I should not be surprised by the numbers of people crossing the threshold of our church to access food parcels. Pre-Covid, the numbers were high but this year they have grown inexorably.
Various demographics and classes utilise the foodbank, but during this cost of living crisis the numbers from the middle classes have escalated. Something has had to give. Whether it's selling their four-by-four electric cars for cheaper models or flying once a year instead of twice, accessing food from a local foodbank, or even all the above, their lives have changed considerably.
For me the biggest surprise is the rise of Black and Brown people using foodbanks. This is both disquieting and alarming. The family networks which held those plunging into financial hardship, even though still present, no longer have the capacity to hold firmly those who are struggling. The networks which once had financial elasticity are now being stretched to their limit, reinforcing the maxim 'we are in this together.'
'We are in this together' was the Government's rhetoric during the pandemic. In reality, though, we were not. Whereas some countries were overrun with vaccines to treat Covid sufferers, countries in Asia and Africa are still struggling even now to access treatment.
In the UK, we are rapidly transitioning from one pandemic into another, the latter characterised by high interest rates and escalating mortgages. Recently published figures show prices rose by a record 5.1 per cent in August, due to the war in Ukraine which is increasing costs for farmers. The shop price inflation was led by a 10.5 per cent rise in fresh food prices, according to new data from the British Retail Consortium and market research firm Nielsen IQ.
There has been much comment on the country experiencing the highest interest rates since September 2008 when the global financial system was on the cusp of total ruin. The US investment bank Goldman Sachs has warned that inflation in the UK could top 25 per cent next year, close to the post-War record set in 1975.
The disappointment for many families impacted by this economic phenomenon is its timescale. 'When will this end?' is the lament of millions of households in this country and beyond. Despite predictions from the World Bank and the United Nations, the truth is we just don't know, but the longer these economic woes continue the more worrying our future feels.
I recently returned from a Christian conference. Even though most of the delegates appeared financially comfortable and well established in their field of work, the informal conversations were dominated by the cost of living crisis and prayer. For the delegates at this conference, prayer seemed to be the only answer to the crisis.
I am a Baptist minister. I am committed to prayer, though I do get a little concerned about conversations among Christians that suggest prayer is the silver bullet for this crisis. If this were the case, families would not be suffering under the weight of it. Many pray for relief from the pressure, yet the pressures keep mounting. Does this suggest they need to pray harder? No, it does not.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that there are times when we don't know how to pray or what to pray. 'The Spirit,' he says, 'helps us with our weaknesses. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit of God intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.'
Prayer, firstly, is an exclusively Trinitarian event: the Spirit takes our unspoken words or disjointed sentences or even silences and includes those agonising silences in the praying of the Son before the Father.
Secondly, it is also participation in the sovereign office of Christ. Implicit in this theological reflection lies a theological conundrum. For if God is sovereign, why pray? If God sees, knows and is the master of the universe controlling human destiny, what impact will our prayers have? More to the point, is it worth us even praying? Ultimately God will do what God desires.
But what if the crucified triumphant Christ chooses to affect his will through the silences and struggles of our few prayers? Prayer is not an attempt to bend the ear of God influenced by the length and quantity of our prayers. Rather it is an expression and an effecting of 'God's will on earth', as my colleague John Cowell once said.
Thirdly, prayer is also about participating in the priesthood of Jesus by representing our neighbours. There are numerous messages surfacing from the Old Testament, and among the most important is to hold God's suffering people before God. These were the actions of Moses and the prophets. They pleaded with God on behalf of the people of God for hope, thereby fulfilling a priestly ministry.
Despite the government's recent intervention resulting in capping the gas prices, countless numbers of families will still be eking out an existence and living under the poverty line. Prayer is a demonstration of our commitment to the 'other' and shows that we are taking seriously our responsibilities to show pastoral care by praying for our suffering neighbours.
Finally, prayer also requires the Church to participate in prophetic office. The prophets like Micah and Amos agonised with God on behalf of God's people in prayer. They lamented for the state of the people they represented and engaged in prophetic activity in their oratory and prayer life. As followers of God tasked with a prophetic remit, they advocated on behalf of their people in prayer. They prayed for emancipation, the liberation and hope to come to their people.
Activists such as Harriet Tubman participated in this prophetic office. Tubman demonstrated her activism by supporting the enslaved to escape from the plantation field, even at the risk of her own life. But we do well to remember that Tubman's herculean achievements were also rooted in prayer. Tubman would be among the first to attribute her commitment to activism to her prayer life.
The world is going through a challenging time. Just when we were beginning to see light at the end of the Covid tunnel, the world has been gripped by a different pandemic, a cost of living crisis, a double global crisis in relatively quick succession. The challenge with the cost of living crisis concerns the ambiguity around its end date. Certainly, this is not a sprint but a marathon.
One of the only options open to the Church is to pray. I am not at all suggesting that prayer is some sort of magic, our prayers automatically signalling the end of poverty, injustice, war and all things evil, and ushering in sudden peace and tranquillity. If that were the case, the world order would not be as we know it. Yet in this time of austerity and flux, prayer and a dependence on God are needed now more than ever before. The Church cannot afford to stop praying.
Wale Hudson-Roberts is Justice Enabler at the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the pastor of John Bunyan Baptist Church in Cowley, Oxford.