Well I am fresh back from my experience at the night shelter run by St Mary's Somerstown near Euston and I have to say that it was an eye-opening experience.
It was indeed an eyeopener but not for the reasons I might have thought before I went. I spent my time using so MANY facets of my ministry both with a teenager, with another volunteer discussing the issue and the theology of women priests as well as discussing the life of Christ with our guests.
I was terribly daunted at the prospect of helping and sleeping at a night shelter for the homeless so I was very pleased when my friend Ian offered to pick me up on his way from Oxford so we got the opportunity to share our trepidations.
We arrived to meet some of the parishioners who are part of the team who run the shelter as part of a scheme with other local churchs who man seven locations throughout the three coldest months, accomodating thirteen homeless people each night and offering a meal to others too.
Shortly after we'd laid down our stuff and explored the history of the church (founded by the ever so fantastic catholic Oxford Movement) we heard a testimony from Bill who was on the streets for over ten years after family tragedy left him a man broken in will and broken in spirit. He told us about his turn around and his commitment to working with and for people who are on the streets.
One of the most eye-opening things was Bill's account (corroborated by other volunteers) that many of the government statistics about the number of people living on the street are woefully underestimating the myriad of people without a home. On the day that the government announced that there were no more than 250 homeless people in London, Bill walked through London, in a straight line, from the church, just off the Euston road, to the Thames. In that one straight line he counted over 350 people sleeping in doorways and in bin stores. Jan one of the volunteers told us how shelters knew well that the authorities were seeking to hide the true levels of rough sleepers. When counts were made, those counting were restricted to count ony in safe areas, any homeless person spending that night in a shelter was not counted (and of course the counts are done when the authorities ensure that the shelters are full) and others are moved out of the area of the count. The national figure is most likely closer to 100,000 people without a home to call their own. A real eye-opener
Yet this wasn't the greatest shock for me.
No the most amazing thing about meeting these people who spent the night at St Mary's was discovering how much they are NOT terrifying, NOT all drunks and drug addicts, NOT all poorly dressed and unclean. No. They were people, hardly distinguishable from those of us who volunteered to help. Ok some of them clearly had some of the issues you might suspect but there were others that you would NEVER have been able to distinguish from anybody else walking around London. Their levels of education, qualification and sophistication were as varied as those of the volunteers. What they each had in common was their individual, particular story. Some had been on the streets for years and were happy to remain so. Aaron reflected with us that he considered the friends he had met on the streets to be his family. They were the people who knew him whilst his birth family did not understand. Some were clearly deeply troubled by personal tragedy which had caused them to drop out of the society they had been a part of. Others however had not been on the streets long but just had nowhere to go.
Meeting the other volunteers was also a most fascinating experience. Now I have done it once I could easily see myself working in a shelter again. Yes the behaviour of some is uncomfortable and sometimes awkward or down right rude but the majority of people were so very grateful for what you quickly realise really is the LEAST we could do. It has started what I think will be a continuing reflection about what I might do in the future.
An interesting aside - I met a man (one of the volunteers) whose ancestor traced his heritage back to several of the VERY obscure saints I studied for my PhD. I really didn't expect to be discussing Arnulf of Metz and Radegund when I set out yesterday.
Sorry this has been rather a mind-dump of thoughts. I shall be reflecting more on it all but I know there are some people out there who will be wanting to know my thoughts on it all. If you have ever considered volunteering or even better if you have always thought it was something you couldn't POSSIBLY do, open yourself up to this opportunity and volunteer NOW. It is not as frightening as you think and you will connect with humanity in awamzing new ways by letting go of those fears and taking that leap of faith.
Finally, with my recent postings in mind, we really need to think about the log in our own eye here in the UK before we look to the Third World to MAKE POVERTY HISTORY.