A Humble Meal

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How does Hairy Crab sound to you as an appetizer? Or Sea Slug? A bite of Toad on a Stick maybe? Anyone for Upturned Turtle Soup?

These are all dishes that I was honoured to eat when I would travel to mainland China in a former job. I say ‘honoured’ because these were all dishes that I was invited to partake in as an honoured guest.

Chinese culture places a great deal of weight in hierarchy and respect, and the guest with the most hierarchical seniority is placed literally in the place of honour, particularly when it comes to dining. I have to say that, as lovely as the intent was, I could sometimes have done without the honour when it came to being the first person to tuck into whichever delicacy was the order of the day!

This idea may seem alien to us, but as codified and defined as this Chinese culture of honour is, we have our own, more informal equivalent in British culture. Often, we give the place of honour to the person who appears like they have their life together most; the businessman in a sharp suit, or the young woman wearing haute couture, the local celebrity or dignitary. This ‘honouring’ might play itself out in who we choose to speak to on public transport, who we sit next to on a park bench, or how we receive someone who comes through the door of one of our projects. This is something we all do at times; it’s our in-built, human default.

In our work at Oasis Community Housing we strive for a higher standard. Out of our value of Worth comes a viewpoint that all people are equally valuable, regardless of what appearances or social standing suggests. From this belief comes the practice of humility both in how we view ourselves and others.

In the Bible, James the brother of Jesus implores the early Church to outwork this view of humility, saying;

“If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2, v 3-4).

And the practice of humility is not only a standard for how we should treat others. It’s also a healthy lens through which we can understand ourselves. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poorest of the poor ‘untouchables’ for decades in India, and yet rubbed shoulders with Kings and Presidents said:

“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” 

It’s pride which gets in the way of this humility. It’s pride which, in the words of C.S. Lewis,

“…has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”

When we recognise pride in anyone, it is often the least attractive form of the human condition. It’s why so many were drawn to Nelson Mandela, and why so many are put off by President Trump today. Pride says ‘it’s my contribution and mine only which matters’. Humility says,

‘I am not the answer in myself’.

As an organisation with a Christian ethos, we try to remember that Jesus washed his follower’s feet – a grimy, lowly task normally reserved for the person of least status in any gathering. This humility, this service, is the kind of leadership that each of us should aspire to.

It’s a service that I was humbled to  see illustrated literally and powerfully recently by one of our volunteers, Liz, in Basis Sunderland:

Washing the disciple's feet

This standard of behaviour is something that, as the Chief Executive of OCH, I have often fallen well short of. Pride (in my case often manifesting as stubbornness) can get the better of all of us from time to time. Thankfully, humility is the antidote to pride, a medicine which banishes the symptoms. And humility becomes comes alive in the service of others. As Rev Martin Luther King Jr said:

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

 

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Brexit & Standing in Awe

As the axiom goes, we should always “Walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Because then you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have their shoes”. At least, I’m sure it’s something along those lines.

Perhaps Father Gregory Boyle expresses the sentiment better when he says,

“…the ultimate measure of health in any community might well reside in our ability to stand in awe at what folks have to carry, rather in judgement at how they carry it”.

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In a time when our country seems riven with judgement, disagreement and even hatred over Brexit, the message of forgiveness can itself be hard to bear. If you’re like me, my reserves of understanding and graciousness have rarely ran so low.

Much of our time at Oasis Community Housing is spent walking in the shoes of the people that we serve: whether-in-one to one sessions, group work, training, doing interviews and case studies, or just lending a listening ear for someone who needs to be heard. We seek to understand.

As we do so, we hear tales of abandonment and trauma, of abuse and hopelessness, of wilful ignorance and neglect. In these circumstances, it’s hard not to become angry, particularly with those who have perpetrated such cruelty on the person who sits in front of us. If we’re honest with ourselves, there are times when we also feel angry or hurt by the behaviour of those we’re serving, whether towards others or towards us.

And there is a place for this. There is nothing wrong with righteous anger against injustice. Equally, we should not be required to accept or tolerate hurtful behaviour which is directed at us, even when it’s coming from a place of brokenness.

But we also know that when we hold onto anger, over time it corrodes and destroys. And then we become the victim, the broken, the abandoned.

220px-Senator_Gordon_Wilson

There has been a lot of talk about Northern Ireland in the Brexit debate, and you may know the story of Gordon Wilson. Gordon became famous in 1987 when he and his daughter were caught up in the IRA bombing of the war memorial in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day. 60 people were badly injured that day, and 11 killed, including Gordon’s daughter Marie. The following day, Gordon gave an interview to the BBC which went around the world, recounting their last moments together under the rubble:

“She held my hand tightly and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much’. Those were her exact words to me and those were the last words I ever heard her say.”

