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Interview: Natalie Williams, chief executive, Jubilee+

25 June 2021

‘A narrative persists that, if people are in poverty, it must somehow be their fault’

Jubilee+ is a national Christian charity that seeks to equip Christians and churches to alleviate poverty and injustice in their communities. Jubilee+ started ten years ago, on the back of the 2008 global recession, in the Newfrontiers group of churches. Now, we work with churches of various denominations across the UK, with staff in Hastings, London, Bristol, Shrewsbury, Cockermouth, and Durham.

I’ve been involved since 2011,
initially as a volunteer, then on staff from June 2015. I became chief executive in April. Before then, I was the charity’s community-engagement director, overseeing all of our social-action projects and our newly built community-action hub.

A Call to Act,
published last year, was the third book written with Martin Charlesworth, my predecessor, about how Christians and churches in the UK can respond to poverty in their communities. We draw on our very different backgrounds — Martin’s of relative privilege; mine of relative poverty.

It was picked for the Big Church Read last November,
and for dozens of small groups, and even entire churches, to read together.

I grew up in relative poverty in Hastings,
starting out in a 16th-floor council flat, and then living in a small terraced house by the railway, where my mum still lives. Now, I live on my own in a lovely flat, but in one of the most deprived parts of Hastings, by my own choice.

When I was seven,
I told my granddad I wanted to write books when I grew up. He told me I had to be a journalist first, and I believed him. So I started out at the Reading Evening Post, and worked for the Daily Mirror, GQ magazine, and Travel Weekly.

I became a Christian at King’s Church,
which is part of Newfrontiers, when I was 15. I went to a C of E primary school, but went to church because I liked a boy who went, and that’s where I first encountered God.

Becoming a Christian was what lifted me out of poverty,
because, suddenly, I realised that God had plans for my life. I didn’t necessarily have to follow my family history, and I went to university. But I chose to go back to Hastings and to re-engage with my working-class values.

Middle-class churches often struggle to engage working-class people.
They come to Jesus, perhaps through an outreach project, and get baptised, but then they drift away. Sometimes they feel like people are trying to change them, and need more affirmation of the stronger sense of community in working classes — living in each other’s houses, being ready to go out of your way to help someone, even if it means getting out of prior commitments, or giving them your last tenner. Being there for people.

Sometimes it’s hard for church leaders to see how difficult it is for working-class people to feel they belong.
For instance, our sermons used to be 35 minutes long — too long for people from my background, who just don’t sit and listen to one person talking. Many church leaders say that the word of God is really important, and so they can’t possibly be cut shorter. As soon as pandemic hit, suddenly we can do 20 minutes, because we know no one’s going to listen to a long sermon online. I hope that’ll stay afterwards.

When I talk about childhood with my upper-class friend,
it’s like we were living on different planets. She had so many choices, so many trips — I can’t believe what sort of education that was like.

What can we learn from each other?
I love hanging out with her, because we learn a lot from each other. We’re curious about each other. I ask of people: “What about your culture points me towards Jesus?” Everyone I meet can teach me about Jesus, because they are unique and reflect the image of God. That’s how we can build churches where people of all different backgrounds can be a family together.

Absolutely, Christians can make a difference.
Thousands of people have received food for their families, support out of debt, fostering and adoption, an open home for refugees, friendship, and so much more. Our communities should be blessed because we’re there. We have a vital role to play in helping people at their time of crisis, and also lifting people out of poverty and influencing those with the power to bring substantive change.

We have no idea of the impact we’ve had.
We don’t always get to hear how someone’s life was improved, or even saved, through our small acts of kindness or generosity.

At my church, we’ve been really committed to social action and the local community,
and have got about eight projects going. Some are quite small, like a mentoring project, where church members spend time each week with a child in danger of exclusion in school; but our foodbank has 80 volunteers. We’ve just refurbished a big section of our church building to create a warehouse on site for our food stocks, and make space for a newborn baby project.

It’s always been really important to me personally to go and listen to the leader of the council,
our MP, the chief of police, CAB, the Job Centre, and see how they think we can help. Anyone tackling poverty here can use our space.

One reason churches don’t do that is because they’re afraid they’d be asked to do what they can’t do.
We say we’re not really sure if we can do what they want, but we’d like to hear their thoughts. If you have a good track record of engaging, you build a reputation of being willing to help the community; so we were well placed to play a strategic role in responding in the pandemic. We don’t have all the answers, but we have some.

You don’t win favour overnight.
It’s a slow build. You don’t know if you’re going to get a big seat at the table, but you can trust God to open doors when he wants. And people will put up with you talking about Jesus — even if they’re staunch atheists — if they see the deeds of your faith.

A narrative persists that, if people are in poverty, it must somehow be their fault.
It’s the flipside to the American Dream: that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough. If people are architects of their own success, they must also orchestrate their own failure. This isn’t how the Bible sees it. Life isn’t that simple. For those growing up in poverty, the odds are stacked against them from the start.

I’ve always wrestled with God.
I wandered away from him, then came back. Today, I find Jesus more beautiful than ever, but that’s happened because of the valley seasons he has brought me through. I love his mercy. My hope for the future is based on knowing that the heart of Jesus is inclined towards those who are trapped in poverty and injustice.

I would like to write a book on the mercy of God.
I’d also like to get married!

It makes me angry when people exploit or oppress others.
When people who could do good to others, don’t. Unmerciful attitudes to those in poverty.

I’m happiest spending time with dear friends,
when we talk about the deep things of life and laugh so much that we cry. The best sound is my phone ringing with certain ringtones assigned to specific friends.

A lot of my prayer time is spent reflecting on what God is like,
and thanking him for who he is and how he is towards me. When I pray, it’s mostly for friends, for those in poverty, and for those in power who can impact the lives of those in poverty.

I would choose to be locked in a church with one of my closest friends:
someone who knows me well and loves me well, and vice versa. Or I’d choose my mum: she would probably wouldn’t like it, but she might come to know how wonderful Jesus is.

Natalie Williams was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

A Call to Act: Building a poverty-busting lifestyle by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams is published by David C. Cook at £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.79).


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