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/ 21 April 2017

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Bishop Graham serving food at homeless shelter

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, something 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.

About Graham Tomlin

The Rt Revd Graham Tomlin is Bishop of Kensington. He is the author of many books, most recently, The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God’s Way of Blessing the World (2015). Bishop Graham is also President of St Mellitus College.

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