“But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”

What a horrendous situation to be in. Placed in a similar scenario, as a father, I think I would be consumed by rage. But Gordon Wilson chose another path. The outcome to his response of forgiveness was a genuinely seminal moment of change in the Northern Irish Troubles. His words reverberated around the islands of Ireland and Great Britain, and then around the world. I still remember watching them on the evening news as a ten year-old and being astounded by his grace. In retrospect, they made a huge contribution to the Northern Irish peace process.

It strikes me that Jesus also spent 33 years walking in the shoes of human experience, and he understood what it is to be hurt more than most. As a Christian, when I think of Forgiveness, I often think of his words to the assembled crowd as he hung on the Cross; “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” What a revolutionary statement. One that changes everything.

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces in the universe – both in eternity and in the here and now. Just as unforgiveness and anger can tear it apart, Forgiveness can transform our world for the good. It may be an unpopular message right now, but our country – we – need forgiveness more than ever. 

Standing in the Right Place

“The strategy of Jesus is not centred on taking the right stand on issues, but in standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins”

– Father Gregory Boyle, Homeboy Industries

Three weeks ago I stood in the early morning rain outside of a crematorium in the North East of England with a small knot of friends in quiet prayer and reflection. Together we were taking part in a small act of solidarity, and of gentle protest against an event which felt more 19th than 21st Century.

We were there to mark the passing of a man called Peter, and of what was intended to pass as a committal. Whilst it didn’t define him – indeed the details were unknown to most people until the very end – Peter had been homeless in the last years of his life. He had died the week before in a local hospital, without family or anyone able or willing to take responsibility for funeral costs.

Despite our best efforts to gain permission to enter the crematorium to hold our quiet vigil, we were standing outside because hospital protocol denied us and any other friends unable or unwilling to pay the thousands of pounds required for a funeral the right to join the undertakers and the hospital chaplain beside Peter’s coffin at the end.

As a concession to our determination to be there, the authorities had reluctantly allowed one of our group – and one only – to stand with the coffin for the three or four minutes that it took to load and dispatch it. They were not happy about this. Fears of funerals on the cheap and uncertainty about the beliefs of the deceased had been hinted at in the days before as we made our case for being allowed to attend. Arguments about tough spending choices and a prioritisation for care for the living were made.

And yet our presence inside the crematorium building for 15 or 20 minutes would have made no difference whatsoever to the cost of what happened there that morning. As it happens, Peter’s friends knew that he was a Christian, and so a simple Christian burial would have been possible. But regardless of whether his faith had been known or not, whether Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic or other, there was no need to leave him alone, or to allow his passing to be unmarked.

In a not entirely unkind attempt to outline what was set to happen that morning and to perhaps dampen our conviction about being there in places that the lashing rain had not yet reached, the undertaker explained that this was “more of a disposal than a funeral”.

More of a disposal than a funeral. What has our society become? How do we now value human dignity to such a poor extent that the end of someone’s life is regarded as a disposal if they don’t have the financial means to provide otherwise?

Yes, care for the living should be our priority. But how did we get to the point where our choice was either care for the living or dignity and recognition for those who have passed? We have to aim for better than that.

And in truth, our society had let Peter down long before this last indignity. That he had been sleeping rough under bridges and in abandoned buildings for the last nine months of his life was an even bigger affront to the inherent worth of his humanity, created in the image of God like every one of us.

There is a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour which contains a sonnet that I have reflected on in the weeks since the events that I describe here. The second verse reads:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That the current President of the United States is actually intent on building a wall to keep out these huddled masses tells us a great deal about the state the world in 2018.

In our work at Oasis Aquila Housing we are determined to be a place of hope, both for our staff who see untold horrors on a day to day basis, and of course for those whom we serve, whether they are seeking safety from domestic violence, are sleeping on the streets, are stuck in a cycle if joblessness or have suddenly found themselves homeless.

As it happens, we are a charity with a Christian ethos. But we serve anyone who needs us because we recognise the inherent worth of all people.

In a statement which has reverberated through the ages, Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And so, the question that all of us are left with as we mull our response to what society has become is this: where will we stand?

 

Never Give Up

I don’t like the word Homeless. It reduces people to a deficit. It identifies them in terms of something that they lack. Of course, it has a purpose. Like the advert, it does what it says on the tin, describing a circumstance in which someone can find themselves. Increasingly it describes a phenomenon that, no matter where you live, is visible. Homelessness is a societal issue, and it has common – often political – causes and consequences. But at its heart it is a deeply personal problem, unique to the person it is affecting in a given moment: there are as many sides to homelessness as there are people who are homeless.

