Sunday, 1 October 2017

Put Down the Sword

Last weekend, on Peace Sunday, I was offered the opportunity to reflect on an appropriate bible passage. I chose to say something about Matthew 26: 47-52, where Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, at the moment of his betrayal, tells his disciples to put down their swords. This is, more or less, what I said:

This text is one which means a lot to me: it inspired the title of one of the first books which introduced me to active non-violence and inspired the name of the group with whom I have pursued a path of creative peacemaking.

Together with its parallels in the other gospels, it is a text I find both immensely challenging and deeply beautiful because I think it deals with one of the biggest questions we face as people told we are “blessed” when we take up our role as “peacemakers”: the question to which every aspiring pacifist has to have an answer ready to roll off the tongue. The question that asks: peace is all very well in theory, but what does one do, in practice, in the face of great evil? How does one respond to Hitler, al-Assad, to Kim Jong Un? To terrorism or white supremecism or the oppression of empire?

What does one do in the face of the slaughter of the innocents?

For me it is this text which holds the key, the answer of how Jesus calls us to respond to our anger, our fear, and our pain.

When the betrayer comes to condemn innocence to death, Jesus greets him as “Friend”. This is loving your enemies in action. And make no mistake, these were the enemy. They are either a rather unsavoury vigilante mob, or they are the soldiers of an oppressive, militaristic occupying regime, or most probably a combination of both. Let’s not pretend this was somehow easier than the enemies we face today and therefore doesn’t really count.

So Jesus responds by greeting his betrayer as a friend. And his followers ... hmm, not so much. One of them, unnamed here, but according to John’s gospel it is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, draws his sword in defense of the innocent. This is ‘just war theory’ in action, which the majority of the church as well as the majority of society subscribes to. A theory that would have said yes, on this occasion, violence is justified to protect the innocent. Tonight, in the garden, force can be used. This is the culturally comfortable answer.

But it is not Jesus’ answer. The final commandment Jesus offers to his disciples before the passion is “Put down your sword.”

There is never, Jesus says, a just reason to use violence. This is never, he says, the right answer.

And it seems that this is the moment when his followers realise just how serious he is about this whole love your enemies thing: serious to a point where he’s going to get them all killed. And they run away. They run away because guess what, peace is not the easy way out, the soft option. There is a big difference between being passive, and choosing pacifism: and the latter can be a pretty scary place to tread.

Fortunately though, although this is Jesus final commandment to his disciples before his death, it is not by any means the end of the story. Jesus does offer an alternative to violence. He does offer another way out.

He offers the way of resurrection.

Jesus final act of non-violent resistance is to rise from the dead: to tell the empire powers of violence, darkness and death that they will not have the last word and to invite us to be part of a different story instead. The way of resurrection is to offer forgiveness instead of seeking retaliation, to peacefully resist the aggression of the status quo, to dare to love those we are advised to fear or to hate.

The poet Edna St Vincent Millay wrote “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death”. Peace is not some big out there thing beyond our control: it is every thought we nurture, word we speak, decision we make, every prayer we pray. Life and death choices are the bread and butter of our everyday decisions as those who try to follow Jesus. They are our personal pledges to do something, however small, in our own lives and in our interaction with the life of the world, that say we will try, today to put down our swords and to live as people of the resurrection.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Sky

On a notepad somewhere I have scribbled the line:

"In Calais, looking at England's Sky"

They were the words of one of my students, and they were, I thought, going to inspire a poem. They have stayed with me for a number of months. There are a few hesitant ideas to go with them: something about our attempts to draw borders and claim ownership; something about skies scarred by barbed wire fences ...and something about the fact that no-one, really can own the sky.

For whatever reason, it has never come together into any coherent form. There's a good chance it never will.

This week, it may have had another line added to it:

"What happens when England's sky turns black?"

They are my words, my response to hearing from the same student that his case for asylum has been refused and he is likely to end up desperate and destitute.

They are my words from a place of helplessness to do anything about it.

I have the immense privilege of doing a job I love and to work with the most incredible people. I know it is a great blessing to sometimes, even often, feel like I can make a difference, in some small way, to people's lives and to allow them to make a difference to mine.

But it is also a part of reality to learn to manage and live with the fact that sometimes, I can't, actually, do much, or anything at all. Sometimes I think I do it well. Sometimes, I guess,  not so much. But this too is part of the beautiful, challenging life I lead.

Neither line may ever make it in to anything more coherent than this. I still wanted them to see the light of day.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

#stopDSEi


Last week governments, military officials and private companies from around the world (including from some of the world's most repressive regimes) were, by the invitation of our government, in London buying and selling weapons. 

This is, in my humble opinion, absolutely not OK.

The week before, hundreds of others were, not by explicit invitation of our government, in London trying to creatively and non-violently disrupt and witness against this hideous undertaking, the DSEi arms fair.

This is, in my humble opinion, absolutely more than just 'OK'.

I spent two days outside the ExCeL centre, adding my voice to those who wanted to stand up and be counted, to witness and to take action against this very visible manifestation of the evils of the arms trade. It was deeply encouraging that both the number of people and the variety of creative actions had definitely multiplied since the previous arms fair; making the whole week much more effective both in its capacity to disrupt the set-up of the arms fair, and in its ability to attract broader media attention and raise awareness of the evils of profiting from war and insecurity.

I am generally a fairly law-abiding citizen. At school I'd have been horrified of doing something that might get me in to trouble with the authorities (although my parents will attest that didn't necessarily extend to my home-life!) Even as a teacher, I was often (irrationally) slightly apprehensive if I was summoned to the head teacher's office. And yet two weeks ago I was honoured to be able to support people whose consciences told them they must put themselves at risk of arrest to obey the spirit of a higher law. 

That higher law is one which speaks of justice and peace and fullness of life. It is in direct contradiction to a system in which economic growth is dependent on the continuation or escalation of aggression and war, and in which death and destruction are being sold for profit. I deeply believe that the God who calls us to strive towards life in all its fullness, weeps in the face of bombs and border fences. I deeply believe the same God was there in the joined hands, the standing, the sitting, the lying down, the abseiling off bridges; in the prayers, the dancing, the laughter, the art, the songs and the silence, outside the arms fair earlier this month. 


