How the faith of retired people is helping transform lives

Tens of thousands of volunteers support social action projects in England run by churches including winter night shelters, lunch clubs, credit unions and food banks. Many of these volunteers are retired people, whose skills and experience are crucial to the success of this work. We spoke to six Church of England worshippers who are retired or describe themselves as in ‘phased’ retirement and are involved in work from street pastors groups to helping people in debt.

George Martin, in his 70s, a worshipper at Southwark Cathedral, who formerly worked in international sales and at Buckingham Palace, is chair of the trustees of the Robes Project, the churches’ winter night shelter in the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark.

The shelter started in 2007 with seven church halls and has grown over the past 10 years to 30 church venues of all denominations, supported by 800 volunteers. The project has a major fund raising drive every year with a Sleepout at Southwark Cathedral, raising £97,000 for its work last November with the organisers hoping this total will rise to £100,000. Over the past six years, the sleepout has raised almost £500,000 towards the running costs of operating the shelter. “I have done all the voluntary jobs, cooking, washing up, meeting and greeting, I have stayed overnight, I have done the breakfast run. I joined the team at Christ Church Blackfriars  for their night shelter and I will doing the cooking once for 20 guests over the next 10 weeks – that number rises to 28 or more because we all sit down together to eat, the guests and the volunteers, ” he said. “Some people say that as chair I am too hands on but I feel that is my role. I do it from the heart, because I believe that what I am doing is what the church should be doing. Robes has saved lives over the past 10 years. As chair, I go round as many of the venues as possible.”

Avril Loveless, 61, in ‘phased retirement’, works part-time as Professor of Education at Brighton University.

A worshipper at All Saints Church, Hove, she acts at coordinator of the night shelter at the church, part of a network of churches in the area hosting the shelter over 18 weeks between November and January. “I coordinate one day a week of the shelter. We have around 40 volunteers on our books and provide a hot meal and overnight accommodation for around 15 people who need it. Four people take turns to stay awake overnight in pairs in four-hour shifts. It is quite a precious time, just sitting quietly as the guests sleep. Some of the guests in the shelter go to work the following morning, so they have to get up early and freshen up. We serve them with a light breakfast and other guests then go off to a place called First Base which is a charity in Brighton that offers a full breakfast, showers and housing advice. The voluntary work is inter-generational and across all walks of life. We have energetic younger people who also volunteer for the lifeboats and people in their 80s who volunteer to do the overnight shifts. Over the last year, I have learned about the power of volunteers to come together as communities and keep a light burning during dark times.”

Dr Andrew Miller, 69, a retired NHS consultant in respiratory medicine and a worshipper at St Aldates Church in Oxford, has worked voluntarily as a street pastor since 2010 and is chairman of the Oxford group.  “We are a group of 19 trained volunteers from across the Christian denominations. We are in partnership with the police, night clubs and the council. We try to work in a group of at least three every Saturday and one Friday a month – especially after pay day when many people go out and celebrate. We leave our base at around 1045pm and we finish usually around 3.45am the next day. Our motto is ‘caring, listening, helping’ and we help people in a range of situations – handing out water and a space blanket for warmth, flip flops where clubbers have abandoned walking in their high heels, or lollipops as a way of defusing tensions. There are people who want to talk – I recently met somebody who had just been to a friend’s funeral and was pretty distraught and just wanted someone to listen, as do some rough sleepers. We don’t tell people what to do, we don’t preach, we let them talk and we listen. We walk six to eight miles a shift and we walk slowly, if you walk at normal speed people don’t tend to stop and talk to you. People are often curious and baffled as to why we do this work for nothing but they are glad we are there as a presence on the streets. We are a range of different people working as street pastors. In south London, where I worked as a street pastor before, we had two 83-year-old team members; one was so famous for her work that she was known on the streets as ‘The Legend’.”

Jewel Ahumibe, 67, a specialist neonatal nurse, from Birmingham, retired after nearly 40 years in the NHS in 2012.

A worshipper at St John’s Sparkhill since 1980, she began work as a volunteer helper at the Good Companion lunch club, part of the Narthex centre, in Birmingham last August. The lunch club meets on Tuesdays with around 16 elderly people attending. The Narthex Centre provides community facilities and services from the church, including a food bank, a resource store for refugees and asylum seekers and a youth club. “I am healthy and I know that there will come a time when I need help as well. I thought ‘why not give my time when I can?’” she said. “The clients arrive before the lunch and we have a bit of a chat, and then they play Bingo. They do some exercises and then they have lunch before they get picked up by the Ring and Ride. Last week we had a trip to the Pantomime and saw Dick Whittington. The people who come along are really appreciative.”

Phil and Christine Bromwich, from All Saints Church, Murston, Sittingbourne, Kent, work voluntarily at Murston Community Bank, based in the church and a savings club at Sunny Bank Primary school in Sittingbourne. Phil, 68, worked previously in costing and estimating work for a manufacturing company and Christine, 70, is a former school office manager. The couple, who first met when they were working at Barclay’s Bank, were able to use their expertise to help set up the community bank, a branch of Kent Savers credit union, three years ago. They now work for the bank a morning a week, and help administer a branch through a savings club at Sunny Bank Primary School in Sittingbourne, Kent, two mornings a week. They are planning to set up a debt advice centre at All Saints Church. “People come to the bank in all sort of situations.  It is very satisfying to meet people who have come to us severely in debt, knowing that you may not have solved all their problems, but you have been the catalyst for change for the better in their lives,” Phil said.

– Martha Linden Senior Media Officer, Archbishops’ Council

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