From Bradford bedroom office to being in Archbishop’s prayers - John Kirkby’s incredible 25-year journey with Christians Against Poverty

John Kirkby is stepping down from the Yorkshire charity he founded 25 years ago after helping thousands of people escape nightmare debts. Chris Burn speaks to him.
Photo issued by Christians Against Poverty (CAP) of founder John Kirkby, who is stepping back from his role 25 years after the organisation was set up. Picture: Jojo Stott/CAP/PA WirePhoto issued by Christians Against Poverty (CAP) of founder John Kirkby, who is stepping back from his role 25 years after the organisation was set up. Picture: Jojo Stott/CAP/PA Wire
Photo issued by Christians Against Poverty (CAP) of founder John Kirkby, who is stepping back from his role 25 years after the organisation was set up. Picture: Jojo Stott/CAP/PA Wire

John Kirkby began his charity Christians Against Poverty in 1996 in a bedroom in Bradford with £10 and the hope of being able to help a few local residents – as he prepares to leave the organisation 25 years later it has assisted thousands of people around the world in clearing their debts and taken him on an incredible journey that has brought him a CBE, an honorary doctorate and even being in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prayers.  

When Kirkby’s decision to step back from Christians Against Poverty (CAP) was announced last week, the tributes to him and his wife Lizzie were led by Justin Welby, who is the patron of the organisation.

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The Archbishop said: “John’s religious conviction and passion for financial justice has been the driving force for an organisation which has grown exponentially since its inception and helped thousands of people free themselves from the prison of debt. I would like to offer my prayers and warmest wishes to John as he steps down from his duties with Christians Against Poverty, which he founded 25 years ago this year. I hold both John and Lizzie in my prayers as they embark on their next calling and I remain honoured to be part of the organisation.”

John Kikrby in his home office in 1996.John Kikrby in his home office in 1996.
John Kikrby in his home office in 1996.

The debt relief charity has seen over 21,000 individuals go debt free in the past 11 years and is now established in Australia, the USA and Canada as well as the UK.

Kirkby says he was honoured by the Archbishop’s words, as well as the other kind messages of support he has received in recent days.

“He has hosted several events with me at Lambeth Palace and he is a great ambassador for CAP,” he tells The Yorkshire Post over the phone.

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“Me and my wife Lizzie started CAP just after our honeymoon. We have this thing sometimes where we look at each other and go, ‘Really?’ We will be at Number 10 and just go, ‘How did this happen?’

John has received a CBE in recognition of his charitable work.John has received a CBE in recognition of his charitable work.
John has received a CBE in recognition of his charitable work.

“I left school at 15, we are just ordinary people. Even when I got a CBE and the amazing honour of an honorary doctorate from the University of Bradford, I wanted people to understand it is down to being part of a team.

“Today has been one of those days – hundreds and hundreds of messages have come in for us. It is extremely humbling to think we could have had such an impact in so many people’s lives.”

Kirkby says he is particularly grateful to the charity’s chief executive Paula Stringer, chairman Roger Hattam and Matt and Josie Barlow for their work and support to make CAP what it is.

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He says he is not certain what will come next after he leaves the charity in June but has no intention of retiring.

“As a founder of a charity, knowing when to leave is really, really important,” he says. “I’m leaving because I’m certain I have carried the baton and am passing it on to people who can take CAP on further.

“I leave with a real sense of disbelief – we started in a bedroom office 25 years ago with the thought we might be able to help a handful of people in our neighbourhood. To see how it has spread across the world is brilliant. At the end of the day, every organisation needs new and fresh ideas and new thinking. That is just not possible for someone who has been here for 25 years.

“I’m 60 this year and 25 years is a brilliant anniversary – it just felt like ‘it is the time;’. I’m continuing to work until June and will be celebrating the 25 years and making sure I leave really well. I’m going to be taking a well-earned break over summer.

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“I’m not going to be retiring, I have a passion to help the poorest in our society. I have many friends in the Church across the UK and would be delighted to continue to help people. Our faith played a huge part in starting CAP and our faith remains so we have no anxiety for the future.”