As the prevalence and awareness of homelessness grows in our towns, cities and our national conversation, every month brings a shocking new statistic. In November 2017 it was revealed that the number of homeless people in the UK had risen to 300,000, larger than the population of Newcastle. In January we learned that the Government’s rough sleeper count showed that 4,751 people were sleeping rough on a given night, a 15% increase since the previous year.

But the danger of these overwhelming statistics, in an echo of Stalin’s famous phrase, is that they mask the tragedies and travails of individuals affected by homelessness.

More importantly, they also mask the potential of people who find themselves homeless. Homeless people are just that: people. How easy it is to take a wide berth round that woman in the sleeping bag, in the doorway on the High Street. How natural to write off the man swaying and slurring in the corner of the shopping mall. And how common to think, that these portrayals of homelessness are the archetype. The fact is, they’re not. Most people experiencing homelessness are families shunted from temporary solution to temporary solution. But one common thread we must hold onto regardless is the humanity of the person affected.

At Oasis Aquila Housing, our vision is for everyone to be part of a community where they are included, belong and have what they need to reach their God-given potential. And we regularly see impossible situations transformed for good.

This week two of our team were at a speed networking event in a job centre near one of our Basis drop-in projects. Our team had 8 minutes with each department telling all of the staff there about Basis and the work we do. At the end an adviser approached them and said she had a man in last week who she’d seen two years previously. Two years ago Andrew* was sleeping rough, desperate and suicidal. She said he was a complete mess: emotionally, mentally and physically. She signed him on and sent him to Basis. When she saw him last week she didn’t recognise him until she pulled up his notes. It turned out that in the period since he’d last been in he’d been to Basis, had a shower, used the laundry, got clothes and food, and was supported into accommodation and employment. He was only at the job centre as he was between temporary contracts and was due to start a new job in a couple of days. The adviser couldn’t believe the difference in him and was very keen to stress that Basis had saved his life.

The credit for this transformation goes first and foremost to Andrew, the man at the heart of the story. It also goes to show that no-one should be written-off, that our hopefulness is well-placed, and that our perseverance matters.

Next time you come across a person affected by homelessness, think of Andrew, and what’s possible when we focus not on what we lack but what we have, not on what separates us but what we have in common.

 

*Not his real name

Bright as the Stars

It’s been a challenging week. More than that, with the events in Manchester, it’s been a tragic week. Our thoughts and our prayers have been with those who have lost loved ones, those whose loved ones have been injured, and everyone who has been affected by a senseless act of violence.

On Thursday, people all around the country will stop at 11am for a minute’s silence in response to the Manchester attack. It’s right that we should do this, even as we feel powerless and overwhelmed by the mounting tragedies around us: Manchester, Westminster, Paris, Stockholm, Mosul, Aleppo, Yemen – the list seems endless.

In my work leading a Homelessness charity, I regularly encounter people who have been pulled under by the riptides of tragedy. Indeed the rest of the staff encounter difficult and moving situations that our service users are facing far more than I do, and yet carry on.

And I still have hope. For me, my faith in Jesus reminds me that all things – no matter how dark – can be redeemed.

MLK

One of my heroes is Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, at the height of the struggle for freedom and equality for African-Americans – a struggle for which he had been imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, slandered, and which would ultimately cost him his life – King said the following in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He described an imagined conversation that he might have with God in which he could choose any point in history to live;

“…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

 The world is still messed up. Our circumstances may be difficult. But we can see the stars brighter than ever. And I’m glad I’m living in 2017.

In the long run, we are all dead

It was famously John Maynard Keynes who uttered the phrase,

“In the long run, we are all dead”.

Since I returned recently from meeting refugees in Jordan, his axiom has been wedged in my mind.

On face value, Keynes’ pronouncement could be understood as a theological, even existential statement. And a pessimistic one at that: if we’re all heading in one direction, what’s the point in trying to change anything?

Sitting on the floor of a run-down apartment in a run-down suburb of Amman, listening to the story of the family of Syrian refugees who lived there, it was hard not to become pessimistic. We had gone there as representatives of Bible Society, taking a package of food and essential items at the request of the family themselves and on the recommendation of mutual friends. Yusuf, Aisha* and their two young daughters used to live in a suburb of Damascus, one in which they and other Sunni Muslims lived peaceably with Shia Muslims, Christians and Alawites. Theirs had been a normal, lovely family life. In Damascus, Yusuf had his own business, making and selling shoes.

But one day in 2013, life was rudely interrupted when the civil war brought death to their neighbourhood, in the shape of the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters.

Through a veil of tears, Yusuf told me how these brutal soldiers behaved like animals, beheading two of his Christian neighbours. Yusuf escaped with his life, although not before he witnessed a massacre and was himself shot in the leg. He and his family fled to another part of Syria, eventually making it to Jordan and to the squalor, unemployment and despair in which they now find themselves.

