meals, and doing it in such a way that once the queue was finished I would dash up to the window, take my free meal voucher and disappear, hoping no one would notice.

That made a deep impression on me, so that when people say to me now that there are two million poor children in the UK, I understand that. Poverty is real and it is relative. A poor teenager in Britain is not the same as a poor teenager in Malawi, but it is still very real to that person. I understand that in an ocean of affluence there are islands of poverty; sometimes the closer proximity to affluence you have, the more painful it is.

When Jesus said 'the poor will always be with us' I don't think he was saying, 'relax, don't do too much about it because it's too big for you'. I find that people who usually quote that use it as a wonderful reason to do as little as possible for as long as possible about the poor. I think Jesus meant the opposite: 'So you're really concerned about the poor are you? Well you'll have a lot to do because they'll always be around.'

I've had two experiences that catapulted me in this direction. One was a word God spoke directly to me in a sermon many years ago, when I was about 19; I felt God put his hand on my chest and say, 'You have to do something about the oppressed'. The second was 15 years in the probation service, in which I saw justice and miscarriage of justice done, and the law sometimes looking like an ass. The system was disproportionate to black individuals or young people and so justice turned into injustices, in the name of the law.

For me justice is not a technical issue, it's not about a forensic application of the law. It is about righteousness responding to wrong: sometimes in trials and courts, always in our human relationships, definitely in relation to the poor. So for me justice is not a hard, clinical word, it is something that comes out of the heart of God.

I do struggle to work out how it is that Christians can look at the volume of scripture, read the imperatives of the Gospel, read the book of James, see the incredible relationship between righteousness, holiness and justice - which in the scriptures are the same root word - and look at the poor and still sleep well at night, feeling indifferent.

I like being liked. I think I understood why I attracted so much venom and animosity, almost invariably from members of the gay community. I think I have been a symbol of pain, intolerance and intransigent non-listening. I have picked up the tab for a view of evangelicals which is bigoted, arrogant, impatient and intolerant, and that's how I've read the responses to me. I haven't taken it personally.

I know me well enough to know that if I got in a room with someone and we had a chance to talk, then people would go beyond the iconograpy of evangelical impatience and hear the heart of a man who struggles with that tension between his conviction, as informed by the scriptures, and the discomfort that it causes other people - that they don't believe what I believe, that I don't live in their shoes or indeed their sexuality, and would therefore sound condemnatory.

I walk a tightrope between conviction and love for other people, and I've never really being entirely at home with that tension. I think my greatest success is to pull people into my questioning.

Faith in practice means that you cannot dualise or privatise faith. A political system that suggests you can somehow be a faith person at home, but has no bearing in the public square, is like an act of social vandalism, because faith in practice informs what we do in every aspect of our lives. Excluding faith from the public square is like running through the raindrops: it cannot be done. Public services that Christians offer - and people of other faiths for that matter - are informed by our commitment to God, and therefore to other people born and made in his image. It doesn't mean we politicise God, and he becomes a mascot of the republican or conservative party, but that the faith we have in God compels us to serve people made in his image.

I'm much more obsessed by what I haven't done than what I have, so I'm always dissatisfied, I'm always feeling as I haven't really begun the journey. I feel like a late achiever or an under-achiever in relation to where my vision is. At the risk of sounding ever so humble, I just see myself as a servant.

I remember I was in a church service about 10 or 12 years ago, and I was in a room with some very powerful characters, these are the people who write books and other people actually buy them. I'm looking around thinking, my God what amazing people these are! Here's me, a little black boy from Jamaica, what am I doing in a room with all these powerful people? At which point God said to me, I have called you to be a servant, don't forget it.

Joel Edwards was talking to Hannah Kowszun