30 years ago, in November 1989 the Berlin Wall was brought down and for the first time in a generation people could travel freely between East and West Germany. Families were reunited.
In the August of that year Stuart and I, together with our two younger children, Matt aged eight and Rosalind aged six, visited the Taizé Community in Bergundy, France for one of its week-long meetings that take place all the year round. It was our first visit. During the summer months there are special weeks for families. We discovered that this meant, as well as the three times of prayer each day when the whole community came together in the Church of Reconciliation (Taizé Brothers, Sisters from the community of St Andrew, old and young visitors) our children met with others in age-related groups whilst us parents met together in small discussion groups. Most of the children could only speak their own language but, being children, this was no barrier and play and friendship-forming happened very naturally.
In our small discussion group there were parents from Ireland, Holland, Italy and Russia. Thankfully we talked in English. – a sort of Taizé English where, over many years, it was found that just saying a small piece and allowing others to understand what had been said, before moving on, meant that discussion felt very reflective, spiritual almost.
The couple from Russia told us how they had come to be in Taizé. They were Christians but could not openly practice their faith. They had heard from others about the Taizé Community – a community of Brothers: protestants, catholics and anglicans, pledged to dedicate their lives to reconciliation between the Christian denominations, between the world faiths and to work for peace. The Russian couple had learnt all this from friends in West Germany they had never met but corresponded with. They made a plan to visit Taizé. This was a long time in the making. First, they had to live at separate addresses in Moscow. The Mother lived with their five year old son in one district under her own name and the Father lived in another. They did not openly meet. Families were not allowed to travel out of Russia in case they did not return. On different dates each parent separately applied for a travel visa. They prayed for their visas to be granted and saved their money. The visas were granted.
When the family arrived in Taizé they had no money. The Russian rouble was worthless outside of Russia. During their stay the Brothers asked if we could all contribute a little to a fund so that the family could travel home via West Germany to visit the friends who had helped them but they had never met. We were so glad we could do this little thing for them.
One day during our small group discussion the Brothers invited us to share our prayer lives. When and how did we pray? For most of us it was the same story, particularly the Mothers. We were so busy that our time for personal prayer was very squeezed. Some expressed their resentment at that. We had so much to do with caring for our family and the house, getting meals ready, doing the washing. Some also had paid jobs. If only there was more time!
It was the turn of the Moscow Mum. She said, in her broken English, that she did all these things and had a full time job, but had plenty of time for prayer. She had a daily routine for prayer. Each evening, after work, with her son, she queued at the bakers for bread. The queue was always long as the bread was rationed. There were also queues at the grocers, the butchers and everywhere. There was very little food on the shop shelves. No-one talked in the queues because you could not be sure who might be listening, listening for something you might say that would get you into trouble with the authorities. So the queues were silent and the Mum from Moscow prayed. It was peaceful she said.
We were all silent at the end of her story. I think we all felt ashamed of our Western arrogance. I tried to imagine her prayer time. To me, it felt full of fear, not peace. None of us knew then that things were about to change. When, three months later, the Berlin Wall came down, the Russian family would just be returning to Moscow from their stay in West Germany. I imagined the new world they were returning to. The thawing of East-West relations, the eventual free movement of peoples, plentiful food. I did pray their lives would be better.
Now, in this country, people queue at Food Banks. They may not be fearful but I have spoken to many Mums who say what they feel is shame. Ashamed that they simply cannot pay their rent, pay their utilities, clothe their children and put food on the table every day. Going to a Food Bank is not a choice, it is a necessity.
Charities we support working in Africa are very focussed upon the sort of giving and support that enables people to have a livelihood. Send a Cow is one such example: https://www.sendacow.org Send a Cow believes in equipping people:
“Families get back the skills and confidence they need to get the most from their land.
Families can grow enough food, earn a living and go after their dreams”
Maybe it is time as a society we woke up to the reality of Food Banks. It is December. People are stocking up on food for a Christmas Feast. It is at Christmas that the gap between those who can afford a family Christmas and those who can’t is at its starkest. In my former parishes in Derby our Churches Together group gathered from every church special Christmas food and gift bags for our 49 Food Bank families as well as the usual bags. It was the least we could do, or was it?
It is election month. Can we ask this question of the candidates: “In this day and age in our country are Food Banks a necessary evil?” People are driven to Food Banks because their income cannot cover the necessities of life. If we can support African charities like Send a Cow, focussed upon giving people the skills they need to build a livelihood, instead of giving them handouts, why are we content to see people queuing at Food Banks in this country, collecting their handouts?
A government of this country should be focussed upon ensuring that no family is living this breadline existence. Zero hours contracts, part time low income working and increasing rents and living costs mean that, try as they can, families who have to resort to Food Banks will simply never catch up. We are not the Moscow of thirty years ago where queuing for food was part of daily life. Food Banks are not a necessary evil because they should, in our free, Western, democratic and affluent society, simply not be necessary at all.