Two important things happened yesterday in Manchester which offer a contrast that maybe worth reflecting on. The Prime Minister gave his speech about his vision of ‘ a land of opportunity for all’, whilst just down the road (to be precise Oxford Rd) we are opening the first student-run foodbank in the country (link to BBC website). All around Manchester you can see the Conservative Party banners – with their conference slogan proclaiming ‘For Hard Working People‘. The implication is that we are not the party of scroungers, lazy welfare dependent – ‘feckless’ poor. The embarrassing truth is that according to foodbank usage statistics (collated by the excellent Trussell Trust), the crisis food provision is increasingly being used by the ‘working poor‘. The sad fact is that many hard working people seem to be getting poorer, especially those not protected by proper contracts.
The Conservative Party seem to have a schizophrenic relationship with Foodbanks, on one hand they are held up as being a great example of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ on the other hand there is considerable embarrassment about the incredible growth of the foodbank network. This is embarrassing for the government as it makes visible what was hidden before, food poverty. Food Poverty is something that teachers have noticed as alarming levels of students arrive at school with empty stomachs, here in Central Manchester we have the highest indices of child poverty in the country. It was sad to see a meeting between MP’s and foodbank managers was cancelled this week here in Manchester for lack of interest by the Conservative MP’s. We also had the same problem attracting Catholic Mp’s to speak to the students – none were interested in coming. Last year at the Labour conference a few Mp’s came – including the impressive Jim Murphy, who still came and talked to the students even though he had lost his voice.
Even if the government wasn’t interested – the media were – this report went out nationwide on ITV yesterday
Exciting news from Manchester is that L’arche are opening a new community in Manchester. The leader of the group, Kevin Coogan, came and gave a fascinating and engaging talk about his experience with L’arche and his passion for living with adults with learning disabilities. He explained how L’arche, set up by the Canadian Catholic Jean Vanier, had pioneered the model of ‘care in the community’ in the 50’s and 60’s when those with serious mental or physical disability had been confined to large institutions and kept out of sight and mind.
He was so honest and open about the challenges of living with people who had often been abandoned at birth, confined to institutions which may have provided a safe but often not a caring environment. So the psychological damage of this experience created another level of difficulties. The power of L’arche is that these people become friends. And it was fascinating to me to hear how an emotional co-dependence can actually be healing rather than destructive or limiting. The Community is being part funded by the local authority as they are providing a quality of care for vulnerable adults that is unlikely to be matched. But that relationship has a very interesting tension – for instance where do you draw the lines between a true life-giving healing relationship and safe professional distance.
Kevin Coogan and his brother Steve raising money for L’arche
A fascinating example Kevin gave was his experience of going on holiday with his wife and kids and bringing two community members with them. From a faith perspective this is a wonderful and inclusive act of generosity, an unforgettable experience that is priceless. As a priest I am often grateful for the hospitality of being received into families whether for dinner or a brief break. However from the cold hard gaze of the local authority – often the funding agency – it would be tempting to be cynical and say, this is a sneaky way of subsidising a family holiday. Of course this is open to abuse, but when you see the compassion and the generosity with which they are received into the family environment you have to applaud the vision behind this, and bemoan the short-sightedness of the limited vision that comes from a cynical administrative approach. It was a meeting that has left me much to ponder!
When I was at school – one of the most inspiring teachers was a sports teacher Jimmy Highton who at the age of 70 lead us on a training run. He had been a teacher at the school for 50 years, had a great attitude and in his mind was younger than many of the others! Any way I stumbled upon some great news from Australia this week which I share below.
St Aloysius’ College‘s Father Geoffrey Schneider, who turns 100 on December 23, is the world’s oldest serving teacher. The Australian representative for Guinness World Records Chris Sheedy ,who is a former Aloysius’ student (1980-88), presented the world record certificate at the school in Kirribilli tonight. Father Schneider featured on the front page of the Mosman Daily as Australia’s oldest teacher but this world record will give him global fame. Eight hundred members of the school community including parents, past parents and students gathered at the college for a Celebration of a Century to honour Father Schneider’s life. He grew up in Melbourne and came to live at the college in 1965. The children have nicknamed him Father Schnitzel and both a classroom and trophy are named in his honour. He takes 15-minute religious instruction classes at the college and is chaplain of the junior school. The Jesuit priest has no intention of retiring from his teaching career. “I’ve been gifted with strengths,” Father Schneider said.Of the fuss being made, Father Schneider said he “lets it all flow by” while he awaits his telegram from the queen for turning 100.