Saturday, 5 April 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 5: National Day of Fasting

I have to admit I was sort of looking forward to this fast as it is always much easier to do something difficult when you are joining thousands of people who think and believe as you do. I'd also foolishly anticipated my fifth fast wouldn't be so hard, as each week has become progressively easier. However, it didn't turn out like that - yesterday was as demanding as the very first fast I made on Ash Wednesday. I'm not quite sure why - it might be down to my life being quite stressful at the moment; or that I hadn't recovered from a 5hr round trip on Mother's Day; or that I had one too many glasses of white wine the night before. Whatever the reason, I woke up with a raging headache and nausea interspersed with strong hunger pains. And though it was a boost to see so many people on Facebook and Twitter posting pictures of their empty bowls and plates, I left for work feeling weak and feeble. 

It didn't get much better during the day. We'd agreed to provide lunch for some guests, so I spent an hour in a meeting where everyone else was eating apart from me. This was followed by a bring and share lunch for a highly respected colleague who was retiring. I couldn't not go, but watching others eat, smelling the delicious food was challenging to say the least. By the time I got home, I was faint with hunger, which was the point when I realised that I'd not taken the vegetable stock drink I normally have. (It's my remedy for recovering from tummy bugs, as it provides the illusion of eating and injects a bit of salt  in the body). That seemed to help a bit, as did checking in the National Day of Fasting Facebook page and catching up with others who were definitely feeling the same or worse.

I normally find the last few hours of the fast the hardest, but they were made easier this week by me having a busy evening. My son was lighting a stage show so needed dropping off, after which it was time for prayers in Church. Each week through Lent, our parish comes together to meditate on the Stations of the Cross - the stages of Jesus' journey to death - followed by silent prayer. This week the hour of prayer was for all those who go hungry - the bags of food in the food-bank box a reminder of the food poverty in our local community. It's been a while since I've done Stations of the Cross, and the simple meditation by Pope Francis, was both a powerful prayer, and a reminder to me that Jesus through his life and death continually calls us to act with justice.

I left early to head down to Pegasus Theatre to see the show my son was lighting. "Stories for Survival" was an ambitious piece of theatre by anyone's standards - a re-working of "The Arabian Nights" through drama, dance and music, reflecting on violence, forgiveness, political repression, and the struggle for refugees to survive. What was most impressive was that the performers, composers, stage designers, technical crew were all young people. It was wonderful to see their commitment to the work and I found it  particularly poignant, in a week when 18 year old Yashika Bageerathi was forcibly deported in brutal circumstances, a victim of anti immigrant scaremongering, despite the brilliant campaigning of her class mates.

"Stories for Survival"  also seems an apposite title for many people in this country today. The people who are living hand to mouth on zero hours contracts that never guarantee a steady income. The people who live on just above the minimum wage, struggling to get by. Those whose housing benefit has been capped, so ends never meet however far they stretch them. The people who are the recipients of the thousand and one cuts of that cruellest of acts, the 2012 Welfare Reform Act. So many struggling to survive with dignity and respect, whilst the rich get richer, politicians turn their backs and the media denigrates them.

One person who sadly didn't survive was Paul Reekie. Paul, like me, was 48. Like me, Paul was a writer, and by all accounts a fine one. In later years, he struggled with depression, a heart condition and may have been the victim of assault. He committed suicide in the summer of 2010, when his incapacity benefit and housing benefit were withdrawn following a work capability assessment. He left no note, but the letters from the DWP announcing their decision were found close to his body, and his friends were quick to point out his meaning was clear. His publisher was so horrified, he even took the step of writing to George Osborne:

"It has come to my attention that while many of my friends and I were at the funeral of our good friend Paul Reekie, aged 48, it would appear that you were giving a speech in Parliament announcing your intentions to slash the benefits paid to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
"I thought I would let you know that Paul took his own life. He didn't leave a note but he laid out two letters on his table. One was notifying him that his housing benefit had been stopped. The other was notifying him that his incapacity benefit had been stopped.
"The reason I'm writing this letter is just so you know the human cost of attacking those on benefits."

Sadly George ignored him. For the last four years, he has promoted a economic policy driven by the myth that the welfare state is too expensive, and needs to be cut in order to reduce the deficit. He continues to ignore too, that the policy is not only inhumane, it's not working. Since the Coalition Government has come into power the national debt has increased not decreased . And yet the cuts keep coming, and human cost will continue to rise as a result.

All of which is why End Hunger Fast matters as a campaign, and why we need to keep campaigning when the fasting is done.This week the All Parliamentary Party Group on Hunger and Food Poverty launched an inquiry into the growth of food banks, attended by our very own Keith Hebden. Despite some crass comments from one Tory MP, the fact the committee recognises the importance of researching food poverty is an important step in changing hearts and minds in Parliament. A little sign of hope that we're beginning to make a difference. And a sign that we shouldn't let up.

The National Day of Fasting may be over, but Keith Hebden, Simon Cross and Scott Albrecht are still at it. Their forty day fast will continue till Palm Sunday (13th April 2014). You can help by cheering them on via social media, by telling as many people as you can about their witness and by taking action as recommended on the End Hunger Fast website. And keep on acting once Lent is over.

For - as End Hunger Fast say on their website - food poverty is a national and moral crisis. It is time  we made sure politicians on all sides of the political spectrum started paying attention to this crisis. In 2010, buoyed by a sense that the public wanted economic stability, George Osborne could ignore the warning of Paul Reekie's death, and declare austerity was the only solution to the financial crisis. Let's make 2014 the year the human cost of the cuts becomes clear to the nation. The year public opinion begins to change on welfare. The year politicians disregard this moral crisis at their peril.

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