Homelessness, debt and human trafficking that have become even bigger issues since the onset of the economic crisis. How are churches and mission agencies responding?
The figures make depressing reading. In 2010, around 23% of the EU-27 population – nearly 116 million people – were at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This means they met at least one of the following criteria: they were below the poverty threshold, experiencing severe material deprivation or living in a household with very low work intensity. But while less than 15% of those living in the Czech Republic, Sweden and the Netherlands were at risk, over 40% of Bulgarians and Romanians and more than 30% of Latvians, Lithuanians and Hungarians struggled with these issues.
Responding to need – working with volunteers
Serve the City was founded in Brussels in 2005, and “inspired by the life and message of Jesus Christ”, the movement now spreads across Europe and beyond, with the most recent launch being Athens, Greece. As an organisation, they connect volunteers with the local charities or associations working with people in need. Carlton Deal is Serve the City’s founder.
“Today we see more homelessness, more refugees, more people with no certain future,” says Carlton. “They have lost their families or their jobs or they are still pouring in from even more difficult circumstances elsewhere.”
“Single men in particular receive very little support. Last year Afghan refugees told us stories of approaching the police and identifying themselves as illegal aliens, asking to be arrested just to have a meal and a place to sleep indoors. The police ignored them.”
Anyone can volunteer with Serve the City – and Carlton considers helping volunteers who are not yet Christians to recognise Christ’s love in action to be part of the organisation’s missional response.
“We see a decreasing satisfaction in delegated compassion and an increasing desire for personal involvement,” says Carlton. “We believe these are Kingdom values, giving volunteers a new access point to the message of Jesus. People are increasingly motivated to acquire and spend the currency of the kingdom, whether or not they yet recognize Jesus as its King – in fact, I’m not sure we see as much growth in generosity from Christians as we do from those who are not yet followers of Jesus.”
Responding to debt – local churches get involved
One of the indicators of severe material deprivation mentioned above is “the inability to face unexpected financial expenses”, with 36% of the EU-27 population in this category. More than 85% of the Swedish population are able to cope with sudden strain on their finances. Over 75% of people in Austria, Luxembourg, Denmark and the Netherlands are similarly prepared. At the other end of the scale, only 20-40% of people in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia could withstand this kind of financial pressure.
There is a clear East-West divide to these statistics. Interestingly, figures for the ratio between household debt and income also display a divide across East/Western lines, but in the opposite direction. While in 2009, it would have taken two years of disposable income for the average household in Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark to pay off their debts, in Central and Eastern European countries levels of household debt are such that it would take less than a year. Given that these countries also have a smaller average disposable income, personal debt appears to be a much bigger problem in the more affluent West.
Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a UK-based organisation offering local churches a practical way to help people around them in debt. In contrast to Serve the City, each CAP centre is set-up and resourced in direct partnership with a specific church in an area, so it becomes a ministry of that church. CAP centres offer a free debt counselling service helping clients to work out a realistic budget and negotiating affordable payments to creditors, as well as support if people go bankrupt. Clients have a professional case worker in the main CAP office but they are also befriended by trained volunteers from the local church.
Since beginning in 1996, the charity has grown rapidly and its vision is to see a local church-based centre in every UK town and city. Their free CAP Money money management course teaches people “the skills to get more in control of their finances, so they can save, give and prevent debt” and is on offer in Norway as well as the UK.
Responding to trafficking – joined up thinking
“The global financial crisis is having a marked impact on human trafficking… its effects are felt within the EU” (OSCE, 2009). Potential employment in another country is a major pull factor for migrants from areas of high unemployment. In desperation, they are tricked by traffickers who promise them a job – only to end up in prostitution or slavery of some sort when they eventually arrive.
There are many grass roots projects organised by churches and mission agencies across Europe reaching out the victims of trafficking, as well as advocacy movements such as Stop the Traffik.
At a pan-European level, the EEA’s European Freedom Network (EFN) connects ‘active and emerging ministries and other stakeholders across Europe…providing the encouragement, advice, resources and prayer that they need for effective action and cooperation’. A host of resources for prayer and information are available on the EFN website, and they produce a partners’ newsletter with more resources and contacts.
Responding as ourselves
This article highlights just three of the hundreds of ways Christians across Europe are responding to the financial crisis. But the Christian community is also feeling its impact. A 2009 survey amongst over 2800 UK Christians found that almost a quarter struggled with debt or financial issues, and more than half of those in employment “faced high levels of time pressures and fatigue”.
57% of people answering the questionnaire saw themselves as ‘an apprentice of Christ’ and a similar number were ‘’praying about how God could use them to make a difference’ – but 63% felt the church equipped them at best ‘only a little’ to face the pressures in the workplace.
In response to these needs, the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity’s Engaging with Work project seeks to resource Christians to ‘honour God in their work and bring Him into their workplace’. Their Imagine project goes further, aiming to help churches change their focus from ‘what happens on a Sunday’ to equipping people to live as disciples the other six days of the week.
And so, when considering mission in a time of crisis and our role as individuals and churches, our challenge is to respond in distinctive, counter-cultural ways, drawing our strength from God and his amazing love for the world.
OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) http://www.osce.org/what/trafficking
Serve the City Intl. http://www.servethecity.net
Christians Against Poverty UK http://www.capuk.org and Norway http://www.capmoney.org/nb_NO/home
Stop the Traffik http://www.stopthetraffik.org
European Freedom Network http://www.europeanfreedomnetwork.org
London Institute of Contemporary Christianity http://www.licc.org.uk – download the survey of UK Christians from http://www.licc.org.uk/about-licc/resources/licc-resources/?parent_categoryID=39