As I write these words, the facts take on a strange unreality. I have to remind myself that these events really did happen. Looking Yusuf in the eye was enough to confirm it.

In the long run, we are all dead.

The truth is Keynes, the Economist, was making an optimistic case for taking action when the economy was failing and people were suffering unemployment and hardship. His was an injunction to do something, to take action, to believe in a better alternative, to not submit to despair and powerlessness. It was a statement of faith and of hopefulness.

Yet there is another, deeper, place of faith, and of hope, compared to which the hope of Economics is a mere shadow. It’s the reason why we were sitting in that apartment in a slum in Amman with a family who had been though more horror and hardship in a few months than I expect to have in an entire lifetime.

As he thanked us for the food parcel, Yusuf asked me why we had come. I was able to tell him of a Great Commandment, of an injunction to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, of a view of the world in which we really are our brother’s keeper, whoever and wherever in the world he is.

And I was able to offer a message of hope to him and his family;

The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord cause his face to shine upon you, and be gracious towards you. The Lord turn his face towards you, and grant you peace.

In the long run, we’re all dead. So in the short run, let’s learn how to love.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned in the story.

Do Not Worry

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind.

The kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday

When the columnist Mary Schmich wrote these words in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 they, along with the rest of the column Wear Sunscreen became a viral sensation. They so struck a chord that when Baz Luhrmann turned them into an ambient dance track, it became a number 1 hit in several countries.

I was partly responsible for the success of this single (well, I bought the CD along with thousands of others). There are some great one-liners in there: Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone; The older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young; Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you’re 40, it will look 85; and of course, wear sunscreen. But the stanza above has always particularly struck me.

I was recently blindsided in Guatemala when I met José*. I’d gone with my colleagues from the Bible Society to a government-run shelter for children just outside of Guatemala City. All of the 800 boys and girls in the shelter were in some way or another wards of the State. Some were orphans, some had special educational needs, and some had been rescued from gangs – nine year-olds who had been given a gun and told to kill. These children rarely if ever leave the shelter, both for their own safety and for the safety of others.

During my visit I had the privilege to speak to fifty of the boys as part of a gathering organised by the Bible Society volunteers. What do you say in such a situation? I’ve rarely felt so inadequate. As I stumbled through a short talk about David the Shepherd boy, I was increasingly aware of the privileges of my childhood and that of my own children.

After I’d finished a young man, José, asked to speak with me privately. As we withdrew to a corner I asked, via translation, what was on his mind. Immediately his face, which had been a hard and expressionless mask, crumpled as the tears rolled down. Between sobs, José told us that when he was a young boy, he was abandoned by his parents and taken in by his aunt. Not long afterwards, his aunt also abandoned him and he became a ward of the State, entering the government shelter aged 11. In the intervening years he has never been visited by a family member. Not once. This is the same experience as eighty percent of the children in the shelter. Today, aged 17, approaching his birthday and official adulthood, he is facing up to the prospect of having to leave the shelter and create a life for himself beyond the familiar walls. And he was terrified. He was preparing to leave the only home he’d ever known, for a world that had, in the experience of his short life, totally rejected him.

I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, the isolation. And the reality was, as I stood with José in the concrete yard of an institution full of forgotten children, that Schmich’s words on their own, however valiant in sentiment and however beautifully-crafted, had a hollow ring to them.

But there’s another famous passage that exhorts us not to worry. In the Gospels, Matthew records Jesus saying:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Matthew 6

These words took on a new meaning for me that day. And how, might you ask, do they differ from Schmich’s poignant soliloquy? Because we are in the hands of God himself. Not a distant, impersonal God, sitting on a cloud, itching to punish us. But a God who broke into our world as a helpless baby, born with the hint of human disgrace hanging over his head; the child of refugees, hunted by the authorities, raised in poverty and persecuted for bringing a message of mercy and love.

Guatemala Volcano Antigua

In the light of Jesus’ own story, every one of those children in that shelter can afford to hope. All of them can have a bright future. And if the Bible story and its message of restoration seems distant to them, all the children have to do is look at the lead Bible Society volunteer, Michael*: his tattoo-sleeves, his jail-time for gang membership, and the humility and fatherly love that he brings to them every week in a place that so few will visit.

I and the Bible Society volunteers were able to remind José of some of this. Where my words failed me, God’s words were enough. As we wept together, I was able to remind José of God’s promise to Jeremiah, that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you“, of the words of the Psalmist that he was “fearfully, and wonderfully made”. And I was able to share those other words God gave to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 

 

*I’ve changed names for the sake of the safety and dignity of the people concerned.