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Food, hope and love: the local church in a time of crisis?

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Jesus tell us to love our neighbour which, in practice, often means through a local church. That love needs to be customised and directed. Oldham in Greater Manchester is a post-industrial town so, after Austerity and Brexit, the impact of Covid was perhaps greater than in other places. Some churches took Jesus’ command to mean serving through food banks and pantries. 

The church is strongest when it reflects its host society. This strength might inspire local people to call its church ‘relevant’, ‘useful’ or simply ‘MY church’, but only if it has earned that ownership. 

The church needs to serve its whole parish. It will probably serve successive circles of acquaintances: most start with those it knows in their congregations; then the ‘para church’ of occasional visitors, service users, or frequenting the building; then finally the wider community. That ‘wider community’ may not know its church or feels antagonistic saying, ‘It does nothing for people like me!’; and that statement may be true. But all within these circles need hope.

To give hope, churches must know their context: to that end, they must explore then change. Jesus himself tells us to explore context by commanding us to love our neighbour. He then asked, ‘who is my neighbour?’ We cannot pick and choose.

Churches obedient to Jesus will customise their activities to address contextual need. That context is local and changes with time. A century ago, churches worked with the Workhouse, Poor Laws, and maybe oversaw elementary education. Everything has changed: the Education Act means churches rarely run schools; the Welfare State took over health and pastoral care, and did it better. Many local churches today are introverted and closing; the Established Church can seem better represented in the House of Lords than ‘on the ground’. 

And then came Austerity, Brexit, Covid, and their conjoined legacy, the ‘cost-of-living crisis’. In response, people might turn to a church for food and hope for there is no one else. These requests occur at a time when many churches have learned to avoid suggestions of ‘being political’. In consequence, churches are asked to do more but with fewer resources; help more but with additional constraints. 

The changes in Oldham, Greater Manchester, are dramatic. In 1900, it was one of the richest towns in the Empire: more millionaires (per capita) lived in nearby Shaw Village than anywhere else on the planet; by 2016, Oldham was the most deprived borough in England; the 2021 Census showed 77.7% of Oldham households live with some form of deprivation (51.7% is the average for England). 

Covid has aggravated everything: the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggests those worst affected by Covid were women, younger workers, and low-paid workers. Before the pandemic, these groups were over-represented in the east Oldham economy. By 2022, the unemployment rate across all age groups in the ‘Oldham East and Saddleworth’ constituency had risen by 43% since the first lockdown; elsewhere it had fallen. And Oldham was in lockdown for longer than almost anywhere else in the UK, meaning the need was larger, longer-lasting and, because Oldham comprises many small villages, experienced locally.

Covid affected children. In 2014–2020, Oldham had the highest relative child poverty rate in England. In 2024, it had reached to 44%; it has England’s third-highest absolute rate of child poverty. Many are ineligible for free school meals. We see epidemic levels of metal ill-health.

For years, Christian organisations in Oldham have overseen emergency food provision. St Margaret’s Church in Hollinwood created Oldham Food Bank. At the start of the lockdown, Oldham Council helped it relocate to the large, new Oldham Sport Leisure in the Town Centre where its provision multiplied many-fold. The Council led the project but a large proportion of its workers and volunteers came from Oldham’s churches.

I oversee one of the most deprived parishes in England, St Barnabas (Clarksfield) in East Oldham. It already ran a food project so, when lockdown started, the National Lottery enhanced it, installing a walk-in fridge and two huge freezers. To accommodate them, we quickly re-imagined a major capital project in our Parish Centre. Client numbers climbed scarily fast as we fed ever more people. 

These local churches were demonstrating relevance by ‘loving neighbours’: all these projects served local people, were led by local people, and responded to local people, giving both food and hope. 

Covid closed several churches but all the churches running food projects during the pandemic remain open. All have changed. For example, their membership is often larger and younger; some changed style to accommodate those newer members. And other churches are starting social-justice work. 

The need for food projects is growing. Local churches lead the projects operating using the ‘food pantry’ model; churches lead a slight majority of the ‘food banks’; the Department for Education funds ‘holiday hunger’ clubs through its ‘Holiday Activity Fund’ (HAF), many of which convene in churches and parish centres

This blog details church responses but many Mosques and secular organisations also addressed local need. 

Social action offers more than food. Some church-led projects also offer pet food, toiletries, eVouchers; others run cafés, or clothes and school-uniform banks; most refer clients toward debt care; during Covid, many became ‘pop-up’ vaccinate centres … the list is large and continues to grow in number and scope. And these projects represent explicit responses to Jesus’ Commandment to love our neighbour. Love may be ‘the greatest of these three’ (cf. 1 Cor 13) but faith should also led to hope.

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