Christians in Practice?
Simon Foster had his arm twisted to sign up as a Christian Aid door-to-door collector, but he's now been doing it for nearly two decades.
Has it been part of his growth in faith? He thinks so... and here he tells some of that story.
You’re in your mid-twenties: knocking on doors and asking people for money holds no appeal. Nor does saying you’re a Christian. You only take part because it’s a virtually unavoidable part of your church’s collective life. Still, the actual task is quite straightforward: deliver the little red envelopes in your allocated street, then turn up again a couple of days later to collect them in. It’s not pleasant, but it’s doable, and it’ll soon be over.
You learn that people don’t actually think you’re beyond the pale for being a Christian – or at least, they don’t say so. Maybe representing your emerging faith is possible after all.
You’re not really supposed to take your kids with you, but when you have twins there’s not always any choice. Yours are four years old, and break the ice wherever they go. They don’t speed you up though: people want to talk – and especially they want to talk about their own children or grandchildren. You are given as many sweets as sealed envelopes.
You learn that people are just longing to strike up connections.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your street raised the most? The conversation at the door usually goes like this:
‘Hi, it’s the annual Christian Aid collection. I dropped an envelope through the door a couple of days ago.’
‘Did you? I haven’t seen it.’
‘Would you like one now, to make a donation?’
At this point the answer is usually ‘No’, but this year one guy about your age invites you in while he writes a £500 cheque. Even without his gift, your street raises the most that year, and from then on, you love it a little bit more for that. You enjoy being able to say to someone from Uffham Street – ‘your road is the most generous in the town’ and often you see them look at where they live with fresh respect.
You learn that people want to believe in their neighbourhood – and also, that it is worth the trouble to knock a few doors.
You do the same street as usual, but knocking at one door brings not a stranger but Mrs Price, your youngest son’s new nursery teacher. As you walk back down the path half an hour later, you are learning that this is not just an anonymous suburb, but a connected community; you are calling not simply at houses, but at homes.
Even after a decade, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that you’re a nuisance. For every rich conversation, there are ten polite chats, twenty brush-offs and thirty unopened doors. You hold on to the one, rich conversation, but the rest make up the bulk of your experience. Then one year, after you have done a different street from usual, a friend of a friend, Ally, comes up to you in the street and asks where you were this year – she had been looking out for you. You learn that you mean something to some of the people in Uffham Street – and that they mean something to you.
It’s a rainy Friday, and you’re trying to mop up those who didn’t answer earlier in the week. A woman opens a door and gives you a mouthful: ‘You already called, and I said no; and in any case what the hell do you think you’re doing bugging people on a Friday night? Never call again – not this year, not next year, never.’
You feel bad for calling twice, and the rudeness hurts; but you start to wonder what other things that day must have contributed to her outburst. You go home, find the nicest card, and write her a message, apologising for calling twice and wishing her the best. You put your name at the bottom, so she knows you’re a real person and really mean it. It might make a difference. In fact, you hope it will make a difference, and as you drop the card through, you reflect that you are slowly, slowly, learning that ‘faith, hope and love’ are to be lived, not just believed.
You meet in a local church for an event unconnected to Christian Aid, about community building. Everyone at the table introduces themselves, including Judy – ‘from Uffham Street’. You tell her you do Christian Aid along that street, and when you find out which section she lives on, you ask whether she knows Judy who’s trying to get work as a childminder. ‘Yes, well, that’s me,’ she says. ‘Oh!’, you cry, ‘any luck? I’ve been praying for you every day since May.’ You’ve both forgotten each other’s faces, but she’s delighted that you have been carrying her story with you for so long.
Pam, at number 3, invites you in. She’s a member of the church, and usually takes her donation there herself. But this time things are different. In the corner of the room is Ted. He’s in his mid-sixties, and Pam tells you he’s recently developed dementia. He does not engage with you. Pam takes you through to the garden: it’s a wonderful surprise – a bigger space than seems possible in this urban street; enchanted by acers, pools, sculpture and shape. As she talks you round it, you realise that the garden is a work of art representing their life story; thinking of Ted inside, you feel a tiny fragment of the pain that Pam must experience each day.
You realise that simply knocking on a person’s door holds the possibility of relationship and friendship – especially at moments where they might need it.
Number 11 is an odd house – garden with nice plants, a new porch, but a slightly shut up feeling about it. You knock not expecting anything, and are about to turn about when a woman slightly younger than you thrusts her head out of a window. ‘Can you come back on Friday? I haven’t been paid yet.’ She says she’s a single mother, so you remind her that giving is optional, but she insists you return.
Such a request has to be respected. You turn up on Friday. ‘I saw your face through the curtain,’ she said ‘and you looked different from the people who normally come round.’ You talk as long as you can. She’s needs to talk: she’s coping admirably, but it’s plainly a battle. You walk away with a mixture of feelings, and wonder whether you could get Pam to connect with her – they’re only a few houses away.
You learn that being a Christian is always being ready to receive another’s story. And you learn that you, a stranger, are getting to know this street better than it knows itself.
Five or six gather each morning at your church for Morning Prayer. Today, you’re among them, and you are asked to lead the prayers. Each morning’s intercessions cycle through the streets of the district. By pure chance today’s prayers include Uffham Street. You find yourself praying for the people you know – for Mrs Price, Ally, Pam, Judy, and others – many of them men - you can only describe. It is a privilege to draw your care for them into the prayer of the church. You feel for the first time that your eighteen years of connection to that street is now connected in turn to the life of the church.
You decide that it’s time to finish doing Christian Aid. Each year you collect fewer envelopes and less money. When you started, door-to-door charity collections were a rarity; now each fortnight seems to bring a fresh wave of fundraising professionals.
Yet, as you come to this decision you also realise that you love this one street and its community, perhaps like no-one else does; as an outsider, a little bit as God loves it – and that you want it to be enriched in the future. You begin to imagine how you can offer something to it even without asking it for money? Perhaps you can talk to Ally or Pam? Perhaps the Sheltered Housing has a common room that could be used? Perhaps the street has a residents association? It’s not your street – except that now, in a way, it is.
You learn that you have another home in this town – Uffham Street - one God has brought you to.
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