The road outside the ExCeL centre was a very good place to be. It was a good place to be reminded that, when it is not confined by the rules of institutions and the walls of its buildings, the church is very definitely alive. It is diverse and it is united. It bubbles with energy and passion. It speaks a gospel which has something to offer to a world which needs it. It isn't always the case, but on the streets outside the ExCeL centre I was pleased to count myself as a member of it.

The DSEi Arms Fair takes place once every two years. If we haven't already stopped the arms trade by then (*ever the optimist), I warmly invite you to join me there in September 2019.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The year that was ...

For me, it is August, far more than December, which marks the year's end. A hiatus in the usual rhythm, it is a time when looking back over the preceding 12 months and ahead to the coming ones, makes sense.

I like to think I am quite good at 'living life to the full', but even by my own standards I seem to have squeezed quite a lot into 2016-17.  We have now been in Birmingham for four years, something of a record without moving house, city or country: but it certainly doesn't feel like life has come to a standstill.

At the beginning of September I launched into my new job at St Chad's Sanctuary. Although I knew the Sanctuary well from three years volunteering there, working there was always going to change the dynamics and the role itself was different from anything I had done before (not to mention leaving a secure, permanent contract for a frankly precarious position!) It is a role which has proved, as expected, to be both challenging and rewarding, both exhausting and enriching. I have learned much, laughed often, been humbled frequently, and cried occasionally. A year on, I have no regrets about the choice I made. I remain deeply conscious of the immense privilege of both loving, and passionately believing in, the work I do. I think I have been able to make a positive difference to others' lives. I know they have made a positive difference to mine.

The autumn's other major adventure was house buying and all that it entails: another steep learning curve. Being able to reflect on our role as stewards of our resources and to make use of them in a positive way felt like another positive step on the journey of life we are trying to live. The house was handed over to Hope Projects, and while it is a sad indictment on our society that it should be necessary, it feels right to be able to help in this way. The learning curve continued when the media got hold of the story, and while that part of the whole saga was stressful at times, overall I have no regrets about trying to get a positive message about asylum seekers into the media and to have the opportunity to challenge the failures of the system. In some ways accepting the praise and recognition we got was more challenging than brushing off the hateful comments. I know of many people who are doing much more significant things to make a difference to those around them; I know many others who lack the privileges and opportunities I have so often taken for granted so who don't have the same freedom to make the choices I have made. Buying the house and using it in this way was the right thing to do, but we continue to live a privileged life involing only minimal sacrifices.

Preparations for the Birmingham Taize meeting "Hidden Treasure" dominated much of the year, adding another layer to an already hectic schedule. The meeting finally came together over the May bank holiday and while I can't deny pulling it all together was stressful at times, during the weekend itself it all definitely felt worthwhile. 500 plus young adults from all over Europe came together in this city that I have grown to deeply love. Watching the local neighbourhoods respond to the challenge of hosting them, building relationships between churches and daring to open their doors to total strangers was truly beautiful. And so it came to be that we ate together, learned together, sang together, laughed together, prayed together, built community together.

Throughout the year, people came and went from the community flat, bringing with them all the joys and all the challenges of building and being community together. By the end of May, though, we had our latest, long term "community member" living with us. I use inverted commas because the latest resident is not officially a community member in the way others have been: our fourteen year old Goddaughter has moved in to share our life in term time while she attends school in Birmingham. Adjusting to life with a teenager will undoubtedly bring some changes to our life here (my taste in music has already been severely called into question ...), and she, perhaps even more so, will have to adapt to a whole new reality; but after much prayer and reflection it felt like exactly the right thing to do. Thus far, early days though it may be, all seems to be going well. Perhaps I should reassure those taking on God-parenting responsibilities that this perhaps isn't in the normal order of the role but overall this latest phase of our life feels more exciting than scary.

And that's just the really significant bits! In between we also travelled to Riga for what will likely be our last Taize new year meeting as we have now crossed the age threshold: I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to celebrate new year in such an amazing way, to explore many beautiful places and meet many wonderful people.

Inspired by Dutch tradition, we celebrated our twelve-and-a-half year wedding anniversary surrounded by family and friends: one of many opportunities to spend time with people we love and care about throughout the year. Walking Student Cross, a housemates reunion in Lancaster, Taize Sheffield, and a trip to West Yorkshire; as well as evenings in with friends, birthday parties, a funeral and a baptism all counting among the many other opportunities to love and feel loved.

The Birmingham 24 hours of prayer for the week of prayer for Christian Unity happened for the third consecutive year in a different church, with plans well on the way for next year's event. We also went to Reading to support friends on trial for their blockade of the Burghfield nuclear base last summer ahead of the parliamentary vote on renewing trident (their guilty verdict for obstructing the highway was subsequently overturned) and are now busy preparing for the No Faith in War day outside one of the world's biggest arms fairs due to be held in London in September.

We even fitted in painting the living room! Plus all the regular commitments of of course, not least the routine of prayer which is so much part of life it barely gets a mention and yet remains the source and summit of all the rest.

And so the adventure continues, watch this space!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Through a doorway (2)

The sweet scent of the flower meadow was already drifting through the open window when she was woken by the shaft of sunlight gliding through the gap in the dainty curtains. Barely a moment later, she was flinging wide the double doors and breathing in the fresh spring air. After the harsh grime of London, it was like a doorway to another world. Her ears, accustomed only to the constant buzz and roar of the city, tuned into the twittering dawn chorus. Stepping out, she skipped in unshod feet into the long grass and knew she would be happy here.

*        *        *

As he pulled the door closed behind him, for what he fully expected to be the final time, he wondered if he would miss this place. He found it hard to imagine he would ever be nostalgic for its dusty rooms or yearn for its echoey halls. He had spent most of his formative years here, but they had scarcely been joyful ones. And so he picked up the suitcase at his feet and walked away, without so much as a backward glance at the door which had held so much promise when he had first set eyes on it.

*        *        *

The door slammed shut with a force that made every corner of the tiny cell reverberate but she remained motionless. She stayed curled in on herself, pressed up against the furthest corner of the room. Further away she heard other doors open and slam and, from the midst of her terror, she wondered about who those other women might be. Did they too suffer aching nightmares of guilt and regret. This was not the golden dream that had been painted before she left her home and all her known world behind. This was not how it was meant to be.

