Thursday, 6 April 2017

Kathy Germain- as seen in 'I, Daniel Blake’.


Food banks are small charities that give out emergency food to people in need. Kathy Germain works with a food bank in Benwell, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, that was started by her Anglican church in 2013- and featured in the recent Ken Loach film. I interviewed her in January 2017.

 Kathy, how did your work in the food bank begin?

If I were to go back to the beginning in 2006, when I first became a Christian, I asked myself, ‘Hold on, what should I be doing, as a Christian?’ You think, ‘Where’s God going to lead me in this new life?’ Because it is a new life, it’s a new beginning, a new start. 

Five years ago, I had mentioned to Tim Ferguson (our vicar at the time), that I saw something on the horizon that worried me. ‘The changes in benefits are not going to be right. I’m worried now, about how people are going to survive food-wise.’

And he said, ’Funny enough, I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing’. We’d been getting people turning up in church, just the odd ones asking for food. We’d have to go to the garage next door to get them a sandwich. So it slowly happened, and then the following year- Bang! People were getting their benefits cut because of new government rules, so they now needed food to live.

We started our food bank in a tiny office at the Venerable Bede church in the hall that was about 2 by 2 metres square. We stocked the food there, but then after 6 months, we realised that this was not going to work! We had to find new larger premises to keep this food, because we were inundated with the number of people who came. Some had jobs and were working and getting benefits, but still not earning enough to feed their families.

What did these people need?

If you’re on £72 pounds a week, which are your benefits for the week, it’s £25 a week, just to keep your gas and electricity going, it doesn’t leave you with very much. There’s nothing for bus fares, so these people can’t afford to go for their medicals (assessments) because they’re miles away.
As for the Disability criteria setup- we had a woman in a wheelchair, she could use one right hand, but she failed her medical.  She’s got cerebral palsy. She won her tribunal, but from the moment they stopped her payment, to the Mandatory Reconsideration (which takes up to five weeks), she had no money. You might have to put in for an SSC1 Form, which is to appeal against the Mandatory Reconsideration, so you’re coming up to 12, 13 weeks. What do these people live on?

If somebody is made redundant, they have to go and sign on for Universal Credit, but it takes up to 12 weeks before you can get it- if you can apply for it online. So what do you do? We’ve seen all of this. The money’s stopped, they’ve got no money and its winter, and it’s cold in the evenings. They’ve got no gas, so they’re not heated. They’ve got no electricity. They can’t have the telephone, which they need, to be called in for their Jobseekers allowance, for the Universal Credit. Everything is done on your phone, but what if you’ve got no money for your phone?

So when you run a foodbank, how does being a Christian make a difference to how you treat people and see what’s going on?

I’m not blind to the ways of the world, if you know what I mean? I’m not somebody who just falls for anybody’s blarney. But as a Christian, God shows me the ones who are really desperately in need. Also as a Christian, I’m able to feel if somebody has problems, who is really suffering. I think it is God’s gift to me, that makes me able to know when somebody’s depressive, to know when somebody’s got mental health problems. We still get people in food banks who no longer come for food, but they come because they have a need to talk to somebody who understands their need.
Sometimes they need other things, like prams and cots, or bedding and coats, or warm hats and scarves, which are not covered by food banks.

So what do you do about that?

I put my feelers out. I talk to everybody I know. ‘Have you got this, have you got that? Can you try and get me this, can you try and get me that? Ask your friends, have they got a spare one of these?’
And that’s what I do. I literally do that, so people can get the things they actually need. I’ve the gift of the gab as you can tell! God’s given me that gift to motivate people, I think I’ve always had it, but God just kind of went, ‘You’ve got that ability.’  And I can be strong. I feel for them, yes, but I won’t be walked over. They know that too. I’m not sympathetic, I’m empathetic. If you’re empathetic, you’re can understand how they’re feeling. If you’re sympathetic, you’re looking down on them in some way. That’s why people don’t like charity- it’s like they’re being blamed!

God says to me ‘Don’t judge.’ I don’t judge. I definitely do not judge. I say to parents, ‘I don’t care what you’ve done, if you come to me for help, then I’ll do my best to help you. Even if I condemn what you do, I’m not condemning the person- I’m condemning the action.’ That’s what you have to look at. You have to look at the person, not for what he’s done.

If someone says ‘I’ve been in prison for seven years and just come out’, I say ‘Oh right?’ They get a shock because I’m not bothered. I’ll ask, ‘What do you need now? What do you need me to do? I’ll do anything in my power to stop you going back into prison.’

I also became a Citizens Advice Bureau worker, so I could have the knowledge as well as the empathy to feel for them. Because I have that, when I walk around here, I’m either ‘Aunty Kathy’, or ‘Mum’, because they know I’ll stand by them.

If they try and take too much, I’ll jump down their throats as quick at that and say. ‘No, you’re being unfair because you took 7 of those items, and you’ve got three in your family and you took 7 of them, but what about the next one who walks through this door in the same situation as you?’ And they understand that- because that’s being fair. It doesn’t always happen, but you can understand it if they’ve been weeks and weeks without it. For instance, the last time it was sanitary products, and toothbrushes and toothpaste. You can understand if they grab as much as they can, because they don’t know when they’ll have the next chance of getting any.