Kirkby was inspired to set up the organisation after battling with debt problems himself, following a failed business venture and the collapse of a marriage. After his circumstances were transformed by finding Christianity, he decided to dedicate his life to helping others change theirs.

He had a difficult upbringing, with his father dying at 18 following a long battle with terminal illness and his mother also falling seriously ill. Kirkby initially became a door-to-door debt collector and worked in the finance industry, going on to get married and have two children. But his life came crashing down in his early 30s, ending up in debt and divorce. He found faith himself in 1992 and began a four-year journey to turn his life and his finances around and has previously described him as “the first CAP client before it started”.

The day after coming back from honeymoon with his new wife Lizzie in 1996, Kirkby set up the debt counselling service in the hope of helping others who had been in a similar position to himself.

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The charity, which provides practical and emotional support to people in tackling debts that have ended relationships, lost homes and led to suicide attempts, is also supported by Prince Charles and MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis.

But its methods – which in addition to practical support in reducing debts also involve praying with clients and encouraging them to attend church and become religious – have not always been universally welcomed. In 2011, CAP parted company with AdviceUK, an umbrella group representing advice workers, after the latter body said the promotion of faith was incompatible with its membership criteria. AdviceUK chief executive Steve Johnson described the offer of prayer as an “emotional fee” being imposed on vulnerable people.

In 2018, the charity agreed to become the focus of a BBC documentary called The Debt Saviours as it attempted to redress the balance.

Kirkby says today he was delighted at how the programme turned out after some initial hesitation over participating in it.

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“We were really blown away by it, to be honest. Obviously there was a narrative of creating a debate but we found many of our clients speaking up positively without us saying anything. We were very pleasantly surprised. If anybody was in any doubt about who we are, it was there for all to see.”

Kirkby says the impact of the Covid pandemic on people’s finances will be with society for many years to come - along with the need for organisations like CAP.

According to recent figures from the UK Finance trade association, the third quarter of 2020 saw home owner repossessions drop by 88 per cent as such moves were largely temporarily suspended due to the crisis.

But the same period saw a substantial increase in people getting into severe arrears with their mortgage in a sign of problems ahead.

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Kirkby says: “People say this pandemic has been a leveller. It just isn’t. People who had already been struggling have just had the pressure increased. There will be so many people who have lost their jobs and with all the pent-up debts building up when this comes home to roost I’m profoundly concerned about what will be left at the end of the day.

“We are expecting a tsunami of need in the coming years.”
He says despite the accolades he has received down the years, it is seeing the personal impact the charity’s work can have on people that he has most cherished. “Just last week I was with one of our clients we met 16 years ago and we were able to play a part in her complete recovery from horrendous debt. In many ways, she is almost like a daughter. She has just had a baby, has food in the fridge, is managing her money well and is a wonderful part of our church family. The most wonderful thing is to see a life transformed. That is something very special. 
“We will see up to 12 families a day go debt free. I think of those families every day when I am having my tea and imagine them sitting down to dinner with a new start.”

Kirkby says he is leaving with few regrets.

“There is the cliche of ‘I should have done more’. I have occasionally had that. Of course I have because I want to help as many people as I can. But actually I don’t have any regrets really.

“For me it has been all about the journey, it has been a rip-roaring rollercoaster. More things have gone wrong than you could ever imagine and a few things go right.

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“Our legacy is in the people who work with CAP and have a compassion and passion to help the poorest in society and to make sure people with the least get the best.

“That is the true legacy.”

Promise to build on pioneering work

Paula Stringer, chief executive of CAP, has praised John Kirkby’s pioneering work down the years.

“There is no doubt that John’s personal commitment and sacrifice in the past 25 years have genuinely been lifesaving for countless people in the UK and beyond,” she says.

“God put something special within John. He gave him a passion for the poor and an entrepreneurial spirit.

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“The sheer grit and determination, the unseen hours, the prayer and faith in the face of situations that looked impossible. Although CAP may look different now to ten years ago, and different again ten years from now, those foundations remain the same: we are an organisation of people who are willing to walk that rocky path for the sake of those who need us.”

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