faith in action

Making Poverty a Priority

Nearly 15 years ago, the Church of Scotland launched Priority Areas as as a branch of its Ministries Council in an effort to renew its commitment to impoverished communities. Through its revamped strategy and formation of multiple partnerships, the church has provided an example to faith communities on how to approach the fight against poverty.

In 2005, the Church of Scotland developed Priority Areas to intentionally address poverty in its communities. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland recognized while the church spoke of its commitment to those struggling against poverty, its members’ actions were not fully representative of its beliefs.

Oversight of Priority Areas sits with the Ministries Council of the Church of Scotland. Rev. Dr. Martin Johnstone, now the secretary of the General Assembly’s Church and Society Council, led the Ministries Council for 15 years. With his help, the Church of Scotland began taking steps to realign its actions with its words.

Even amidst a decline in the church, which forced an overall reduction of staff and finances, the Church of Scotland began focusing intently on its 56 poorest communities. The church:

  • Doubled staff in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Radically redirected funds across the church to instead invest in buildings and projects in severely underserved communities.
  • Created teams to assist and support communities as partners for change.
  • Studied scripture through the lens of poverty and with directly impacted persons as teachers, rather than academic theologians.

To guide this work, members of the church worked within three spheres of activity. They began to think about new models of church, which encouraged learning from the perspective of those who experience poverty. Through new models of community, members began to ask themselves what they could do to make their neighborhoods look more like heaven. They also considered new models of society, which recognized poverty is not inevitable, and observed the injustices in their communities.

When only one of these spheres of activity is held as the only important piece, we lose the truth of the Gospel.

Rev. Dr. Martin Johnstone

Part of Priority Areas’ strategy has been developing partnerships, and Together for a Change is an example of these partnerships in action. An exchange program in practice, Together for a Change builds relationships between congregations in Scotland and partner churches in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and the Middle East. According to Johnstone, part of the goal is to, “make experiences more available to those on the sharp end of things,” while also exploring the root causes of poverty in a different culture.

Faith in Community Scotland was also born out of Priority Areas. This ecumenical and interfaith nonprofit organization works alongside diverse faith communities as they assist those struggling against poverty. The Poverty Truth Commission lies at the heart of this work.

PTC brings people experiencing poverty and influential decision-makers from across the country together. Politicians, public servants and business leaders all have an opportunity to learn from those impacted by unjust systems and structures that create and perpetuate poverty. PTC aims to build relationships across socio-economic lines. By bringing together experts with lived experience and key decision-makers, power is harnessed to bring change to the most impoverished communities of Scotland.

The Church of Scotland’s dedication to working with communities experiencing poverty is an example for anyone concerned about the impact of unjust economic systems. Priority Areas emphasizes the vital role of lived experts, and the importance of relationships for pursuing change.