*        *        *

There was always something exciting about the sound of the guard making his way along the train: past the hustle and bustle on the platform and the faces pressed up against the sooty glass (an action regretted later when they had to be scrubbed clean). This day had been long-awaited: dates studiously ticked-off on the kitchen calendar, bags packed and repacked to make space for crucial forgotten items, picnic lunches meticulously prepared. But for me, it was always this, the sound of the slamming of so many carriage doors, more than anything else, which signified the holidays had really begun.

*        *        *

The instructor’s voice echoed inside his head as he positioned himself in the open doorway, arching his body to meet the wind. Despite the thorough training, nothing had really prepared him for the sheer terror of looking down into the void beneath. Fingers clutching the metal, for an instant he wondered whether he could really go through with this. And then, almost without realising how it had happened, he was free-falling through the bright blue sky. Nothing had really prepared him for the sense of total exhilaration either. This, he decided, was what it felt like to be truly free.

*        *        *

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Through a doorway (1)

She leant her full weight, such as it was, against the solid oak door, wondering if sheer willpower would be enough to shift it but despite a promising creaking sound, it remained resolutely closed. She scanned the rough wood for clues, running her fingers around the edges but picked up nothing but painful splinters. Turning her back to the unyielding door, she sank to the ground, laying her aching head on her knees. Completely drained, she lacked the energy even to cry. It seemed she had reached the end of the road and there was nowhere else left to go.

*        *        *

Whatever worries the real world held, he knew that as the sun dipped beneath the horizon, he need only bend his head down low and slip through the tiny door hidden beneath the yew tree hedge to disappear into a magical world of fairies and friendship. Here the twilight hours belonged to him, and here in this ephemeral dream world nothing could harm him. Here the world glitters and sparkles under a shimmering layer of elfish dust wrapping up the promise of happiness. Until, that is, a deep, velvety darkness falls and the dream fades into the oblivion of sleep.

*        *        *

The door, ajar when she arrived, slid silently open as she nudged it with the tip of her toes. She stepped inside, drawing it to a close behind her. Finding herself in a wide entrance hall, leading to a richly carpeted staircase, she seemed to have stepped into one of the story books she and her sister had poured over when they were children. She took a couple of tentative steps forward, her footsteps echoing on the marble floor. As she wondered how to draw attention to her presence, she heard a door bang and hurrying footsteps heading towards her.

*        *        *

This was a long awaited moment. She had known, of course, that there would be both deep grief and overwhelming joy in this reunion with the only place she had ever really called home. Nonetheless the sheer physicality of the barrage of emotions that bombarded her as she slowly turned the key and pushed open the front door shocked her. She rested on the threshold for a moment, hands clasping both sides of the once brightly painted now rough and peeling doorframe; before daring to step into a place that for all her years of absence remained intimately, unerringly familiar.

*        *        *

Up until now, it had all seemed so simple. A path laid out before him leading steadily onwards to an unknown but much longed-for destination. Doors had appeared, and doors had opened. This time it was different: ahead, a dead-end, but doors to both his left and his right. Each different, certainly, but nothing which marked one in particular as being right or wrong. A seemingly impossible decision. It was then that he seemed to hear a warm, loving voice whisper, ‘you are free, walk on through the door of your choice and know that I will go with you’.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

A story project

And now for something completely different ...

This is the first of hopefully a number of blogposts inspired initially by a book I picked up called 365. It's a collection of stories, one written every day for a year, each exactly 365 words long. It occurred to me to try and do something similar but I know myself well enough to know there is no way on this earth I would keep that up. So then I wondered about trying to write 100 100word "stories" (not necessarily in 100 days ... there's no point setting myself up for that kind of failure before I even begin!) 

I've written quite a bit of poetry (although not very much recently) but while I've long fancied the idea of trying my hand at story writing it has never actually happened. I looked up the idea of 'national novel writing month' but I know my life is WAY too busy to contemplate writing a novel (ever, let alone in a month!) but 100 words, that should be doable, no? 

It was an idea that had been floating around my head with no concrete outcome for a little while until I led one of the drop-in classes at St Chad's Sanctuary and we talked about doors: we described doors and then told stories about what might happen when you stepped through them. That was the second dose of inspiration I needed to put pen to paper (cursor to screen) and I now have a collection of ten 100 word "stories" loosely about doorways. 

I'm hoping / assuming that at some point another few themes will suggest themselves to me, and that eventually I'll create my collection of 100... don't hold your breath. I'm open to suggestions but not making any promises!

It turns out 100 words is really not very many (anyone who knows me will know I rarely say something in 15 words if I can use 50!) I'm not sure whether what I've written constitutes 'stories', hence the inverted commas. Then again, I'm not sure a story is something particularly easy to define: but perhaps that's a discussion for another day. 

Anyway, for what they are worth, I'll publish them here to be read or ignored at will.

Stories to follow ...

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Reflecting on the Exodus

Peace Sunday is on the 24th September. Fellowship of Reconciliation always produces resources for churches to use to explore the theme of peace, including reflections on the readings. This year I was invited to write one of them (with a strict word limit!): so here it is:

Exodus 16: 2-15

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.” Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.’ ” While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud. The Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’ ” That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.

The people of Israel are in the desert.

Earlier, the story makes clear why they are here: they escaped from an oppressive regime under which they were violently persecuted. It is still, sadly, an all too familiar story. And so they seek the Promised Land: a place of freedom from economic oppression and safety from the violence inherent in maintaining it. Among those I have met who are seeking asylum, these two: safety and freedom, feature most frequently among the things they value here.

The passage opens with a very human struggle: from the desert, looking ahead to an amorphous dream, the Promised Land doesn’t glitter as brightly as it did from amongst the ruins of lives lived under an oppressive regime. As they struggle to cling to a belief that something better is possible, their grumbling is directed against the lack of the very basics of what is needed to survive: this is a people who want to live.

So where is God? God is in the desert. God is alongside the Israelites when they fear they will starve. God is by the broken down truck in the Sahara which is running out of water. God is on the MSF boats dragging drowning toddlers out of choppy waters. God is in the Calais camps handing out tarpaulin to those whose shelters have been ripped apart again.

