Friday, 14 April 2017

A day with the homeless

The other day, as part of my Holy Week spending time with those who experience the things Jesus experienced during his final week, I spent the day with homeless people. When you hear the ‘homeless’ what do you imagine? Probably fairly ragged, unkempt people with plastic bags, straggly beards and dirty clothes, people with little employment capacity, who had spent a good deal of their lives unemployed? Well there’s a fair bit of that but I found my preconceptions beginning to erode quite quickly. I’m ashamed to say I tweeted early that day that I was going to spend the day with ‘a bunch of homeless people’ to which one person replied that they were a bit uncomfortable with that description. And they were exactly right.

Talking to several people over the day, I began to realise that ‘homeless’ is a fairly blunt category. This homeless drop-in centre in a church in central London had around 60 or so regulars but they were all there for different reasons. I spoke with one elderly woman who was not homeless, in fact she had a very nice flat, but was desperately lonely, since her husband died, and came along to find some people to talk to. Another had walked out of an old people’s home because he had kept getting drunk and fell out with those in charge. Other were sleeping on friends’ floors, others had recently arrived from other countries.

I met an architect with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the dates of London City churches, a teacher of English as a Second Language, and a retired research chemist. All the world was here. The one thing in common was some back story, some thing that had gone wrong in their lives. I heard one story of a man who had come to the centre who had been CEO of a large international airline. His child had died in an accident, the stress led to the break-up of his marriage, he then started drinking which led to him losing his job, and soon he had lost family, home, income, job everything and was now on the streets. Whether it was a bereavement, losing a job, a marriage breakdown, mental health issues, a physical accident, a bad temper, something had led them to this point. Usually alcohol or drugs were involved in some way, a short-term comfort, but ultimately making the problem worse. And what strikes you is how easily it could happen to anyone – even you or me. There are no such thing as homeless people, just people with different problems, who find it difficult to handle life when it gets really hard.


And then there are the volunteers, people who give time and energy to serve them, wash their feet, give legal or housing advice, cook breakfast, listen to their stories. And each of us doing that have our own problems and issues as well. None of us are self-sufficient and were never meant to be. We are all in need of a Saviour, someone who understands our weakness, and stands with us in our sufferings, which is what we find on Good Friday, yet also one who transcends and can overcome our weaknesses and sufferings, which is what we find on Easter Sunday. And that Saviour ministers to us through each other, through the words of life, encouragement, gospel we offer one another, and through the gestures of love – a hand offered, a meal given, a new set of clothes given, a dirty hand shaken. Each word or act of love becomes and word or act done to Christ and for Christ, as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Seeking Refuge

I spent a day this week with a young asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and his friends. Jonathan is a gentle, unassuming and quiet 22-year-old, with a broad smile, who loves football, never really knew his father, and was brought up by a friend of his parents in Kinshasa. When he was a student, despite the fact that he and his friends were paying fees, the government defaulted on paying his university lecturers, and so lessons stopped. Jonathan joined a series of political demonstrations against the government, was caught taking a picture of the police and was duly arrested. He was bundled into a car, taken to an isolated spot, tied up and beaten. He still has nightmares recalling his torture at the hands of government agents. To cut a long story short, he eventually managed to get a visa to leave to the UK, as he had relatives here, hoping that things would die down a little before he would return home in due course.

Phone calls with friends back in the DRC warned him not to come home, or he would almost certainly be arrested and killed. And so, he began the process of applying for asylum. Three years later, after several stays in detention centres, which effectively felt like prisons, being repeatedly threatened with repatriation, which he is convinced would mean further torture and probably execution, he is still waiting for a definitive answer to his case.

