Writing the 2014 Christmas Appeal by Sam Wells
When I’m writing the script for the Appeal, I have two things in mind to say to the listeners. 1) Homelessness is a complex issue, and people in the midst of it have a host of things going on in their lives, and it’s seldom something a simple intervention or insertion of money can just ‘fix’; and yet 2) this is about as worthwhile a cause as any you could give money to, and your money will be well spent.
The conventional approach to addressing social issues is to evoke either anger or compassion. When you’re asking for change you tend to go for anger and when you’re asking for money you tend to steer towards compassion. Then it’s quite common to cite a couple of case histories of people for whom the money has made a massive and life-changing difference.
I chose not to take the path this year because in 23 years of ministry what I’ve learned is that the two great burdens of people’s lives are powerlessness and isolation. Powerlessness is an issue for the giver and not just for the vulnerable: one thing that holds the giver back is scepticism about whether their gift will really do any good. ‘What can I really do?’ is an understandable and widespread question. Meanwhile isolation is, in my experience, the real issue when it comes to poverty. What makes people poor is not just that they lack money, but that they lack a network of reliable and upbuilding relationships both personal and professional which they can fall back on when things go wrong.
So this year’s appeal is about addressing powerlessness and isolation. It starts with a positive experience of what it means to be able to say ‘You were there for me.’ It’s one of the most affirming and heartwarming things any of us can ever be told. (And to be told the opposite is utterly crushing.) But the reason it matters is because it is saying ‘This relationship has overcome my isolation, and this relationship was what I needed when I faced the horror of my own powerlessness.’
That’s the key to how people extricate themselves from poverty. It’s not something you can do for someone, through an infusion of money or advice or gadgets. All you can do is be there with them as they find strategies for survival and build confidence and experience to find methods to make their way towards a fuller life.
Of course not everyone can be with someone facing this kind of crisis. That’s why we have charities to take on this work on our behalf. The Christmas Appeal funds two charities with a longstanding record of being there with people in crisis, for believing in them, knowing them by name, holding them to account for keeping their promises and building real relationships whereby change comes about.
It’s easy to say, ‘Give us your money and we’ll change the world.’ But it’s nonsense. Instead, it’s better to say, ‘Your money can ensure that when homeless and vulnerable people fall through life’s net, there’s likely to be someone who can understand them, walk with them, and ensure they are not alone. That’s the single most important thing in people emerging from poverty. And by giving to the Appeal, you can take some of the credit for that.’