And what does God do? God provides. He provides enough. More than enough, he provides an abundance: not a surplus, but an abundance. I don’t believe that is a contradiction. I also don’t believe it has changed. Biblical economics stands in stark contrast to market economics. The bible suggests God will provide and there will be enough. The market tells us we must grab and hoard more than our share. We must choose who to trust.

There are plenty of people who could write their own exodus story today. Just as God intervenes to change the story for the Israelites, so must we when we hear the cry of those still ‘in the desert’. And thus I hope that they too, through the encounter with His people, will be able to write a story which witnesses to the reality that God was in the desert and God provided enough. 

You can download the booklet with all the reflections (or order paper copies) here: http://www.for.org.uk/peacesunday/

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Journey

I can take very little credit (ie none) for the content of this particular post. The film below was made by two film studies students as their final year project.

The young men who speak in it are asylum seekers and refugees who I have the privilege to know personally. I think it is an amazingly powerful testimony to their experiences and believe it deserves as wide an audience as possible. It needs no further introduction from me, other than to say watching it is, in my opinion, ten minutes very well spent.



Friday, 2 June 2017

A way of life




 (Micah 6:8)

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. 
Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. 
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

(I saw this quote, based on the one from Micah, on social media and really liked it, but there seems to be some difficulty in finding its exact provenance. Perhaps that doesn't matter. The sentiment remains as valid whether or not we can figure out who said it first)

Thursday, 25 May 2017

On why we pray

 I originally wrote this as a report for the elders of the church where we live, but decided it might be worth sharing with a wider audience, so here it is! 

Last time we reported to elders, we spoke about some of the different projects we were involved in through our volunteering: projects which bring us into contact with many different people and situations in the city. This time, then, it feels appropriate to share something about the prayer which makes all the other aspects possible and sustainable. The rhythm of community prayer is the backbone of our life together. Its benefits aren’t as immediately tangible or easily explicable as some of the other things we do: but this is not an optional extra on the side but the very core of the existence of our community, so while it isn’t easy to explain its purpose or its value, it feels important to try.

For those who have never, or rarely, attended prayer: perhaps a concrete explanation is a good place to begin. We pray together every weekday morning at 7.30 and Monday to Thursday evenings at 7pm. Each prayer lasts between 20 and 30 minutes and includes an extended period of 8-10 minutes in silence. Morning prayer follows a set format with psalms and readings, a song, silence and prayers of intercession. Evening prayer is more varied, but always with that same commitment to reflective, contemplative silence.

The silence is an essential element of our prayer and the only thing which is written in to the community agreement. Silence is alien to a world where we are constantly bombarded by noise; and even in many church settings it is something to which we have ceased to be accustomed. In the midst of the busyness of life, it is perhaps more important than ever to recapture the space to simply be with God. In a world where value is so often determined by purpose, usefulness or achievement, it is important to recall that God is not someone we should only approach when we want something.

One “purpose” fulfilled by the routine of prayer is to provide space to “simply be”. Prayer is not something we achieve, prayer just is. We take time to enter, consciously, into what we already are: beings created and loved by God and called into relationship with him. The prayer is also a space to “simply be” together: over time there have been many who, regularly or occasionally, have found in the prayer here what they needed at a certain moment in time. Some have become friends, others we have seen only once or twice: it feels like an important thing to offer to our city.

The core values of society, I would suggest, are not entirely in keeping with the core values of the gospel. The message that your worth is in what you have, or do, or acquire is proclaimed from every advertising slogan, every shop whose doors we walk through. The message that we should fear one another is proclaimed from every newspaper report, and from many of the policies and procedures which dictate every aspect of our lives. Whatever our rational and intelligent selves tell us, it is very hard, even impossible, not to be influenced by those insidious voices. It is only by consciously placing ourselves where we can hear an alternative message that we find the support to stand for different values. I never leave prayer saying ‘today God has told me I must do this’ but I do believe that the regular routine of prayer supports me as I attempt to live by gospel values rather than society’s ones, that provides the whispered voice of guidance which leads me down, or at least towards, the road I am called to travel. I know some of our decisions are irrational by society’s standards: I think it is inherent in the gospel for that to be the case.

Above all, for me, prayer is about love: it is about consciously exposing ourselves to the unconditional love with which God surrounds us. Praying never means that God loves us more: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, just as there is nothing we can do to make God love us less, because God is love. But while the completeness of God’s love for each one is not in question, love is fulfilled when it exists in relationship: and it is this experience of love, I believe, which enables us to overcome fear, to live life to the full, to live adventurously, to be the people God wants us to be.

I have no doubt that without the prayer, much of what we do, many of the decisions we make would not be possible: I am very happy to have found a place which has enabled us to have a regular routine of prayer. It is this which sustains our community and I remain grateful for the opportunity to have this at the heart of the life I lead.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Finding Hidden Treasure

It's been over two months since I last wrote a blog post ... the longest gap between posts for quite some time, maybe even since I started this blog: but it's certainly not as if nothing worth writing about has happened in the meantime ... 

The most significant recent event in the life of our little community was the Taize Birmingham Hidden Treasure weekend. The culmination of over a year of planning and preparation, this May bank holiday it brought together over 500 young adults from across Europe to discover and share the hidden treasures of our faith and the acts of solidarity towards which it inspired us.

I aspire for this blog to be a place where I am honestly reflective, so I'm not going to lie ... there were times along the way which were both stressful and exhausting. Helping organise an international gathering involving the churches in 9 different neighbourhoods across the city as well as the city centre churches of all denominations while still maintaining all my other responsibilities was, perhaps at times, a step too far.

But that cannot take away from what was a truly beautiful celebration and an amazing opportunity to discover, explore, celebrate and share in some of the hidden treasures which surround us. Highlights, both during the preparation, and during the weekend itself, abounded.

One of the great gifts I received was the opportunity to discover so many different churches across the city and to have the opportunity to be made welcome by so many different communities. As I met with diverse churches working together to prepare to welcome the participants, daring to open their doors to welcome the stranger: my exhortation that their role was not a convenient added extra but was at the very heart of the meeting and its purpose, was both genuine and heartfelt. 

