Scripture has much to say about poverty, disadvantage and exclusion. It offers a source of inspiration and insight for all Christians who are concerned with social justice. Some phrases are challenging as in “You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to …”, whilst others are reassuring. In the good news of deliverance, Isaiah declares “the spirit of the Lord God is upon me … He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed”. But it is Matthew who puts all this into context for us today (as indeed throughout the ages): “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to eat, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. This passage underpins our duty to care for those in need as we attempt to live out the Gospel and put our faith into practice in our everyday lives. We can see Christ himself in these very people, as Matthew explains our Lord’s response: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Jesus was typically clear in the great New Testament commandment to “love our neighbour as ourselves”.
Leeds is a thriving, high-tech, exciting and prosperous city … yet many people are excluded from its success. A former Council leader observed that in certain parts of our great city, conspicuous wealth confronts abject poverty – so it is also a city of contrasts, even extremes. In the mid-1980’s ‘Faith in the City’ was a response by the church to the widening gap between affluent suburbs and increasingly deprived urban priority areas across the country. The more recent follow-up report ‘Faithful Cities’ recognised many creative and positive responses, yet following the financial crisis, many of the issues and needs remain as great as ever. Whilst the phrase “we’re all in it together” may have been used, even high-jacked and discredited by politicians, for committed people of all faiths or none across our city, this concept drives their social concern for all God’s people.
Many of us claim to know our city well, particularly the centre. We go there daily to work or study, perhaps weekly for shopping, entertainment or to meet friends. But all these activities bring a sense of purpose and we are in the city for a reason, possibly preoccupied, even oblivious of what is going on around us. We probably have the resources which enable us to make choices of where to go or what to do, and the sense of identity which goes with being there.
Joining a ‘Retreat on the Streets’ for a few hours will bring a different perspective, as we leave all the usual possessions behind. Without any resources or choices, our only purpose will be to immerse ourselves in the life of the city – its people, places, atmosphere and happenings. It is not playing at being poor, but an opportunity to glimpse the reality of simply being in the city as experienced by some people every day. It will enable us to seek God in our city, perhaps in the most unexpected places, situations or encounters – and we may never see Leeds in the same way again !