Pilgrims march to abolish poverty

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The Independent Online
IN THE Middle Ages many pilgrims set out on foot and by boat for Jerusalem. Their goal was to reach the holy city. Next Sunday nine latter- day Christian pilgrims will set out on a relatively modest 670-mile walk from Iona in Scotland to London's Trafalgar Square.

Yet the aim of their pilgrimage is, they claim, far more ambitious than those undertaken centuries ago. They do not want to visit another country - they want to change this one.

The walkers will be joined for part of the journey by bishops and MPs and, they hope, thousands of ordinary citizens. They will arrive in London on 17 October - the United Nations Day for the Eradication of Poverty. They will not carry relics but statistics and they will not be petitioning the Blessed Virgin Mary but the Prime Minister. They seek nothing less than to eradicate poverty in the UK.

The 10-week People's Pilgrimage has been inspired by the success of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to force western governments to cancel the debts of the poorest countries.

"The existence of poverty diminishes the lives of everybody, not just the poor," explained Niall Cooper of Church Action on Poverty, which is organising the Pilgrimage. "Poverty is not an act of God."

Currently 15 million people, more than a quarter of the population, are on means-tested benefits. One child in three lives in a household where the diet is inadequate, health vulnerable and life expectancy five years less than in more affluent homes.

Merryn Hellier, 60, a retired piano teacher from Hereford, who will be walking the 670 miles herself, did not know such poverty still existed in Britain until she became friends with Sheena, a young mother who lives in her home town.

Since her husband left, Sheena raises her family of three alone. She could have taken cleaning or washing jobs, but only for less pay than her benefit entitlement. Raised in care, with few formal educational qualifications, her ambition was to teach. But having gained a training place, she had no funds left after tuition and travel to cover the cost of her three-year-old's childcare.

"Sure she was not in absolute poverty but she was deprived and socially excluded all the same," said Merryn. "People in comfortable Britain have no idea what a struggle life is for the poor. They just assume they are scroungers and layabouts.

"That's what pilgrim power is all about - making comfortable Britain aware of what life is like for so many."