During the weekend itself, as life was shared across denominations, generations, languages and cultural experiences, the atmosphere was one of friendship, love and possibility. In the current context and climate, this was the vision of the Europe I want to be a part of: a Europe in which we are able to see that each of us each of us has something to offer but that none of us are complete on our own; a Europe which dares to come together in order to make the world a better place for those around us; a Europe which is guided by hope and not by fear. 

And then there, in the middle of a bustling city, in the midst of all the laughter and conversation; there at the centre of it all: we prayed together. I don’t have, and maybe don’t need, the words to explain that this too, was a highlight of the whole experience. 

Most readers of this blog already know that the Taize community has been a hugely significant influence on my faith journey: the centrality of both prayer and community which I discovered there has led me on the path that has shaped how I am living my life. There is no doubt in my mind that the rich and fulfilling life I now lead wouldn't have existed without it and I am very grateful. 

It is no secret that Birmingham too, a place about which I perhaps had some initial reservations when we moved here, but a place that I have adopted, or that has adopted me and which I am happy to call home, is a place I have come to deeply love. I love it in its diversity and complexity: I love it for the beauty and possibility it offers to those willing to seek them out. 

My life here for the last three and a half years has, in many ways brought the two together. During the Hidden Treasure weekend I was pleased to be able to share that coming together with so many others.

The weekend was not, for me at least, just an end in itself. Life, now, goes on: with more free evenings and a few less emails, no doubt, but with the same vision: that as churches we can pray, work and live together and that in so doing we stand as witnesses to the possibility of a life lived in all its fullness, a life in which there are a multitude of treasures which we can uncover or help to create, a life guided by hope. 

Other adventures in the life of this city now await and I hope the relationships built by these four beautiful days will be a spring board from which we will journey onwards, together.

*Photo Credit: both by David Ash

Thursday, 9 March 2017

#Share40 week 1

As part of the "Holy Habits" programme, based on the description of the life of the early Christian communities in Acts 2, the Methodist Church in Birmingham came up with the idea of "Share 40": 40 tasks, each of which was designed to encourage us to enter into a deeper relationship with someone else: with a friend or a stranger, with our neighbours and with the wider world.

So for lent, I have taken up this challenge. Some are things I would generally do anyway, so there is perhaps a question of working out what it is the next step, beyond the ordinary; or perhaps it is simply a reminder to appreciate those things in my life, those points of sharing, a little more.

Here's a brief summary of week 1.

Wednesday: "help someone with washing up" I always think of washing up as an integral part of our community life together. If I chose to tick this off first on my share40 list it was because after a particularly washing-up-creation-intensive meal I made a conscious decision to celebrate how good the food was and not to be irritated by how long the washing-up was going to take afterwards!

Thursday: "spend some time in silence with someone else" We have gone through phases of spending an evening each week in silence in the community, and while it hasn't always proved possible to maintain this tradition, it is something I love and value. We have put it in place again on Thursdays during lent.




Friday - "go out for a meal with friends" An enjoyable evening in the Balti triangle: good food, good wine, good company: hardly felt like a Lenten penance! But, you know, any excuse for a good curry.





Saturday - "share a favourite recipe with someone" There are many challenges to a community life in which there are many arrivals and departures, but there are also many joys. More people on the cooking rota is definitely one of them, and each newcomer has added interesting variety to our diet and it is good to introduce others to some of our own favourite dishes too.



Sunday - "Have lunch with friends" Lunch with friends/family, and afternoon tea (via the pub) with another friend is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and certainly something I should do more often. It was a valuable way to take time out from a busy schedule and a reminder that in between everything else that fills my time, these moments are also very important. I could even pretend I took a photo ... but I didn't.

Monday - "Pray with someone else" Prayer remains the centre of the life we have chosen here, and I recognise both the privilege and the challenge of being in a place where it is possible to make that such a priority. It is not uncommon for someone we have never met before comes and prays with us. Some become regular or occasional visitors, some we see only once and never again ... we can only hope that, however people choose to engage with the prayer, it offers them what they seek in that moment. I hope that was true for the young woman who joined us on Monday evening.

Tuesday - "Read the bible with someone else" On the first Tuesday of the month our Taize prayer is always followed by a bring and share meal and a discussion around a bible text. It was good to be able to gather and share with friends old and new, to not only read a bible text with others but also to explore what it might mean for us in our context.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

This is our world - a Lenten reflection

Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. Your country is desolate, your cities burn with fire; your fields are being stripped right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers. Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a field, like a city under siege. (Isaiah 1:4,7-8)

This is our world. 
The world we have chosen. The world we have made.

We have forsaken the Lord: as paralysed by fear we have forgotten to seek the costly grace of the gospel promise.
Our country is desolate: with the desperation and disillusionment of poverty and inequality, of exclusion and isolation, of all who have nowhere left to turn. 
Our cities burn with fire: with the burning pain of all those who suffer in body, mind or spirit.
Our fields are stripped right before us: by the environmental degradation of our unquenchable thirst for resources.
We are like cities under siege: hidden behind barbed wire and state surveillance and the teetering walls and weaponry our fear has erected around us.

This is our world.
The world we read about. The world we blame on someone else.
The world which we accept because we don’t believe we can change it.
The world we accept because of the comforts it affords us if we just keep our eyes closed.
This is the world we have chosen. The world we have made.

This is our world. 
This is our choice. The world we will make and remake.
To repent. 
To turn around.
To begin again.
To choose a different path.
To live by love and step out in faith;
To promote justice and equality, friendship and inclusivity;
To seek healing for all who suffer;
To act as stewards of all of creation;
To build bridges instead of barriers.

This is our world.
This is our choice.


Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land. (Isaiah 1:16-19)

Monday, 20 February 2017

#pray24brum

About 12 months ago, I wrote this post about helping to host #pray24brum, Birmingham Churches Together's 24 hours of prayer with, in and for the city during the week of prayer for Christian Unity. The host location has since moved on but I have remained actively involved in the organisation ... because I believe this is a really important event for the churches of the city; and I'll be honest, also for me personally.

Schools, charities, chaplaincies from universities and workplaces, and churches from across the spectrum of denominations were all represented; and with each reflecting something of their own tradition and style of prayer, we experienced the church in all its beautiful diversity. Together we prayed in words and in images, in stillness and in movement, in words and in silence, and often in music. We sang hymns passed down through generations and contemporary songs, we clapped to lively African tunes and were drawn into silence by reflective chants. Many of those present had the opportunity both to engage with the familiar and the reassuring but also to step out of our comfort zones to meet with others whose way of praying was a new experience. The number of people who were present ebbed and flowed throughout the event, but this was never about numbers anyway. It was always about providing a space of prayer that could bring grace and blessing.

