Our Church doesn’t do Charity
Revd Bob Mayo,
Vicar at St Stephen’s W12.
Our church doesn’t do charity. We have relationships with people in difficult circumstances. This means being with people rather than doing things for them. One such relationship was with Michael. For my first five years in the parish he came every evening to the vicarage for a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. I called him my teacher as he opened my eyes to how he saw the world from the edges of society. He described me as the gentlest man he knew. It is a compliment that I treasure dearly
Every Monday, in partnership with a local charity www.streetlytes.org and New City Church, we put on a cinema club for homeless people. We open our doors to 100 guests for an evening of hot food, practical support and friendship. We watch a film together. Going to a cinema is an expensive, socially included activity and not one that would not lie within the budget of a homeless person.
A homeless person [Rudi Richardson] set up the project. People who have only recently found a room stay in touch and become volunteers themselves. It means that we are not a group of ‘haves’ doing something for the ‘have nots’, but a group of people working together to put on the evening. We are working with rather than for homeless people. Hearing their stories is important as well as giving them food. On the streets loneliness is as much of an issue as hunger. There is no cold charity in what we offer. The food is as good as we might have had at home
On my birthday I took my cake to share it with our guests. They sung ‘happy birthday’ and I have never heard it sung worse. I reflected afterwards that they would rarely have had the opportunity to do what for others would have been a simple and regularly done activity.
We are not offering solutions to social problems but being alongside people in need. Listening to people’s stories is as important as giving them food. A Film Club is no answer to the fact that homeless people die 30 years younger than the national average. The average homeless person has a life expectancy of 47, compared to 77 for the rest of the population. The life expectancy for women is even lower, at just 43 years. Jesus spent 90% of his life, says Wells  simply being among the people of Nazareth, sharing their hopes and struggles, therefore Christians should place a similar emphasis on being alongside people in need rather than hastening to impose solutions.
We see the underbelly of society. This is not always easy. I was attacked before church on a Sunday morning and had to make myself ready to meet the congregation, an hour later, for our Sunday service. Stephanos is a long-term street dweller and a hoarder. He stores black bags of rotting fruit and food and rubbish in the church grounds. Each week I put them out for the dustmen and each week he will threaten to knife me and to burn my house down.
When people are in prison they have food provided and no housing worries. They are then let out with no outside support. They have nowhere to go and they come to the vicarage. I have sat past midnight waiting with people newly released from prison talking about their options ahead of them. If I am not at home they will stand at the door banging and shouting. My wife who may be in the house will sit quietly waiting for them to go.
If we could loosen our newspaper obsession with Brexit we could recognize that there are things in our society that we can do better, here and now, without waiting for any decision from Europe. People being released from hospital and from prison without anywhere to stay are two examples of where we could improve our social care as a society. Our concern for the homeless is another. According to a report from the Heriot Watt University (2016) nearly a quarter of a million people are experiencing acute forms of homelessness across Britain, with rough sleeping set to rise by 76 per cent in the next decade.
The other night when it was raining I talked with some rough sleepers and told them how sorry I was that they would be outside on a night such as this. In Biblical terms I was doing nothing more than what is said on the can. We are judged according to how we treat the most vulnerable in our society [Matt 25:31-46].