Who says they are Voiceless - by Andrew Grinnell
At the end of June, the Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge held it's Closing Event at Leeds Civic Hall. Over the past two years the project has brought together testifiers who have expereinced poverty first hand with civic and buisness leaders who's decisions can effect those facing poverty. In a recent blog one of the facilitators of Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge, Andrew Grinnell, relfects on the expereince and some of the theological underpinnings for helping to make it happen...
For the past two years I've been helping to develop the poverty truth commission in Leeds. In a nutshell we invited 13 people who experience poverty to build relationships with invited business and civic leaders within the city over an 18 month period. My bottom line before we started the journey was that this would be a positive experience for the testifiers. Even if things didn't work out in the way we'd hoped, what must be avoided was to inflict any further damage on those who'd experienced much already. So, our first move was to build relationships between the testifiers. We decided to spend time enabling them to tell their stories to each other in order to build greater awareness of what they had to say, deeper analysis of what poverty might mean in Leeds and solidarity with one another.
I remember the second session well. One of the participants was a refugee from Ethiopia. He told his story not only of why he had to leave his homeland, but the barriers he had faced in setting up life for himself and his family in England. As he talked through the dead-ends and hurdles he'd faced I look around the room. Although everyone else's situation was different from his, there were nodding heads and watering eyes as people recognised their own feelings of desperation and things they'd experienced that had got in their way. As the weeks went on and others told their stories, the empathy levels continued to increase. Confidence was built and understanding deepened as the group realised that they had something important to say. Then, on 6th February 2014, in the Banqueting Suite of Leeds Civic Hall our testifiers witnessed to their experiences of poverty in front of 250 people including the 15 business and civic leaders who had agreed to go on the journey with them.
Theologically I have been schooled in the notion that part of the church's responsibility is to be a voice for the voiceless. Proverbs 31:8 says 'Speak out on behalf of the voiceless and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.' From this we might assume that where we see injustice it is our responsibility to speak out on behalf of the victim. We, who we believe have power and voice, should use it to make things right for the weaker person. Whilst in some ways that analysis isn't wrong, what we may miss is the subtle prejudice of our thinking. More specifically, is a consequence of our willingness to be the voice the continued voicelessness of those who experience injustice. Or, to put it another way, do we make assumptions that some people are voiceless when they may be able to articulate issues with greater clarity than we are able?
What I am not saying is that there are no voiceless people. I'm always challenged by movements like L'Arche as they learn to live alongside those for whom verbal forms of communication are limited. As Jean Vanier often states, by living alongside we learn how to verbalise the joys, hopes and pain of our brothers and sisters. Furthermore, there are times when we should raise our voices to government for the lives of those in other countries who need to be considered before we either start or continue foreign policies that are harmful. The voiceless do exist. However, what I am saying is that sometimes we need to suspend our judgment in order to test whether people are indeed voiceless. Rather than rushing in with our own campaigns and theories we should take time to listen, to support and to strengthen. Our responsibility is to create a space that can be held open long enough for the voice of experience to emerge. And then, to let that voice sing a new kind of poetry that reaches right to the heart of the issue and articulates new imaginative possibilities. And, as this happens, we are also changed. We start to realise how limited our own understandings of the situations of others are. We become aware of our own presumptions and our own prejudices are challenged. We begin to discover life in new ways, breathing in a different air that is fresher and richer than the toxins we'd previously inhaled. This is time consuming work, yet surely the outcome is much greater as we are all changed.
Let's not stop being a voice for the voiceless. But before we are, lets question why people seem to be voiceless in the first place. I wonder if sometimes we might discover that they are not speaking because we are!
This blog article was first published on Andrews blog at https://andrewgrinnell.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/who-says-they-are-voiceless/