For me, the 24 hours of prayer stands as a witness to the possibility of unity with our Christian brothers and sisters from different traditions and hopefully serves to bring that vision of Christ, that all may be one, a little closer to being within our reach. But while part of the purpose of the event was to celebrate and contribute to Christian Unity, the theme that was chosen, “All Are Welcome” spoke too of a much wider message. It was a recognition that Christ’s call that “all may be one” is not just an end in itself, but rather enables the church to witness to God’s love for all the world. The 24 hours of prayer was part of that witness: offering a prayer which reached out and encompassed the whole of our city and our world: in all its joys and all its suffering; all its beauty and all its complexity, in all that it is and all it can be. 

Helping to organise the 24 hours of prayer is quite a significant undertaking. In amongst everything else that occupies my energies, there were moments when I wondered if my involvement with it might now have run its course. Almost before the day had started, and certainly as it reached its conclusion, those thoughts had evaporated. By the end of the 24 hours, I felt uplifted and inspired and ready to look ahead to next year's event. If this is such a meaningful interlude in my calendar, something into which I have willingly poured a lot of time and energy, I think the reason is very simply this: it is an opportunity to be upheld and supported in my belief that prayer really matters.

For all the very different expressions of it; everyone who took part did so in the firm belief that prayer has real value. Value which is tangible even if it is indefinable. This is something I cling to at the core of my being. It is the very foundation of the life we have chosen to live here at Carrs Lane. But sometimes it can be a lonely place to be. By its very nature prayer does not have the concrete visible outcomes that are inherent to other aspects of our life and work. By its very nature it is deeply personal and often indescribable. By its very nature, prayer whispers, it does not shout. Even in the churches, let alone wider society, it feels like prayer can be all too often squeezed out by all those other 'good things' which place their demands on our energies. As we have tried to established our community life here, we have attempted to recentre our lives around a routine of prayer. Sometimes that is in itself enough. Sometimes it is good to be reminded we are not alone. 


Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Never Forget - Learning the lessons of history

Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi Death Camps. It is a chance to pause and reflect and remember: to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the holocaust and by subsequent and ongoing genocides.

It is a time to look back, to create a safe space to grieve for lives damaged and lost: but it is also a time to look forward:to a time when we can truly say "never again". The value of our history is to be found in the lessons we can learn for our future.

Birmingham commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with an event at the Town Hall on Sunday 22nd February. Past and present suffering were powerfully evoked amidst a reminder that it is all of us, and each of us, who hold the responsibility to ensure that "never again" becomes a reality.

One speaker, who had been a child refugee welcomed to Britain during the Second World War spoke of visiting the Calais Jungle, connecting it to his own experience. This matters to me, he said, because I too was a refugee. He told the story of how his mother, who should have been able to join him in the UK in 1940, was prevented from doing so by bureaucratic delay … until it was too late: another life lost. He mourned for how little seems to have changed, how little has been learned. Bureaucratic delays still keep people away from our shores. I wonder if anyone is counting how many recent deaths have their names in piles of paper on a home office desk.

I was at the event accompanying one of my Sudanese students who dared to stand up in front of a crowded banqueting hall to tell his own, more recent, experience of surviving genocide and escaping Darfur. It was a story of destruction and pain and separation and suffering. I was overwhelmed by his courage to share so articulately the story of things which no-one should ever have to experience. It was a story which was hard to speak but which he realised needed to be heard. It was a story that included the words "It is not just me. Everyone from Sudan, they have terrible stories." He wants the world to know, because he wants the world to help. I wish I knew how I could. I am honoured to count him among my friends.

There is much to weep over: in our history, and in our present. But running throughout the event there was also a thread of hope: the indomitable human spirit which, while clearly capable of great cruelty is also capable of great acts of humanity, loyalty and love. It was, as an Auschwitz Survivor who shared her experiences at the event said: "Love and life itself which allowed me to go.”

We all play a part in creating the future: we must decide what we want that future to look like. Genocide never “just happens”: the possibility of it is spawned from a language of exclusion and hatred and fear; it creeps up, fed by policies and practices designed to sow division and distrust; fed by our reluctance to rock the boat and the complacency of our comfortable life.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems of our world: but to do nothing is not a solution. To stand by and watch the suffering of others, or to turn the other way so we don't have to watch is not a solution. We have to begin somewhere, but most of all we have to begin. Each of us, all of us. In our own small ways, we can choose gestures of trust instead of fear, of welcome instead of exclusion, of love instead of hate. We can be symbols of that "love and life itself" which allows hope to go on.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Twelve and a half

Today is our 12½ year wedding anniversary, and having learned that it is Dutch tradition to celebrate such a milestone, we decided to do exactly that: a good excuse for a party to brighten up a dull January day and to bring together some of those who have been with us on the journey...

And what a journey! It hasn't always been perfect or easy; but on the whole, there is very little about the last twelve and a half years I would change.

It's been an amazing adventure and we've had a whole lot of fun along the way! I am very grateful for all the places we've discovered, people we have come to call friends, and experiences that have shaped who we have become. Above all, I am grateful to be able to share my life with someone whose outlook on the world fits so seamlessly with mine; who I know I can trust implicitly; and with whom so much more has been possible than I probably would ever have lived without him.*

It seems that, whenever we celebrate a birthday, anniversary or the like, talk turns to whether it feels as long as it has been ... in reality, though, I wonder how we can ever imagine we can describe what the passage of time feels like, or how we think we might get the measure of it. Because in reality, it slips through our fingers like shifting sands, but also clings to us like those grains between your toes that never seem to quite wash away. So these last 12½ years? Well, it both feels like no time at all, and an entire lifetime. I have plenty of memories of a wedding that doesn't feel so very long ago, but enough memories in the meantime to think those 12½ have been filled to the brim. I can see, in myself, both something that still exists of the 23-year-old me and plenty that has changed, grown and deepened in the meantime.

Perhaps what the last years feel like matters less than knowing that the journey continues. There is so much more of life still to be lived! Here's to the next twelve and a half, and beyond.


