Releasing the prisoners: CAP at Gillingham Baptist Church
Christians Against Poverty weaves social action with unforced evangelism, and nowhere is this more evident than at Gillingham Baptist Church in Kent
Ruth Millard manages the Christians Against Poverty (CAP) Debt Centre established at Gillingham Baptist Church almost three years ago. She has seen more than 30 adults released from crippling debt, a similar number find Jesus, and the confidence of church members grow.
“If Jesus was on earth he would be reaching out to the poor, releasing the prisoners, giving sight to the blind,” she says. “It feels like we are doing this. People are trapped in their own homes. Their curtains are shut. They’re afraid to open the door. They feel ashamed.
“It is demanding, but it’s what Jesus would have done. Because of all the little things that have happened, I just know God is absolutely in this. It’s a privilege to join in God’s mission.”
The Medway area ranks one of the highest in the country in terms of loans taken out, and the CAP Debt Centre opened in May 2013 when the church realised people had the kind of deeper-rooted problems that the CAP Money course wasn’t enough to solve. Sure enough, there was an instant demand for the service. By the end of June of that year that they had to turn people away. The situation has subsequently eased with the addition of another debt coach at another Cap Centre in Medway, but there has been a steady stream of clients ever since opening.
A combination of bad luck and low income are the main causes of debt, Ruth says. Very rarely is it because someone has overspent. “It’s often an illness that has caused them to lose their job, or a change in circumstance, or some unexpected bill. They’ve made choices trying to keep going that are in hindsight not always the best. And they just don’t know who to turn to.”
No period is typical, but Ruth aims to see four new clients each month. She visits clients three times, with the visits focused on gathering detailed information about their circumstances, and then agreeing to a debt management plan drawn up by the CAP head office based on this information. The idea is the client will stick to this plan until they are debt free.
Ruth (pictured) is always accompanied by a befriender, who is typically a member of the congregation at Gillingham Baptist Church. The befriender will then provide practical and emotional support once the initial three visits are completed and the plan has started.
Ruth says a number of potential clients drop out after the first meeting, but the majority who sign up stick to their plan become and then stay debt free. The impact is noticeable.
“When I see people debt free they change physically,” she says. “They stand up taller, their shoulders aren’t hunched. And so many people keep coming back to me at the anniversary celebrations of our CAP Debt Centre.”
And for many, the change isn’t just a physical one. For all involved with CAP, the the desire to help stems directly from their faith. As such, talking about Jesus and praying for clients is all part of the service. This suits Ruth just fine for she’s always had a heart for evangelism. Having previously worked in the health service, and worked as Volunteer Manager for Age Concern (now Age UK), the role brings together a number of areas of her life.
“I was attracted to CAP by the combination of reaching people’s needs, and evangelism,” says Ruth. “CAP makes it very easy to talk about your faith.”
Whenever she first meets a new client, Ruth will tell them that God loves them and she and the befriender are there because of their faith. She says the vast majority have no problem with that, even if they are non-believers they are just grateful that someone cares for them. At the end of each session, they will offer prayer. Again, it’s very unlikely they will refuse. (“Hardly anyone says no, even atheists.”)
She adds the general relationship building leads to natural conversations about faith. Some people have skewed perceptions of Christians which are changed by meeting Ruth, the befrienders and the wider Gillingham congregation (the church hosts several events for CAP clients throughout the year). Through these friendships, having hope restored and the weight of debt lifted, some consciously recognise God moving in their lives for the first time: since the CAP centre at Gillingham opened around 30 people have come to faith.
“I love being able to tell people about Jesus openly and honestly,” Ruth says. “I love the fact we are reaching people’s needs. I absolutely love what I do. Everything I’ve done in my life has led to this.
“And even if they don’t come to faith, we are still helping to transform their lives by helping them out of debt.”
Ruth also talks about the impact CAP has had on members of the church. It has always been a welcoming congregation, but being part of CAP, becoming befrienders and seeing new people come has boosted confidence. “It’s demanding – I’m constantly asking for new befrienders. But through it they’ve found they’re able to talk to visitors more.”
Now the church and its CAP Centre are getting very well known in the community. “We are having people coming to us,” says Ruth. “We’re getting referrals from the Council, job centres, schools, housing associations and many more. Medway Churches have been asked to deliver the CAP Money course across all the libraries, on a rolling, continuing basis.”