Homily for the Service of Celebration of the 2017-2018 Burton night shelter at St Pauls
Isaiah 58 (extracts). Luke 6: 20-28
Two experiences have significantly influenced my views on the relationship between church and society. The first, more than a decade ago, was being a mentor for young offenders—young lads on last warning before being sent to what used to be called borstal. The second is the night shelter here at St Paul’s.
These experiences change me. They alter my views and values. They show me how if I condemn others I condemn myself. They lead me to be angry at the way in which society ignores or demonizes those who fall on hard times.
I’ve seen similar discrimination all my life. I witnessed it in a farming village in the 1950s. I experienced it at Cambridge coming from a northern state school. I see it in the way elite sportsmen are treated. Imagine two groups of people causing mayhem in the town centre at midnight. One is a rugby club on the piss. The other’s a group of hoodies. Do you think the two groups will be treated similarly by the justice system? In the news last week we heard from Belfast how impossible it is, despite evidence, to convict rugby players with a promising playing career in front of them, and doubtless expensive lawyers behind them.
My experiences make me question how society is organized, and the way we are forced into a competitive struggle. Our security is not to be found in dividing us from one another, but in community—to know that when difficult times come, we have a community willing to support us. It’s in looking out for one another that we find security—not in retreating behind electric gates into hermetically sealed groups of the like-minded. It’s in the mess of life, sleeves rolled up.
Young offenders and shelter guests are prophets. They reveal our values. They make us uncomfortable. They demolish our cosy assumptions. They show us what really matters in defiance of all that society admires and rewards.
Prophets aren’t nice. They aren’t popular. They don’t fit in. They aren’t sensitive to our feelings. They aren’t agreeable. They aren’t reasonable. They aren’t diplomatic—which is just a form of lying. They don’t negotiate. They don’t care if we’re offended—indeed we should be. In both readings this evening we hear prophets telling it like it is.
We humans have an enormous capacity for self-deception. We ignore the consequences of our decisions. Prophets help us to recognize that we simply must face them—we must confront the naked truth—in order to rid ourselves of self-obsession. We need to be saved from ourselves, and prophets help to demolish our selves—our pride, our arrogance, our greed, our egomania.
In this, the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, it’s time for us to be impatient.
Will the institutional churches help? They are so obsessed with obscure points of theology that I doubt it. I used to be interested in the theological why and wherefore and how, but my experiences as a clerk in holy orders serving my people, together with events in my own life over the last decade, make me impatient with all this.
What I’m concerned about now is not why or wherefore or how, but so-what? If my faith is a matter of acknowledging Jesus as my lovely friend and personal saviour while I continue being aggressive, greedy, selfish, and vain, then it is pointless, and I am all that Jesus condemns.
The institutional church does have an answer, but it’s not in services or masses or devotions or fine words. It’s in action—social and political.
There’s a story about churches working with the homeless in Manhattan. Methodists pick them out of the gutter, Baptists wash them, Pentecostals feed them, Presbyterians educate them, Anglicans introduce them to society, and then Methodists pick them out of the gutter again. Let’s hope that the experience in St Paul’s has more fruitful results.
I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me. Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”
From Paul Laffey, CEO Burton YMCA
YMCA Burton and Burton Churches are grateful to everyone for their support for the Winter Night Shelter. We are particularly grateful to the congregation of St Paul’s Church and the PCC of the Parish of St Aidan and St Paul for allowing the use of the Church Hall as a shelter. Our appreciation is also extended to Consolidated Charity of Burton Upon Trent, Burton Transformation Trust, Burton Churches and the many individuals who have provided finances to make this project happen. We also appreciate Kerry Foods, Bretby Rotary Club and many local people for providing food for the customers that slept at the Shelter.
We couldn’t of course make any of this happen without the amazing 130 volunteers and the 8 staff from the YMCA. Our thanks to them all. We have seen much joy with our Outreach team bringing people in off the streets, and managing to accommodate and give them a new hope. It was particularly encouraging to know that when the cold weather at its worst plummeted to -7 degrees, people were able to come off the streets into the warmth, have a hot meal, and a bed for the night—at no charge.
The Night Shelter has required a significant financial and legal commitment from the YMCA and we are very grateful to Trustees and Senior Staff for making this happen. We give thanks to God for lives transformed.
Qs and As (answers provided by YMCA)
- How many guests have come? In December there were 40 different individuals using the night shelter, and in January 46.
- Why do they come? Relationship breakdown and bereavements are common, as is loss of benefits, unemployment, debt issues, people trafficking.
- How many are ladies? About 15%. Some have fled domestic abuse and are brought by the police with just the night clothes they are wearing.
- How many volunteers? Around 130. The minimum number needed every night is 6, and we are open 7 nights a week for 17 weeks.
- Have you received all the funding you need to keep the shelter open till the end of March? We have received no funding at all for any staffing costs. We have taken this step in faith that our needs—around 30k—will be met.