*Soppy, romantic stuff over. Normal service will be resumed in the next post!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Uncontaminated

Among the lessons I learned in December was to try to cultivate an attitude of allowing criticism (and vile abuse) to wash over me, and to be encouraged by affirmation received from friends and strangers.

One statement which has stuck with me and played on my mind ever since was "I love that you are so uncontaminated by the outside world"

At the time I was unsure how to respond... not least because I am not entirely convinced it is true.

I think it is genuinely impossible not to be "contaminated": I recognise my complicity in the sins of the world; and in my lifestyle and choices the many compromises I make between the values I aspire to and the reality by which I live.

Equally, I frequently feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the things that are "wrong" with the world and I recognise my own anger and frustration at situations and suffering I feel are beyond my power to control.

But on reflection, I can also acknowledge the possibility of some truth in it. And I think it is this. If I am able to live my life in a way that enables me to be less "contaminated" by the outside world it is not, I hope, to do with not seeing or being effected by the realities around me or even being implicated in them. Rather, I wonder if it  has something to do with building an inner life which enables me to begin to respond to that world without being paralysed by it.

Most of those who know me will know that my faith is hugely important to me. Most of those who know me best will also know that it is not a part of my life about which I necessarily find it easy to communicate. Sometimes it feels important to try.

For many years I have tried to commit to a routine of regular, contemplative prayer. Since moving to Carrs Lane it has been more reliable and more sustained. My prayer life has not been one of neon lights and signs from heaven and "Damascus Road" experiences; nor one of desiring to placate a vengeful God or store up brownie points for some unknown scenario after my death: rather it has been one of gradually opening up to a God who is and only can be love; opening up to a voice that whispers 'more is possible than you can imagine'.

My journey of faith has not been one towards being untouched by the world, but perhaps towards being unafraid of it... and perhaps it is this journey towards a love which overcomes fear that gives the appearance of being less "contaminated." I am not uncontaminated by the outside world. But I hope I am less afraid of it than I might otherwise be. It is, I am well aware, a journey which is far from over.

This blog is not intended to read like a bit of an ego trip. I genuinely don't think this is about ego because it is not about something achieved by my own abilities. It is about fear, and about love, and about the power of love to overcome fear. If I have managed to be less "contaminated" it is not by my own efforts but by the grace of God: for which I give thanks.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Let's talk about destitution

When we discussed with Hope Projects the idea of taking the story about our house to the media, one of our hopes was that it might be an opportunity to raise some awareness of the scandal of asylum destitution: its causes and its implications, possibly even straying into what makes destitute asylum seekers particularly vulnerable, even compared to others experiencing the effects of the deeply worrying growth in homelessness and unsuitable temporary accommodation.

It was not to be ... because it soon became apparent that asylum destitution was a topic those we spoke to were determined to studiously avoid. The thing is, I guess, destitution is inherently a deeply political topic, and if what you want to write is a nice, fluffy, 'isn't this lovely' pre-Christmas story, political, it seems, doesn't fit very well.

I am well aware my blog doesn't have quite the exposure of some of the other media we have appeared in recently, but it is the space where I get to share the stories I want to tell, or write about the issues I think need to be heard.

And I think we need to talk about asylum destitution.

This is the 21st century. This is the UK. We describe ourselves as a developed and a civilised nation. We claim to promote the virtues of freedom and justice and tolerance and respect. We are one of the wealthiest countries in a world that is richer than it has ever been.

And all too often we leave people who have come here seeking sanctuary with literally nothing.

There are people to whom we say "you are not welcome". We say it to fit in with a discourse of hatred and fear that has come to dominate the public conversation around migration. We do so to not be a 'soft touch' because somewhere in our recent history we decided that the fact people saw us a a place of welcome and safety was something to be ashamed of rather than proud of.

And so it is that in order to persuade / encourage / force these people off our soil, as a country we have decided it is appropriate to leave them with nothing. No roof over their head. No money to buy food. "No recourse to public funds": a trite phrase trotted out behind which we hide a miserable reality.

Many of those who have experienced destitution have done so as the result of a notoriously complicated asylum system which they have struggled to navigate, or because poor legal advice and representation has failed to enable them to make their case effectively. For others the fear and trauma they have experienced, or the home office's inability or unwillingness to understand the realities they have left behind, limits their ability to make a coherent case.

They include people who cannot return home because they have no papers or rights granted by any other country so by the refusal of asylum here become effectively stateless with literally nowhere to turn for help. They include those who are too terrified to dream of accepting voluntary return to a country where they fear for their life and for whom even hunger and homelessness in Britain feels like a safer option. They even include those from countries to which Britain will not send people back because its "too dangerous" ... too dangerous to deport, but not so dangerous we'll grant you asylum... answers on a postcard as to how that makes any kind of sense?! Soon, with proposed legislation changes, they could also include hundred of families with young children.

At best these people are reliant on charities struggling on a shoe string, the goodwill of random strangers or the generosity of friends who may have very little themselves. At worst they are vulnerable to disappearing into a web of exploitation and abuse. Many, eventually, with the right advice and legal support have their right to remain recognised but as they settle into life here they do so with the added burden of this experience of exclusion in a place that should have been reaching out open hands when they needed them most.

We need to talk about asylum destitution. The minority who shout a rhetoric of hate do so very vociferously. It is imperative, then, that those of us who think such issues are a scandal in our society somehow find a way to raise our many voices to speak an alternative message loudly enough to be heard.

Monday, 26 December 2016

This is Joy

In the midst 
Of a world of darkness
Where the news carries anger and pain
This is joy:
The fragile song
Of a spirit that dares to dance
A sliver of silver in a stricken world
A simple sign
That hope lives on
As the earth reaches to heaven.

In the midst 
Of a world of fear
Where the news carries division and hurt
This is joy:
The fragile life
Of a spirit that dares to come
A sliver of silver in a darkening sky
A simple sign
That hope lives on
As heaven touches the earth.


Merry Christmas!

Friday, 16 December 2016

A house of Hope

Perhaps I should leave the dust to settle on this week for a little longer before I write this post, and I am sure there will be further reflection to follow, but after one of the stranger weeks in my life it feels important to write something here... to write something entirely in my own words.

