01 April 2020, The Tablet

Catholics rise to challenge of 'faith in action'

Catholics rise to challenge of 'faith in action'

Street art in Stokes Croft, Bristol, as the UK enters the second week of lockdown
Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images

Catholics need to keep the poor, vulnerable and isolated at the “forefront of our minds” during the coronavirus crisis, according the chair of the Caritas Social Action Network for England and Wales.

Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesbrough has encouraged support for Caritas and all charities which are facing increased costs, fewer volunteers and a potential loss of income at this time. He has thanked the organisations within the Caritas network: "Their dedication all year round is an example to Catholics of how we can put our faith into action and live as missionary disciples."

A letter went out from Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton to all Clifton parishes last Monday supporting initiatives reaching out to the vulnerable. Fr Richard McKay of St Nicholas of Tolentino parish in Bristol felt very affirmed since his parish operates a food bank, taking food parcels to the needy, and runs a support centre for asylum-seekers.

Caritas Salford is continuing all front-line services to homeless, destitute and elderly people and refugees, such as providing food parcels. Staff and volunteers are coming forward to be redeployed to services that are understaffed due to the self-isolation policy. Homeless people have been moved into single room accommodation.

The Refugee Education project serves 80 learners on Zoom every evening. “Caritas Salford is coping but each day brings new challenges to deliver our services to the most vulnerable,” director Mark Wiggan told The Tablet. He was concerned that at a time when virtual communications is widespread, many vulnerable people are not on-line. He was grateful for “a brilliant response from funders and many offering emergency funds”.

Caritas Westminster has publicised a list of remote volunteering opportunities, providing contact details for local volunteer centres coordinating activity at a borough level. Guidance on volunteering safely is provided. Support for London’s estimated 2,000 foodbanks in London is encouraged, plus a plea for soap.

Heather Buckingham, head of church engagement at the Trussell Trust, told The Tablet: “Around 12,000 churches actively support the Trussell Trust’s food bank network by donating food, with many also providing venues, volunteers and financial support for food banks.

"Drawn from across a range of denominations, these churches, together with many volunteers and supporters of other faiths and none, are continuing to provide valuable support, helping to keep food banks open at a time when, sadly, many more people are becoming in need of emergency food provision through lack of income.

"We could not continue the work we do without this incredible commitment of time, energy and resources on the part of churches across the UK.”

The Mercy Hub at St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle is still offering sandwiches and hot drinks from its gate thanks to the dedication of volunteers. The coordinator Jeremy Cain told The Tablet on Monday: “Two of them had to pull out since last week due to health concerns but I got a great response to an appeal I put out and we plan to be opening again this morning.”  He felt, “it’s an example of the effectiveness of our networks and a willingness to work together, as my appeal was picked up both by our Justice and Peace Network and Church Action on Poverty North East.”

The Catholic Children’s Society has been supporting growing numbers of families facing desperate situations as a result of the coronavirus. “Through our close links with schools, we’ve been able to identify the most disadvantaged families who are now at breaking point due to redundancies and loss of work,” deputy CEO Greg Brister told The Tablet this week.

“With food banks running low, many of these families are struggling to feed their children.” The Society has used its Crisis Fund to provide emergency grants to more than 1,200 of the most vulnerable families, and more than 2,000 children, to help with food and basic subsistence costs.

"It is also reconfiguring its school counselling service, delivered to more than 80 schools and supporting thousands of children each year who are struggling with complex mental health difficulties. Staff are now working remotely and are looking to provide weekly check-in sessions via telephone or video call. Along with providing consultations for school staff and parents, we hope to reduce children’s anxieties and help enhance their wellbeing and resilience at this very challenging time."

The Jesuit Refugee Service UK (JRS UK) has had to join many other refugee organisations in suspending its weekly drop-in Day Centre, refugee activities and detention visiting service. However, services have been adapted to provide increased phone support. A new Emergency Response system made 27 deliveries last week of essential food and toiletry packs to destitute refugees, and volunteers are being sought to assist with distribution.

Providing mobile phone top up cards allows refugees to arrange vital legal and healthcare appointments, access the internet and remain in contact with family and friends. JRS joined with other organisations such as the Migrants’ Rights Network to write to Government and local authorities advocating for the protection of people experiencing homelessness due to migration status during Covid-19. 

“The coronavirus is of particular concern for the refugees we support at JRS UK; many are in poor general health and almost all are in precarious housing situations and will likely become even more isolated as they struggle to survive without the financial and practical help we normally provide” Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK, told The Tablet. 

“Physical presence and accompaniment form such a big part of our work and are the clearest expression of mission” she added “and we call on our supporters to join us in expressing our solidarity and support by donating to our Refugee Friends’ Hardship Fund or volunteering with us as part of our Emergency Response Team”

Church Action on Poverty has set up a weekly zoom gathering, starting on 2 April: What does it mean to be a Church on the Margins in a time of coronavirus? 

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