Community stories: Simon Loveitt
Continuing a series hearing from Church-Related Community Workers, Simon Loveitt tells the story of food justice and financial inclusion in Sheffield
When I left school, I knew I wanted to work with people, so I trained as a chef and a waiter and worked with the Metropole Hotel’s Terrace Restaurant from 1983 to 1984. That couple of years was the hardest slog of my life, but what really challenged me was the way businesspeople would come and splash the cash to impress – £500 on a bottle of wine – but wouldn’t necessarily eat the food or even drink the wine.
I left the catering industry and volunteered with a community project at the church where my dad was the minister. There were lunch clubs and a large Pilots group and I was excited to be making a difference to the community.
When I heard about this strange ministry called Church-Related Community Work (CRCW), it was still in its early stages. I really felt that God was calling me and was accepted for training. I’m now in my fifth post, after ten years in Moss Side & Hulme, Manchester, five years in inner city Middlesborough, and five years each in two churches in Bradford. Now I’ve been in Sheffield for seven years.
CRCW is fundamentally about trying to make a difference to the local community by working in partnership – being a catalyst. It can be frustrating and very slow work, but you can make a difference. When I go to churches to talk about how they should engage in their communities, I ask: if your church wasn’t there, who would notice? Who would care? Those are fundamental questions.
It takes time to find out what the needs of a community are. You start with a community audit, finding out what’s around, who the key players are, what the issues are. Some of those questions are fairly straightforward and you can get answers from the Office of National Statistics, but others are a lot more nuanced. Once you’ve got that, the question is how the church can make a difference. There’s no point in trying to duplicate things that are already happening, so you might not initiate new work, but join and strengthen existing work instead. Or you may find gaps that people within the congregation have the skills to fill.
Where I am now, the Manor Church and Community Project in Sheffield, is an ecumenical project of Methodist, Anglican and United Reformed Church. One of the three churches within the Manor became a building without a congregation, and the diocese was quite keen on selling it. But they consulted the community, who felt very strongly about it. It had a community hall but it was in very poor condition, so part of my work over the past few years has been, with others, to bring in substantial funds to upgrade the building and to create something new. Now it is a multi-use community centre, which the church is still very much a part of. Seven funders have given a total of about £400,000. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet managed to use the building to the full because of Covid, but we’ve got an after-school kids’ club there. It’s a fantastic building that that the community and church can be very proud of.
A common theme throughout my 32 years of CRCW has been credit unions. I’ve had a variety of roles there: treasurer, secretary, chair. It’s very valuable, offering financial inclusion and giving people an alternative to loan sharks who prey on the vulnerable. The work has had implications during the pandemic, because loan sharks have been very active on estates. They are becoming tech savvy as well, so it’s not just the knock on the door, they work through apps and WhatsApp groups. Credit unions play a vital role in allowing people to save regularly, and also offer loans at an affordable rate, rather than the rip-off rates charged by doorstep lenders.
I’m treasurer of the S2 food poverty network (pictured), which does some of the work of a food bank, but it’s also about campaigning. If someone is referred, they get four weeks’ worth of food, but we have also set up a food club where people pay £2.50 a week, and they get £20-30 worth of food. We work with the Citizens Advice Bureau trying to tackle the underlining issues, which for 80% of users is debt.
The third phase of the work, which we have been struggling with, is the long-term solution: affordable foods through a community shop. Hopefully it will come to Sheffield in the next few months, and that will give local communities long-term sustainability. We’ve managed to distribute about £140,000 so far to the 15 food banks in Sheffield. And we are still campaigning. It’s fundamentally not right that food banks are needed, but, unfortunately, they are here to stay for a while.
Simon Loveitt is a Church-Related Community Worker at the Manor Church and Community Project, Sheffield. He was talking to Stephen Tomkins
This article was published in the June 2021 edition of Reform