As a vicar, there are constant jobs waiting to be done. There are emails that need to be answered, baptism certificates that need to be prepared and committee minutes that have to be finished. The rubbish has to be put out on Monday morning and the hall needs to be cleared ready for our Mother & Toddler Group. Chairs are forever being taken out and put back again after various church services. It can take me the whole week properly to follow up conversations from the Sunday before and to prepare the news sheet for the Sunday following.
Amidst the organizational tasks that need to be completed, there is also a deep Biblical instinct to turn towards the needs of the poor, vulnerable and dispossessed who are often underrepresented in the church pews; if I turn to the edges of the community my congregation will get less attention. It can only have been a surprise to the 99 sheep who get left on their own while their shepherd left them to go and look for the one that had got lost (Luke 15:4).
There is no church growth in two years of accompanying an Iraqi-Kurd, to and from the courts as he applies and appeals for leave to remain in the UK. Hawre came to England when he was 16 and has now been applying for 11 years for leave to remain in the UK. There is no sermon preparation time in my sitting in hospital with Sarah as she sits awaits a diagnosis of cancer and then accompanying her in the difficult days ahead through the different stages of mastectomy and chemotherapy.
God lives among the marginalised, the forgotten and the challenging. We are blessed when we learn to recognise how our God lives amongst us in disguise. Those who are poor, vulnerable and dispossessed become our teachers. Hawre, for example, is a modern day victim of war and his plight taught me how people can use Remembrance Sunday as a way of distancing themselves from war. Thinking only of those that died 100 years ago in World War 1 obscures the fact that more people have been killed by war in the last 90 years than in the previous 200 and more women and children have been killed than soldiers. The effects of war are ongoing
Listening to the voice of the dispossessed is something that needs constantly to be re learnt. I pray upside down prayers different to what others might conventionally do. I prayed with Jane, suffering from glaucoma and incontinence, that she would not be passed fit to work because if she were, she would lose her Employment Support Allowance (ESA). I learn more readily to share what I have with others. A homeless person told me how much he liked my coat. I took off and gave to him the coat that he had admired and walked home, promptly more appreciative of the fact of my being able to afford new clothes for myself.
Institutionally also, listening to the voice of the poor is something that needs constantly to be revisited. We went to the Diocese with a vision for a Holy Communion Service at night and so creating a church of the homeless for the homeless. We ran into our own version of the Bishop of Burnley’s prophetic words to New Wine in 2017. The Bishop said that he was “astonished at the number of people Jesus was calling to plant new churches as long as they were in Zones 1 and 2 of the London transport system.” Our version was being told that our church of rough sleepers would need to be self-financing within three years. Their logic was self-defeating since a financially secure rough sleeper wouldn’t be sleeping rough.
The answer lies with God and with other people. Poverty is not just about money. Poverty is people not knowing what to do and not having anyone to do it with. To be with the poor is to listen, learn and receive from them their gift of friendship. Charity is not about doing things for the poor but being with the poor. Since, as Christians, we believe that we meet Christ in the poor (Matt 25:40), charity is not just another way for us to be kind to someone less fortunate than ourselves. We benefit from them just as much as they ever do from us.