For context, (in case those reading this don't know what I am talking about), the week in a nutshell is that having bought a house to house destitute asylum seekers we, together with the charity we are working with Hope Projects, took the story to the media. We thought the local paper might be interested. In reality, the story went viral and has been published and shared by a wide variety of media outlets (with varying degrees of accurate representation.)

Maybe the story has been told quite enough: but the difference here is that I can explain myself how I want to and tell the story in my own words. No-one is asking me questions which elicit particular answers which may or may not contain the essence of what I want to say; no-one gets to cut which bits they think are newsworthy; and no-one gets to just make stuff up.

For probably 18 months or more, we have been reflecting on and working towards the idea of buying a house to house destitute asylum seekers. This was no "random" act but the fruit of a life of prayer over the last few years which made it seem possible.

The issues around destitution in the asylum system are of course highly complex, but it remains a scandal to me that in the 21st century in one of the richest countries on earth, those who come here seeking safety and freedom find themselves abandoned with nothing. As stewards of our wealth, we decided we could make a difference, undoubtedly to those who live in the property, but also more widely in terms of the message of welcome we are sending and where we are choosing to stand.

We are very excited that, after all the prayer and reflection, after the house hunting and organising, the project is finally coming to fruition and some of the most vulnerable people in Birmingham will be moving in to the house. We are very pleased that they will be safe and warm while they work with Hope to potentially find a way back into a system that has thus far failed them.

I'll be honest, I was, initially, somewhat ambivalent about going to the media with the story. We know of many, many other people who are doing things which are just as good and better to help this and other vulnerable groups. We know people who, in whatever way, are quietly getting on with doing what they can to make the world a better place. We didn't want to stand up and shout look at us, aren't we great. I think our friends know that. I hope some of those who have read the story do too.

If we agreed to talk to the media it was because we recognised that this could be a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on a hidden issue: destitute asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds, they don't, to all intents and purposes, officially even exist. It was a chance to raise awareness of Hope Projects, who struggle on a shoestring budget to provide a lifeline: practically, emotionally, legally to those on the very margins of our society. It was a chance to remind ourselves and others, that, in the midst of the complexity and enormity of these issues we do not have to remain paralysed but can, each in our own small way, do something. It was a chance to communicate an alternative, positive message around the issue of asylum, one of hope and trust and welcome: one which needs to be heard.

And I have no regrets. (well, maybe a few minor ones about mistakes along the way...) I am very grateful for (most of) the coverage we have received and the opportunity to share some of what inspired us to take this step. Even those news outlets who have chosen to invent both the facts and the quotes in their articles have still, generally, presented the story in a positive way, and given the general attitudes to those seeking asylum from certain sections of the press, that feels like no bad thing. I have been completely overwhelmed and deeply humbled by the response to the story, and by the affirmation we have encountered.

But I would be wrong not to admit that we have also experienced comments which have been very hurtful and have had a taste of what it feels like to be misrepresented. At times it has been extremely stressful. At times this week I have felt emotionally drained and physically exhausted. There have been tears.

It has been only a week. It has, perhaps, been valuable in giving me the tiniest of tastes of what it must feel like to be constantly the subject of misrepresentation and hatred. It has also, though, given me an insight into how valuable the positive messages of support are, I have been upheld by the support and love of both friends and strangers and for this I am very grateful. It has served as a reminder that, while it may not feel like much, our simple messages of welcome to those on the margins undoubtedly make a real difference.

If the last week has achieved anything at all, I hope it has been to inspire others to be part of that alternative discourse, the one that say "you are welcome." I hope that we have played our small part in helping that whispered message of hope, acceptance and love, to be ever so slightly louder. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

On Our Doorstep

As you probably know, we live in a church in city centre Birmingham. It is, in many ways, a strange place to live: our nearest neighbours are mostly not other homes, but shops and offices. Those who sleep nearby are usually transient: the luckier ones, in local hotels; the unluckier, in local doorways.

Sadly, we have become accustomed, though I hope not hardened, to the reality of seeing homeless people on the streets of the city centre, and often, quite literally, on our doorstep. Even in the three and a half years we have been here, we don’t need statistical evidence to tell us that homelessness in our city has increased: we have seen it happening before our very eyes.

One evening, a few weeks ago, when we were returning late in the evening from I don’t remember where, we came to the front door of the church to find a homeless man curled up in a sleeping bag on the porch.

I would be the first to admit that the homeless community, if such a disparate group can be described as such, is not one with which I have found it easy to engage. I am not proud of the fact that often, I ‘walk by on the other side’ but I can’t deny the reality. There are good reasons: I am busily engaged with other things which are equally valid and valuable ministries; and less good ones: mostly tied up, almost certainly in fear and prejudice, but couched more comfortably in the language of complex challenges which are beyond my capacities.

But this particular encounter has stayed with me. It struck me because of the exchange of words, and in particular because of his opening words to us as we approached: “I’m sorry”

It struck me because it drew attention to our creation of and participation in the kind of world in which a man forced to sleep on a church door step feels he needs to apologise to the one going in to sleep in a warm bed inside. Those words stopped me in my tracks and made me deeply, deeply sad for our society.

He explained he had chosen the spot because our CCTV made him feel safer. He had recently returned to Birmingham, was not familiar with the communities here that might offer a degree of comfort and safety to many of those who are outside our church. He offered to move away. 

I did not invite him in: maybe I should have, but maybe not. At least I was able to assure him he was welcome to sleep on our porch. I was able to say that it should be me that was apologising, for a society and situation in which he had no choice but to sleep outside. I was able to offer a cup of hot coffee and to hear something of his story, albeit for only a few minutes. I imagine it is a story which is both unique and also exactly the same as the many others who spend their nights in our city centre’s doorways.

He told us he had a housing appointment the following morning. I haven’t seen him since. I hope his story, at least, has a happy ending. There are many which don’t. Only last week the local news told us of a homeless man discovered dead on the street. He was in his thirties. The same age, more or less, as me.

When we moved here, one of the roles the church asked of us was to listen to the voices of the city. The homeless who congregate around our building are, perhaps more than any other, one of the groups whose voice we should be straining to hear. I have not found it easy.

Though he will never know it, I am grateful for one tiny opportunity to hear something of one of those voices.