The Rev Gerard Goshawk invites me into the Six Ways Baptist church. It is peaceful, and there are no interruptions, but this is unusual, he says. Most days the church doubles up as an English-language college with free classes for immigrants, is home to one of the busiest food banks in the city and holds numerous other classes in an effort to get the community to engage with each other.
Does it do any, y’know, praying? Or is that not what a modern church is for?
It is a similar story across the suburb.
Goshawk says he works with local imams and church leaders to “prop up a failing system”. The 53-year-old, who has lived in Erdington for the past decade and has a mainly African-Caribbean congregation, will not reveal his political affiliations, but talks of how the voluntary sector in recent years has been forced to step in because of harsh austerity cuts in his community.
‘Step in’ because…?
“We are Christians and we can’t just stand by and do nothing,” Goshawk says. “Each year the benefit system is more heartless in the way that it deals with individuals with an economy that has shifted and left people feeling quite disempowered and left behind. In that sense we are filling a gap and providing for people’s basic needs.
The whole point of the austerity cuts is so that the benefit monkeys finally get the message that they are supposed to ‘meet basic needs’ themselves. You’re doing the wrong job!
“Before I became a minister I was a nurse and then in the voluntary sector. It’s the essential problem of any voluntary sector organisation that you end up propping up a system that is wrong, and trying to make it easier.”
Better to prop up fecklessness instead?
Goshawk vocalises the difficult choice ahead: “What we are here is part of the essential role of any religious organisation, but the danger is that we end up doing the dirty work for the government.
“I don’t see it as a triumph, it’s a tragedy and a shame that we are having to do that. There is a general societal need to provide for each other. To me, it is a sign of failure that we are having to do this. Where the blame for that gets lodged is complicated in somewhere like Erdington where we have a Conservative government, a Labour council, and Labour MP.”
There’s a ‘general societal need’ to provide for yourself, and your family.