Christians in Practice?
I have been involved with Birmingham Churches Winter Night Shelter for the last 5 years or so. It is an amazing project that enables several hundred volunteers from churches and communities around the city to open their buildings and offer welcome and shelter to people who would otherwise be sleeping rough.
In our first year I somehow found myself coordinating the pilot project. Time was short but we found some funding and bought airbeds and bedding, and received training from Housing Justice. We were excited, nervous, and ready to welcome guests. We even had some referrals, so on the first week we opened up as a Winter Night Shelter - and no one came!
We learnt a lot in that first week and after some changes and some more relationship building the shelter soon began to fill up. It was great to see volunteers getting involved, from different churches from different denominations and traditions, most of whom had never been involved in this sort of activity before.
I was pleased to have been part of enabling it but the bit that really took me by surprise was how much, in such a short time, I came to care about our guests, and how much the interaction I had with them impacted my own journey of faith and discipleship.
The shelter begins about 7pm when the guests arrive by minibus from the pickup point. Usually beds are already laid out and so they pick a bed, settle in and then everyone, volunteers and guests, sit down to eat together. After the meal, guests and volunteers alike play chess and card games, watch films, read the newspaper, and do the washing up. There is always a good amount of conversation and laughter. It feels like a jumbled up community of people hanging out together and making space for one another to relax and be themselves, at its best you can’t really tell who is a guest and who is a volunteer.
Our guests are people with hopes and dreams and skills and interests just like me, but for whom the label “homeless” is one more barrier they have to cross. Once when I asked if we could take a few photos, one guest quietly explained to our shelter coordinator why he’d rather not be in the pictures. He was worried that they would make their way onto the internet and he didn’t want this time of his life to follow him around for the rest of it. He longed to marry one day, and had dreams filled with happiness and possibility: even though he didn’t even have a roof over his head he still had hope for the future.
Sadly this is not the case for all of our guests and for some their situations seem nothing short of hopeless. There is one guest in particular who I got to know in the first couple of years whose story is not one of radical transformation but of decline. His circumstances and increasing substance abuse means that he is now considered too high risk to be referred into our shelter, and even though I haven’t seen him for more than 3 years, I have not forgotten him. When we met him he was initially quite anxious and very wary of us, but he still came back to the shelter, and amidst the chaotic mixture of anxiety, bravado, half truths and suspicion with which he related to us there was also a lovely young man; resilient, compassionate, and resourceful – although his resourcefulness was not always put to good use! There were moments when he went out of his way to help, offering items of clothing to others he felt needed them more; times when he was genuinely grateful that churches had bothered to do something like this for “people like us”.
I pray for him regularly, the outreach teams tell me that he’s still around and that things haven’t really changed much for him. I pray for him and also for others like him; I pray that they might find freedom, restoration and peace. I pray that change may happen, I believe that it can, I hope that it will, and yet I know it may not. It is one of the prayers I most wrestle with God about, questioning Him and searching for answers, usually finding I offer it back to Him with my questions unanswered, but believing that God loves each one of them and cares for them far more than I ever could.
I was reminded recently of the words spoken by both Jesus and John the Baptist in Mathew’s gospel, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near” (Mtt 3:2 , 4:17). I am no biblical scholar but I am told that the greek word metanoeō which in most English versions of the bible is translated as “repent”, does not really accurately do justice to the meaning of the word. Apparently metanoeō is better translated as a change in thought and action, or to “see differently”. It is a shift in how we see, and feel and understand and behave. So in fact what both Jesus and John the Baptist were saying was probably something more like “See differently, for the Kingdom of God is near”.
Being part of the shelter and participating in the temporary community it creates, means that I can no longer see homelessness as an abstract problem that affects our city; now homelessness is the lived experience of people I’ve spent time with and got to know, and they aren’t “homeless people”, they are real people. People who I have eaten meals with, played cards and pool with, discussed the news with, laughed with and had meaningful conversations with; people who have hopes, dreams and gifts, and have friends and family that they care about.
My faith tells me that each of them is made in the image of God, and so perhaps when Christ calls us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger it is not just for their benefit but for ours. When we seek to genuinely engage with another person, particularly when that person’s life experience is so completely different to our own, something mutually transformative takes place. My experience of the night shelter leads me to believe that when we really take time to “be with” rather than just “doing for” then we are changed by that encounter, and that somehow the Kingdom of God is nearer and we begin to “see differently”.