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Interview: Denise Bentley, founder and chief executive, First Love Foundation

07 May 2021

‘People are impoverished, forgotten, and the worst thing is that they accept it’

In 2005 and through 2006, God began to show me, in the most intense way, the depths of poverty and brokenness in the community around me. When I nearly died in December 2006, God healed me, then spoke to me — not in my dreams, but audibly — and said “Now. Go. Do.”

This led to my leading an outreach ministry at a church I attended in Tower Hamlets
: Church on the Streets. The church would be closed a few times per year, to enable people to go out into the community and perform acts of kindness, such as going into homeless hostels to befriend people and provide home-cooked meals, creative workshops, and hairdressing and beauty services — to show love, in other words.

I saw up close and personal the power of the love of God to heal the most broken.
And, as requests from the hostels grew, it became clear to me what it meant to “bind up the broken-hearted”, and how God was showing me how this could be achieved through his power and might.

From all I had seen, it was not about feeding the hungry,
but seeking to heal, restore, rebuild, transform, and love the broken-hearted. First Love Foundation [FLF] was how God wanted me to do it — and he wanted me to start in Tower Hamlets. To this day, it’s one of the most deprived areas anywhere in the UK.

In 2014, our model was cited as most effective in tackling poverty anywhere in the UK
by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Poverty. In 2017, we were deemed the best advice service in the UK.

With initial support from a group of Evangelical churches and friends,
I spent six months researching the wider issues driving poverty, meeting with schools, nurseries, statutory organisations, and churches. Recurring themes were child poverty, mental illness, homelessness, domestic violence, and problems with benefits.

We joined the Trussell Trust network,
with the aim of learning from the stories of the people we would meet, then designing and delivering solutions to those problems. The foodbank, our first project, was launched in December 2010.

It was not too long before we saw that food support was no more just a sticking plaster.
Instead, we pioneered a model which focuses on resolving the underlying causes of crisis.

Since then, in partnership with the Child Poverty Action Group,
our work has helped bring about changes in welfare rights for those who have experienced domestic violence, children living in poverty, and those with long-term disabilities, for whom the benefit system has been punitive. We have helped people into work who are still in employment to this day.

By the time the pandemic hit our shores, early last year,
the effectiveness of our model meant we were better positioned to not just meet the food need, but really deal with most, if not all, the crises being experienced.

Food poverty is a symptom of poverty,
but let’s be clear: people on low incomes are shrewd about making the most of the income they have. When you reinstate income for someone who had none for a year or two, they aspire to shop in a supermarket — a choice we often take for granted. Only a small proportion don’t have the life skills to navigate this.

If someone’s poor,
or subject to domestic violence, or has a suicidal child, they need someone to sit down with them and help them. People are impoverished, forgotten, and the worst thing is that they accept it. They tried, they don’t understand the system, and subsist, working round the projects and charities.

A lady came in for food, leaflet, cup of tea.
She’d had her benefit claim turned down. She appealed, won, and was waiting for payment. When was this? Twelve years ago. We looked into it, but they shredded the paperwork after seven years, and forgot her. We got her benefits reinstated and backdated, and her rent arrears paid.

There’s no one solution:
every person’s situation is unique. Austerity, public-sector pay freeze for those on low incomes, welfare reforms, increasing food prices, unjust working conditions which created the gig economy
and zero-hours contracts, expensive childcare — all increased the number of working households living in crisis mode.

I started without funding.
Within three years, we were a team of six. This year, the team has doubled, as a highly skilled multi-disciplinary project team, alongside a management and business-support team. My staff are diverse and mostly Christian. Over 200 volunteers from different walks of life, most having no faith, work with us.

Beyond what corporates have given us,
95 per cent of our funding’s come from the public, not churches. Unilever’s global operation came in to ask how they could help, and one of the IT leaders asked a Californian team to give us a bespoke database to measure poverty. He’s now with Burberry, and persuaded a lot of companies to partner with us. They know a little bit about my story, but I rarely do church talks. I’d love to.

Covid’s been a game-changer.
It hit households where Mum’s the main breadwinner — typically, that’s the type of work that’s disappeared. We have seen a 925-per-cent increase in demand; so we moved from twice-weekly crisis-centre sessions to an emergency call centre, five days a week, addressing mental illness, poverty, isolation, attempted suicide.

Our passion is for more churches to respond to what people actually need.
The skills are in the Church, and we’re the biggest third-sector organisation. God wants us to empower and enable the poorest to feed other people. It’s time for us to harness and pool our resources, be strategic.

Minute by minute, God gives me a nudge:
“It may not make sense to anyone now, but keep going.” Although FLF’s a small charity, our influence is way beyond our size. We’ve never shouted about it, but we demonstrate in a language that policy-makers understand, to change their thinking about what’s needed on the national scale. We show that it’s the love of God that opens the door.

Our wraparound “hub-style” model is what’s really needed.
We’re being commissioned to work in other areas of London. I show business leaders from Canary Wharf, the City, and beyond how to tackle poverty by thinking beyond the stereotypical CSR [corporate social responsibility] volunteering model. I advise government, Henry Dimbleby and the National Food Strategy panel, and the independent chair of the Bank of England’s Citizens Panel for Greater London; and I’m a commissioner for the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

My parents emigrated to the UK from Jamaica in the Windrush movement.
They were gifted evangelists and preachers, and taught us how to love people, especially the unchurched. We’re a musical family of seven. One brother is a renowned jazz guitarist, and my sister’s a renowned recording artist and worship leader.

I didn’t do well at school,
and started work for a high-street bank at 17. I worked 15-hour days in corporate banking and foreign exchange till Black Wednesday, and went on to work for Transport for London. All that helps me engage now with business leaders and corporations. It’s all been God-ordained.

When your parents are in ministry, the danger is experiencing God only through them.
My mother died of a brain haemorrhage when I was ten. She was 40, as I was when I had mine, and my own daughter was ten. I was the oldest girl; so I had to look after my siblings, go to school, and go to church. I was angry, and frightened that I would die young, too, but these experiences helped me connect with people. My hurt and anger continued for years, but my healing began when I recommitted my life to God in 2003.

I hope we
emerge from Covid a more compassionate society; that there are brave leaders in the local Church making a stand, doing good things.

I pray for the healing of others
— and thank God for his mercy and grace over my and my family’s lives.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with my mother
— because I don’t remember her. I’d love to hear about how she saw the world, what inspired her faith, what gave her hope, what she saw in me as a child.

Denise Bentley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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