The life of an asylum seeker is pretty grim. While applying for asylum, they are unable to work, so drift from drop-in centres to free English lessons run by charities, trying to spend time but not money. They are caught in a cycle where they have little to do, not much to spend and accommodation is always precarious. They are caught between wanting to apply for asylum with the prize of getting leave to remain, and yet the risk of appearing before the courts and the decision going against them, and then having to be deported to the dangers of their home countries. So, they often lie low, perhaps tempted to take poorly paid jobs, all the while knowing it is illegal. One woman I met from Burkino Faso had taken such a job, and when she was found out to be an illegal immigrant, was sent to Holloway Prison. The other difficulty is the presumption of guilt. In interviews by the officials, they report a constant feeling of not being believed or trusted, with the assumption that they are telling lies to gain entry to the country, a level of suspicion that adds to their feelings of despair.


For people often fleeing failed states, poverty-stricken nations, or war-ravaged countries, the UK seems at first like a haven of peace and security. Yet sadly this is not the experience of many of those who seek asylum here. Of course, the courts have to do their job and do due diligence on refugees, but surely we can do better at making our default pose a welcome rather than a rejection for those who have already experienced so much rejection already? There are some exceptions. When I asked the group ‘what has helped you most since coming here?” they all said ‘The church”. I saw some remarkable examples of saintly people giving time and energy to welcome the stranger, and in doing so, firmly believed they were welcoming Jesus. As Jesus himself once said “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ To welcome the stranger is to do something close to the heart of God who welcomes us into his presence through Christ. It is a profoundly Christian act.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Redeeming Prison

On Monday I sat in on a senior meeting of the staff of a London prison, as they recounted the various incidents that had happened over the weekend. It was like listening to a tidal wave of pain. Half a dozen episodes of self-harm, several men found with ligatures around their necks threatening suicide, a number of fires set off in cells, rooms vandalised, a prison officer stabbed in the face by an out of control prisoner wielding a sharpened plastic knife. Visiting the segregation unit was sobering. The tiny rectangular cells, twelve feet by six, with a dirty window opening on a prison yard, were bare, stark, pitiless. The more extreme cases, like the man who stabbed the officer, had been placed in ‘special accommodation’, as a last resort to cool down – a dark, cold box room, with no light, not even a bed – nothing. It is hard to imagine a more desolate and desperate place.

On rounds with one of the admirable Anglican Chaplains, I met a prisoner who, high on the unpredictable drug Spice, had believed his arm was bendable and broke the bones in his own forearm. Another thought he had two grandchildren but as he was estranged from his family, had never met them. Many others were on their third or fourth term inside, unable to manage life outside the closely managed environment of the prison where most decisions are taken away and your life is monitored, controlled at every point. There’s no getting away from it: prison is a brutal and brutalising place. It demeans people, takes away their freedom, their decision-making powers, and so often their dignity. In a way, that is partly the point – it is not meant to be a holiday. Most prison staff, especially Chaplains, do a remarkable job at mitigating this, making the prison as humane as it can be, treating prisoners with care, respect and skill, making the most of the opportunities there are for rehabilitation, despite the chronic lack of resources, staff levels that are far too low, and buildings unsuited for the task.

In the last week of his life here, Jesus was imprisoned, most likely in a small, underground cell with no light, much like a segregation unit. He entered the darkest, most desolate place, though even worse – the only prospect of release was to a cruel, public, painful death. Yet by entering the lowest place, he did so to redeem it, to break its power. He ‘became a curse for us, so that God’s blessing might come to us’ (Gal. 3.13-14). He entered prison, so that whatever imprisons us might not overcome us. That prison cell, the place of Jesus’ confinement, became a place through which redemption and freedom comes to the human race.

Prison will always be harsh, uncomfortable, brutal. Yet part of that redemption must mean giving prison staff and Governors the resources to make them also places of redemption, rather than just keeping the lid on the vast amount of frustration and aggression so often to be found in our jails. Our society needs a new vision for prisons, not just as a place of punishment, or somewhere to dump the people we would rather not think about and need to be protected from, but a place where lives can be restored, a place where prisoners can be given education, faith and hope, the skills they need to reintegrate into society on their release, and the resources to turn their lives around, spiritually, personally and socially. Prison can be redeemed and redeeming.


A day with the homeless

The other day, as part of my Holy Week spending time with those who experience the things Jesus experienced during his final week, I spent ...