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Why I fasted for 40 days in Lent

25 April 2014

Christians have a chance to speak and act for their hungry neighbours, says Keith Hebden


Helping: a volunteer at the foodbank at Christ Church, Fulham, in London

Helping: a volunteer at the foodbank at Christ Church, Fulham, in London

AFTER the launch of the End Hunger Fast campaign, and a letter about poverty in the UK from religious leaders, the Church has cleared a significant prophetic space (News, 21 February). Now it is up to the Church to occupy this space, and to speak up for those who go hungry in Britain.

The first letter, published in February in the Daily Mirror, signed by 27 Anglican bishops and many Nonconformist leaders, made stark claims: that there were half a million visits to foodbanks in the UK in from Easter 2013 to Lent 2014, and that "one in five mothers" (according to Netmums) were regularly skipping meals to feed their children better.

By revealing this crisis, the prophetic call was described by the Mirror (19 February) as "the most significant political move by the Church of England since its Faith in the City report in the 1980s".

A second letter has been signed by 47 bishops and more than 600 leaders of various Christian traditions, and hand-delivered to the constituency offices of the three main party leaders (News, 17 April). I went with the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, to David Cameron's office, where, instead of opening the door, his staff called the police.

THE responses to End Hunger Fast have shown that it tapped into a growing frustration with government denial of a national crisis, and a general discomfort with the possibility of perpetual foodbanks.

When I first spoke to clergy around the Midlands about the fast, the response varied little: "We support a foodbank, but we feel uneasy about it; are we helping people, or just covering for government indifference?"

The significance is that churchgoers are increasingly uneasy with their new role as what the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu - when he was Bishop of Birmingham - used to call "welfare on the cheap".

The fast has been prophetic because the Church is both revealing a secret about our hidden hungry neighbour, and naming this truth as a national moral crisis.

The space has been made by the confessional tone of the campaign, which calls on all parties to act, reinforces the value of the Bishop of Truro's All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into foodbank use (News, 4 April), and uses statements such as: "We can better work on these urgent issues together."

AS PART of the campaign, two friends and I volunteered to go without food for 40 days (News, 17 April). We invited others to join a "National Day of Fasting" on 4 April, when 2400 people registered to fast.

I had never done anything like it before, and learned a great deal about my own limits and God's. Mostly, I experienced the divide between my token act and the real hardship of open-ended, humiliating, and frightening hunger, which increasing numbers of British people face.

Our inspiration was not only Jesus's fast in the wilderness and the Lenten echo of it, but also Queen Esther, who, faced with a national crisis, called all God's people to fast for three days and to petition God for help. By calling a day of fasting, we echoed that tradition, and one that was prevalent in 18th-century Britain, when official national days of fasting were not uncommon.

Fasting is both prayer and confession. By fasting, we admitted that we were complicit in a system that left people hungry, but we also called for a new compassion, which tries to do three things: to make welfare work for the most vulnerable; to make work pay; and to put people before profits. We highlighted to our political élite that they are wrong: people do care what happens to their neighbours.

THE fast demonstrated the dynamic spiritual and social impact of being a Church that is willing to take the violence of the system into itself for the sake of others.

By speaking out, we have cleared a space in which we can hear from God about speaking and acting for the sake of those who go hungry. This means marginalising the untruths around welfare, broadening a sense of moral responsibility, and thus avoiding the polar, party-political arguments that dominate Parliament and the media.

Amid the scapegoating, name-calling, and gainsaying, there is rarely room to hear one another. Here is a space in which conversation can take place about human responsibility for our neighbour: a responsibility that goes to the heart of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

At the parish and deanery level, many churches continue to mitigate some of the worst of symptoms of welfare delays, in-work poverty, and rising food prices, by offering material help, inclusion, sign-posting to other services, and advice and support. The Bishops have demonstrated a willingness to hear the grass-roots, and speak out in prophetic voices.

End Hunger Fast has never asked for funding, but now urges those who fasted to support its partners, including the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty (CAP), and to pray for the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, as he uses his "prophetic role" (his words) in the foodbank inquiry. People could join in by working with the inquiry and with CAP, when they launch regional assemblies to hear stories and solutions. It is not enough to be steam-valves for an unjust system: we must be whistleblowers, too.

The Revd Dr Keith Hebden is Assistant Curate of St Peter and St Paul, and of St Mark's, Mansfield, and the social-justice adviser in the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham. His book,

Seeking Justice: The radical compassion of Jesus, is available from Christian Alternative.

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