So how did you end up being in the film ‘I, Daniel Blake?’

They asked me if I would do this part because I worked in the food bank. (They filmed four parts with me, but showed only three. If you blink, you’ll miss me!) I didn’t really think the film would take off like this. There were so many people saying ‘I saw you on the film, you kept that quiet!’, because I never told anybody!

One of the most important scenes took place in the food bank. Did you all know what was going to happen?

No, because we didn’t need to. This director’s type of acting is all about ‘What wouId you do, if that happened?’ So you react for real.  My friend Christine did exactly what she would have done, and I did exactly what I would have done.

I think it’s probably the most powerful scene in the film.

One thing I’ve noticed in the food bank over the past two years, is how so many of the mothers have lost an awful lot of weight- because mothers feed their children first. People just don’t see it, because they don’t expect it. They don’t expect there to be a need like this today, for mothers to go hungry.

How did you become a Christian?

I’d believed in God my entire life. I was two and a half when I first thought about it, and that was after my sister took me to church, and I heard the words in the service saying, ‘Do not fear, for the light of Christ comes into this world…’  and I remember a special candle being lit. Perhaps it was Christmas.

But I had a horrendous upbringing. I suffered all sorts of abuse. Once, at the age of three, I was thrown in the coalhouse and the door was locked and it was pitch-black. I was terrified. But then I remembered the church, and these words: ‘Look for the light’. So I did. Then I saw a chink of light under the door, and suddenly I wasn’t scared. The fear went away. I suddenly realised I wasn’t on my own, but Christ was there in the room, with me, and I was no longer afraid. There were two of us in there.

So I‘ve always believed in him, as somebody who was there. And then in 2002, Dave my husband passed away. By 2003 I didn’t know if I was coming or going. After my husband died, I hated God and I told him that. I was cursing him on the beach at Tynemouth, but I knew it wasn’t real. Because once you have him in your life, he can’t, he won’t let go. You might think he’s not there, but he still is. And a year later, I said… ‘I give up! I know you’re still there, and I still feel it. I give up!  I’ll come back and see where things go.’

So I walked around, and went into the church near where I lived, Venerable Bede, and inside I met a lady, her name was Jean Bradley. She said ‘Come and have a seat. What do you need?’ That was strange, such a strange way of putting it. I said I needed to be alone, but I just felt that was God asking me that question.

Jean said ‘Go and sit down there at the back, and no-one will bother you.’ No-one did. So I just sat there, crying and crying, asking God, ‘Why have you left me alone?’ And suddenly I felt so peaceful, but it was more than that. It was the kind of peace that passes all understanding. I felt so wonderful afterwards. I found God was actually in me, he was part of me. I mean, there’s no hiding from the fact now, is there? On that day, I was looking for more. I didn’t know what I was looking for, I didn’t understand it. But I believe somebody was meant to be there for me that day, when I went into that church. Now, I would rather lose every penny I’ve got and be homeless on the streets, than to be without God.

So – some years later, what made you want to become a Reader (Lay Minister)?

I knew it was going to be hard, because I’m dyslexic. But I felt God kept pushing me somewhere, and I didn’t know where. And I felt I needed to know more. So I went and put in the application for training as a Reader. I went, and it was wonderful! I learned so much about my faith, about people, and about me! I didn’t pass the University degree, but I got to where I needed to be.

And I feel now I’m in the right place, as a Christian, and that people know I’m a Christian. Some ask, ‘Can you do a prayer for me?’ Sometimes I feel their need, it’s all part and parcel of it, because I think it’s God working his way through things, not me. But I’m there if needed. I do many things. There’s the food bank, I do a mental health group, which is not part of the church but they do know I’m a Christian there. I also lead a toddler group, which teaches the parents about the Christian faith as well as the kids. I do the Citizens Advice Bureau too.

Sometimes, people want to talk. God gave me this heart to recognise things.  There was a lad that no-one would sit and talk to, because he was ‘all over the place’. (I’m used to that! )So, I sat with him and said ‘Let’s talk’, and he started rabbiting on for half an hour. I couldn’t hear a thing he said because he was just rabbiting. Then I said, ‘Let’s get to the crunch of it. What’s causing you to feel the way you’re feeling?’ He had severe mental problems, but we sat and talked for an hour.  And after that, he said, ‘Thank you very much. You made me feel human.’

And that’s the crux of it. That’s putting the humanity back. It’s making people feel ‘You’re human.’ That’s what God put into me, and that’s what he gives me to do. He said ‘These are my people. I love them. You love them too.’ And that’s the top and bottom of it. Then they come back and say to you, ‘I took that next step. Thank you very much.’ It’s a wonderful feeling.

It’s not about me. You don’t pick your life, but you try to make the most of it.  I don’t give any money, but I give myself. God gave me a gift, and I use that gift.

An RE lesson based on selected parts of the interview will be available online later this year on the Barnabas in Schools website  ( ).

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.