Dr John Sentamu: The best gift a needy child can have is to be taken seriously

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IN a recent Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans breakfast show, I spoke of a poster I had seen in Egypt: the haunting image of a child, with the caption: “My name is Today: today I need to eat, today I need to play, today I need care, today I need love, give me hope today for a brighter tomorrow.”

As we make our frantic last-minute preparations for Christmas, with families beginning to gather, our real challenge in relation to our children is not really about the presents that need to be wrapped. The challenge we all face is to make sure each child can have hope for today and a bright future.

Let our main concern be the wellbeing and flourishing of all children. As the African proverb says: “It takes the whole village to raise and nurture a child.”

The birth of Jesus in the back yard of an inn and far from his parents’ home, and his family’s escape to Egypt soon after as refugees, sets the scene for what Jesus does in later life. He stands alongside people in all their struggles and offers faith, love and hope.

The Christmas story is not an escapist dream; his birth had the seeds of both injustice and a violent death. Jesus of Nazareth takes on the suffering and shame of all humanity. And in the end nothing can block the power of God’s love. The love which brought Jesus to be born in Bethlehem brings him through death to new life and to glory. He is a light that no darkness can ever put out and in Him we find “hope today for a brighter tomorrow”.

Our focus on children at Christmas is not about sentimentality. It’s only right that we recognise our shared responsibility for vulnerable children. For the problems children face, whether in poverty or conflict, cannot be addressed separately from their families and communities.

Statistics from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that 300,000 more children in the UK are now living below the poverty line since last year, and the rise of poverty in families with one or more parent in low paid work continues. In fact, two out of three children living in poverty have at least one adult in their household who is employed.

Real Life Reform is a study looking at the effect of welfare cuts on social housing tenants in the North of England. The latest report shows that 61 per cent of parents are worried about the detrimental impact on their children’s education. I am not surprised. Parents are right to be protective, and to seek something better for their children. And yet the odds are stacked against them.

Many spoke of being unable to afford basic items and their families having to go without. One mother said: “They aren’t starving but my daughter needs a new school jumper, a winter coat and shoes. I can’t afford to buy a final year school photo and I feel devastated... and can’t afford school trips and outings.”

Imagine being the child in the class who misses out on these things – it casts a dark shadow on that child’s self-esteem.

Despite the problems, many of those interviewed as part of the study, were resilient in the face of financial hardship, getting together to find ways of coping. One group of mums shared the cost of a Sunday roast so their children would be able to eat some good food. Others spoke of the generosity of neighbours who cooked them meals and left bags of shopping at the front door. It is admirable that many who themselves are struggling still choose to help others through acts of kindness. However, this will not fix the problems they face.

The communities where children grow up have a vital role to play in shaping and influencing young lives. Yet, when families face financial difficulty, the whole community is affected. One person said: “If people are struggling like we are then, yes, I see more crime. There have been five robberies in this area in the last week.”

Another person commented: “The more that people get into debt the less they spend on their homes. I reckon it could become a rundown area.”

What can be done to prevent this downward spiral? The Church Urban Fund, from its experience of working as a Church of England charity in Urban Priority Areas, recently published a paper highlighting two different ways of tackling poverty. The first is “needs-based”: essentially a philanthropic approach, providing help from outside the community for those who are in need. The second is “asset-based” and looks at the skills and abilities already within each community.

It is founded on the belief that everyone has something to give to those around them and empowers them to make a difference. Based on relationships, it builds strong communities from the inside out and brings them together to become part of the solution.

In an individualistic society where many feel isolated, creating interdependence within communities and strengthening relationships between people is invaluable. Of course this must be coupled with the creation of jobs, investment and opportunities, but these will not work unless the potential already there is recognised, and encouraged.

People living in poverty know what needs to be done to lift them out of it. We need to find a way of working with them and not for them. This participative way of working gives dignity and real affirmation.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a child who was to change the world. Let us also celebrate the innate potential of every child.

For it is unjust that some children are growing up with hope and aspirations curtailed by the economic and financial problems their families and communities face.

The best gift children and families in need could receive this Christmas would be to feel listened to by those in power, and taken seriously. Their hopes and aspirations matter, and they deserve to be heard.

“Obutu Bulamu”, in my mother tongue, Luganda, describes the way we belong to one another and show this belonging by gracious magnanimity – meeting each half-way. It is living life to the full and extending kindness to the other.

On the very first Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph, like too many families today, were walking the streets with nowhere safe or comfortable to go. Faced with the impending arrival of their first child, they needed someone to extend a welcome. They were turned away – until one innkeeper made them welcome.

This Christmas, there are families around us who need the same spirit of generosity or “Obutu Bulamu” extended towards them. I thank God that in many parts of Yorkshire at least gracious magnanimity is alive and well, and people are opening their doors to neighbours and others in need. By playing our part, we build a stronger society and a brighter future for the next generation.

So on this Christmas Eve, let us stop and think how we may respond to the One who was born amongst us, of whom it is sung, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”. In Him there is indeed forgiveness for all past wrongs, new life for the present and hope for the future.

• Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.