I decided not to come back to London (despite all my protestations in favour city living). Well, not for a few more days.
In fact, after leaving Devon, I moved further west and was ensconced for 48 hours in luscious Cornwall.
Cornwall, to me, is clotted cream and ice-cream and the Eden Project and the beach. It’s best known and loved for holidays. One of my friends and colleagues grew up by the beautiful beaches of Hayle (we actually holidayed at her family home last year which was idyllic) and she would love to live there still. Only there is hardly any work. Cornwall is one of the most deprived regions in Europe. It even qualifies for poverty-related grants from the EU.
I went to hear stories from two great groups of people running projects in the region that are trying to push against the tide of increasing deprivation. It’s a rough battle right now, with so many cuts. We started out in Camborne, hosted by the seemingly indomitable vicar of the parish church, Mike Firbank. He rocked up five years ago and started talking about how the church should be helping the community out.
Shortly afterwards a congregation member was in town for a meeting and nipped into the local public toilets. He found a group of men huddled around the hand-driers, trying to keep warm, nowhere else to go.
Shocked and heart-sore, he knocked on the vicar’s door. They talked. And on Christmas Eve they opened the church hall for a Christmas dinner for anyone with nowhere to go. And the doors have never really shut since then.
They called themselves DISC, which stands for Drop In and Share Centre, and it’s a simple idea. They run a drop in centre when anyone is welcome – those often excluded elsewhere by nature of their addictions and behaviour, or those who are just a little lonely. When people arrive they’re offered a cup of tea and a chat, and some help if they want it. They don’t prescribe specific kinds of problems they will solve, or promise to know what the answer is. But they will try, and they will search out people who have more expertise and experience than they might.
It’s a safe, stable place. A shelter, a rock, a hiding place. Somewhere you can trust. The staff’s stories are of long, difficult journeys taken with people, of disappointments and heart-breaking relapses and of beautiful steps towards change and hope.
One of the things they run is a foodbank. They provide emergency food as a stop-gap for families who find themselves suddenly in the lurch. Their benefits don’t come through, or change, and there is no income for a few weeks. It’s inscrutable how one of the richest countries in the world can still leave its own people starving. And just recently working families have starting turning up at the foodbank because they just can’t afford to feed their kids. It doesn’t bode well for the year ahead, and Mike reckons the worst is yet to come.
DISC are suffering from all the cuts. They’re having to scale back, even as the needs are getting more critical. I want to turn it around, I want the church across this country to step in and step up and join in, even as I know that so many of them are on their own journeys deeper into all of this already. I want to shake the bureaucrats making the cuts and make them see what it’s doing to people.
I ask Lorna, the Centre Manager, how they keep going, and keep hoping that things will improve. She shakes her head. We see train crashes, she says, we see them all the time. We see people in crisis. But we’re there at the other side of it too. The crash isn’t the end of the story; we’re there to see every tiny step forward that they take afterwards. And that’s where hope becomes something real.
And to put it in their own words, here’s a short video they made of Mike introducing their work: