Jonathan Robinson is the outgoing pastor of Musselburgh Baptist Church in Dunedin and the incoming New Testament Lecturer at Carey Baptist College (starting in January 2023). In this article, Jonathan shares the impact of hosting conversations for the church, community, experts and practitioners to network and address issues close to heart. Food insecurity is one of those issues. As a result of the community forums at Musselburgh Baptist Church, the report "Paying with Dignity" was produced, discussing the positive and negative impact the church can have in the food charity sector. You can join the conversation at the report launch event detailed below.

It can be amazing how one thing can lead to another with God. Like how a mustard seed can start so small yet grow so big!

After successful community forums in 2020 around the cannabis and euthanasia referendums and the general election, Musselburgh Baptist Church felt we should do more of "this sort of thing." But what? So in 2021, with the help of connections through my part-time role at the Otago University Centre for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI), we hosted some community forums around topical issues that were dear to the hearts of members of our congregation: Mental health; the housing crisis; and food poverty (more properly called food insecurity). We invited experts from the university and practitioners from the town to form panels and made contact with successful projects around the country to contribute by zoom or video. The evenings were a mix of presentations, interviews and questions from the floor, with the opportunity for informal conversations afterwards. We were amazed by the interest from our local community. The church building was full for each forum, with a mix of folks from other churches, local social, health, and council agencies, and the general public.

We put on the events for our own benefit, to help us consider these difficult issues and to give a positive witness to our local community of Christianity that is compassionate, thoughtful and ready to listen. One thing we didn't anticipate was that these forums were great opportunities for people involved in these issues to connect and network. Put social workers, academics, politicians and church pastors in a room together, and it turns out they all care about a lot of the same things! 

One special connection came about when it turned out that one of the university's food insecurity experts, Dr Katharine Cresswell Riol, was a huge fan of the work of one of our church members, retired nutritionist Dr Winsome Parnell. As we got talking, Katharine asked me if I had any ideas about communicating her research to churches. She had noticed that churches and Christian agencies were doing most of the work in the food charity sector. As a university academic with no Christian connection, she had no obvious route to communicate her research to them. I offered to help her tailor a report for churches to turn her book-length research project (!!) into something more digestible for those in ministry and social work. The CTPI was keen to be involved and offered some funding for publication costs. After a conversation with Charles Hewlett, so did the Baptist Union (thank you Baptists!). The finished report is called "Paying with Dignity". It's an important discussion of how churches are making a difference in the food charity sector and how we can become part of the problem without realising it. You can access it here on the University of Otago Archives website.

The report is essential for several reasons. First, it is unique in focussing not on the numbers that agencies or the government collect but on the voices and experiences of those on the receiving end of food charity. Secondly, it recognises the valuable and vital work churches do and the difference we make. Thirdly, however, it alerts us to ways we can inadvertently make things worse for people and impact society. There are real issues to address in both our delivery of food charity to individuals and our influence on the broader forces at play. To hear more about all of this, you should either read the report or come to our online launch on Thursday, 24 November 2022 (see below).

As my time comes to an end at Musselburgh Baptist Church this year, I'm so pleased to have this report published. It has come about through connections between our local Baptist church members, the theology and geography departments of Otago University (who don't usually talk much!), and the Baptist Union. We are holding a launch event on Zoom this Thursday (24 November 2022) at 7 pm, and you're invited. The event is available on zoom. Join from PC, Mac, iOS or Android: Meeting ID: 968 0531 8012 Password: 565674

On Thursday, the report will be endorsed by the Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services and the Baptist Union in New Zealand and has been picked up by researchers/activists in the USA and UK. The connections are growing! The academic side of me is excited to have something published that will hopefully make a difference worldwide as churches and faith-based social agencies respond to the growing hunger crisis. But the pastor side of me is most excited that all this happened because a local church wants to connect with its community. It's not the only thing that's happened either, but those stories will have to wait for another time. 

So, to paraphrase Zechariah 4:10, "Don't despise the day of small things!" I hope you read/use the report and come to the launch. But even better, I hope you can be inspired to start something small for God's kingdom and see how it might grow.

Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash (cropped).

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