Yvonne Bennett discusses the importance of community during lockdown and reveals the important role a South London church plays in the lives of a group of young mums.

The Church, Who Needs It? We Do!

The Church, Who Needs It? We Do!

For a number of years, I’ve been involved with a group called Mummies Republic. Initially intended to be a mother and baby group catering to women in the Bermondsey area of South London, it has become so much more. Founded by Winnie Baffoe – a woman who has a gift for getting people to agree to things they had never considered, including me – the women at Mummies Republic have three things in common, they are mums, they live in low-income households and they are all navigating and struggling with the government’s welfare reform programme, Universal Credit. They come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, some are single parents, some are married, some live with a partner and many of them work. Mummies Republic is for mums by mums. They offer each other support and solidarity. The Wednesday meetings are full of laughter, and at times tears. There is no judgement.

Winnie has the ability to take you out of your comfort zone and, because she believes you can do it, you do it and most importantly you succeed. She inspires the women at the group with the same self-belief. Winnie believed that the women’s struggles with Universal Credit had to be heard; initially by those in power who walk the corridors of Westminster and then by the rest of the country. This overlooked group of women needed a voice. Winnie had a three-stage plan. Stage one was to have a play written and performed in Westminster for the politicians to watch. The play would be their stories and although they would not be performing, they would be present to answer questions. Those who make the rules surrounding welfare needed to see how it was impacting those who were receiving it. The second stage was to then take the play on tour around the country. The struggles could not be unique to Mummies Republic, so Winnie believed that the country as a whole needed to be aware of the daily battles those most in need were experiencing. The plan was that in each theatre that the play was performed local people struggle with Universal Credit would be on hand to answer questions from the audience after the performance. Stage three was a book, a book that contained the women’s stories and which would be sold before and after performances. I first heard of the book at a Wednesday meeting in February 2019 when Winnie was talking about her plans. I realised that I was to be the author of this book! But I believed in Winnie’s vision and was happy to collaborate.

Things have not entirely gone to plan. Brexit had an impact, and then of course, we became a victim of the pandemic. Lockdown put the play’s tour on the back burner. So our book became more important than ever.

For many, including some of the women in this book and myself, religion and the church no longer bear relevance in our daily lives. However, the women meet in a church, Winnie is a pioneer missionary, and the sessions do have a religious element to them. With this in mind I also examine the role churches have as they reach out to help those who are struggling, meeting the gaps created by budget cuts during austerity. Could this be a way in which churches can rebuild their relevance?

I knew very little about Universal Credit before starting this book. I knew very little about the individual stresses the women were experiencing. One conversation I had with Winnie brought home the enormity of their daily struggles. At the time London was experiencing a high rate of young black boys losing their lives through being stabbed. There was also much on the news about young teenagers being sucked into delivering drugs through the county lines. I mentioned that the mums must be so worried about what the future held for their young boys, especially as a couple were a year or two away from secondary school. Winnie informed me that they did not have the energy to worry about such things, their day to day struggles to pay bills and feed their children was all that occupied their minds. Future worries and problems could wait.

The mums place a great emphasis on education and hard work. Many of them work part time. During the first lockdown isolation and home schooling added to their problems. Heating and food bills increased as everyone was now home. Two mums, with boys of a similar age, spoke about trying to home school six-year-old boys whilst trying to work online. One mum felt she was lucky as she had a small balcony so her son could get some fresh air. The other was so worried about catching COVID that her son had not been outside in almost three months. He got a little fresh air from standing at the open door of their block of flats.

Finally, I need to mention Laura, as we have dedicated the book to her. She was a larger-than-life woman with a big smile and a bigger heart. She was killed in an accident whilst on a very rare holiday with her three sons. She will always be a part of the group and will be forever missed.

Regardless of COVID or individual faith, what Mummies Republic has created is a sense of community and belonging that has transcended lockdown. I may have written the book, I put the words into print, but this book belongs the women of Mummies Republic and I hope to have done them proud by sharing their stories.

Who Needs The Church? We Do! By Yvonne Bennett is published by Clink Street, RRP £7.99 paperback, £3.99 ebook and is available now.