Tommy, John, Darren, Ernie, Nigel, and countless others are the people who taught me how to be a priest. They each slept at the night shelter at St Mary’s Willesden, in north west London, where I served as the curate. Every night, under the direction of the brilliant Fr Ian Booth, we fed and served up to 40 people, and then gave shelter in the 10th Century building, no questions asked. Then each morning, whilst we sang Morning Prayer, these now rested homeless men would grunt, fart and eventually go on their way into the world, and the beds would be stored away until the next night. Not glamorous, sometimes backbreaking, but deeply Gospel.
Shelter and food is a basic human need, but so is dignity and love. It was the homeless in Willesden who taught me this. It was there that I discovered that ministry was very much hands on, active, and sacrificial.
Ministry requires relationships with a great diversity of people, confident in the knowledge that I need you in order that I might be more fully me. Therefore, I discover more about who I am, made in God’s image, if I dare to serve you. In fact, it feels like you are the ones who are serving me.
This revelation was not unique to Willesden. I remember helping to bring together the Camden cold weather shelter scheme when I worked in Kings Cross, and also supporting the work of the Hackney Winter Night Shelter while I served as Rector of Hackney. In each place, the lives of both guests and volunteers were changed through the regular encounters. I remember how Michael, an eight year old boy, would play Scalextrics with the homeless men, as he didn’t have a dad at home, or how Doris would sit with her knitting and gently listen to the stories of those on the streets, indeed she loved the company. Both providing dignity and love, and both being changed by this encounter.
Housing Justice’s research clearly states the impact of the work of churches and cold weather shelters. In London 331,071 volunteer hours are spent supporting 1,290 homeless men and women, equating to £4 million of social capital. These figures are impressive and powerful. But much more powerful are the stories behind the figures. The stories of the encounters, the lives that have been changed because of acts of generosity, love and dignity. Inspired by the fact that God so loved the world that he was generous in Jesus Christ, and we must be generous in return.
I wonder how you will serve this Christmas, as we reflect upon Jesus, a refugee child put in a manger, a place of feeding. I wonder how you might dare to let the poor and the homeless teach you how to be more fully you? I wonder how these encounters might help you to flourish. Perhaps this might be your New Year’s resolution, and one that you might actually keep as the benefits are immense.