Beauty arising from the ashes of despair – by James Mercer

Behind All Saints’ church in Harrow Weald, North London, a woodland has been transformed into a Forest School for local children.

It is only a few hundred yards from a busy London road, but for the children who visit the school established within the woods, it is a place of magic and surprise.

The small, hard-working and imaginative Forest School team have made the place safe and welcoming to children from local schools, especially those with learning difficulties or other special needs. A kitchen area and a mud-kitchen have been created, tarpaulins erected and an outdoor classroom shaped beneath the canopy of the trees. It is a beautiful alluring space.


Two days into my post-Easter break, I received an urgent phone call “Come quickly, the Forest School is on fire”. And so it was.

By the time I arrived all that remained was a pile of smoking charcoal, scorched canvas and melted plastic.

Sinister charred remains of the school’s story-telling puppets were scattered grotesquely across the site. It had taken the fire brigade two hours to extinguish the blaze.

Anger and disappointment

Suspicion fell on a group of young people seen in the vicinity earlier in the day. Maybe young people who had enjoyed the Forest School experience in the past?

I was very angry and profoundly disappointed. If this is what happens when you invest time, resources and energy to support the needs of young people in the local community, why bother?

What kind of shepherd?

In John’s gospel, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11-18) ‘Good’ however, may not be the most appropriate translation from the Greek in this context. Tom Wright suggests ‘beautiful’ may be a more appropriate description.

A good shepherd may hint of moralising, keeping rules. But a beautiful shepherd is one you would want to be with. Not necessarily beautiful in terms of appearance, but rather in his full humanity.

The beautiful shepherd does not run away when danger looms. He does not become disillusioned, however trying and disheartening the circumstances. He confronts danger, disappointment and betrayal by taking it on himself; facing it down on behalf of others.

Ultimately, he will give his own life for the well-being of those in his care. The beautiful shepherd can be trusted, however profound the presenting danger. He is not concerned for his own reputation or well-being. He is there for the good of others.

Disfigured and destroyed

Anger, bitterness, self-serving political and personal agendas all combined to claim the life of the beautiful shepherd. Yet he took these agendas upon himself, knowing they would kill him. His beauty and promise was disfigured and destroyed.

Then resurrection – the most beautiful denouement of all; beyond all imaginings. Life, not death having the final word.

Life which extends the embrace of forgiveness and the always creative possibilities of new beginnings; surpassing the lingering residues of bitterness, anger or revenge.

New opportunities

If the perpetrators of the Forest School destruction are ever identified, it is right that they be appropriately punished. The Christian story encompasses justice. Turning the other cheek never implies “there, there, it doesn’t matter”.

But resurrection embodies new opportunities, fresh beginnings.

The antidote to destruction and negativity is life, beauty and unforeseen creative surprise. The Forest School will be rebuilt. Children will still be welcomed and invited to enjoy the imaginative opportunities of the outdoor classroom.

Resilient hope

Through the life, death and resurrection of the good, the beautiful shepherd, life wins over death; love over anger; beauty over ugliness and tenacious perseverance, in pursuit of the well-being of others, over cynicism and disillusion.

We are invited to embrace and be embraced by the story of the good shepherd. It is a beautiful and resilient story, a transformative narrative of hope that refuses to be suppressed. Beauty will arise from the ashes of despair.

James Mercer is the Vicar of All Saints’, Harrow Weald. He is the founder of the Forest School working with marginalised young people in North West London.

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The Way of Love – by Simon Hall

I reckon most people can get to this point with me…

There was a man from Nazareth in Galilee, who taught that love was the only law, and that God was returning to make the world right.

He showed his miraculous love by befriending and healing those whose sickness or position in society made them outcasts.

He went to Jerusalem, the geographical centre of his religion and a major garrison town of the occupying Roman Empire, and performed a number of symbolic acts designed to get those in authority all riled up.

His show trial and subsequent execution were inevitable from there on in (even though his followers didn’t see it coming), and it only took a few days before his lifeless body was being taken down from a cross. His tiny band of disciples dispersed immediately, just a handful of women present at his execution.

Historically, it’s likely (though not provable) that something like this happened nearly 2000 years ago. Then we get to the point where many of you, dear friends, part company with me…

Just a few weeks later, that small band of disciples were on the streets of Jerusalem, saying that they had seen Jesus of Nazareth, alive again. They went through imprisonment, exile, torture and death without ever denying it. Their movement, which they called ‘The Way’, grew at a steady pace so that by the middle of the 5th century perhaps half of the citizens of the Roman Empire were believers.

Something happened.

I don’t think it was a dastardly plan to set up a global business called ‘The Church’.

I don’t think it was a mass hallucination.

I think something else happened.

Within a couple of decades, people who had met Jesus were saying he was somehow superhuman, more than human. But it wasn’t just about what happened that first Easter Day, this man who came back to life was alive inside them. He was part of their life and they were part of his life.

There’s a cheesy song that goes, ‘You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.’ I believe he’s here with me as I write this, and with you as you read it.

Knowing the resurrected Jesus isn’t just about accepting a particular version of events, events we can never be sure of by our own historical standards. It’s a personal moment, in which you invite Jesus to be present in your life.

Be warned: things will change, and not always for the better. The good life is sometimes a hard life. But it’s the best life. This Easter, why not give it a go?

Jesus, if you are here I want to know you. I admire you as a person but now I want us to be more than acquaintances. I cede control of my life and turn towards you. I want to be part of your kingdom of love.

If you know a Christian (it just means ‘little Christ’), why not talk to them about this?

He is alive!

Simon Hall is a minister at Chapel A in Leeds

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Cheating cricketers and the message of Easter

I’ll never forget my first match for my University Cricket Club. I was 19 and nervously excited. I had played a lot of league cricket down south but now I was playing alongside teammates from the northern leagues. They were a tougher breed.

In the changing room before the match, I was genuinely taken aback to see one of my new team mates deliberately squirt sun-cream onto the outside of his trousers and rub it into the material. He said ‘Keep throwing the ball to me, I’ll keep it nice and rosy’.

Fair or foul

This week there has been a hail-storm of media coverage about the Australian cricket team cheating through using sandpaper to illegally alter the condition of the ball.  Roughing up one side of the ball helps the ball swing and aids the bowling team.

After what they were doing was exposed on the big screen on the ground, the young player actually doing the cheating, Cameron Bancroft, farcically attempted to conceal the sandpaper in his pants.


Immediately after the days play, the captain, Steve Smith and Bancroft faced the media and confessed their crimes. It turned out that Bancroft was carrying out a plan hatched by the team’s leadership. I doubt they realised what was just about to hit the fan.

The sporting world was stunned.  Cricket is a far bigger sport in Australia than it is in England and Steve Smith is the best batsman in the world.  When the Australian Prime Minister joined the chorus of condemnation you knew they were in trouble.

The reckless disregard for the rules along with the premeditated nature of the plan and the coercion of a young player to carry it out, drew widespread condemnation. In addition, the Australian team’s reputation for aggression, arrogance and self-righteousness meant any sympathy was in short supply.

Facts covered up

And it got worse. It turned out that even their televised confession was not truthful as key facts were covered up in an attempt to lessen the damage. A hastily completed investigation from the Australian Cricket administration has led to year-long bans for Smith, David Warner (the vice-captain) and a slightly shorter one for Bancroft.

After being sent home, Smith gave a painfully emotional press conference. It is hard to watch but it is a study of man who through foolishness and weakness has lost an incredible amount. He is truly broken.

Sport’s unimportance

I love cricket more than ever. I have coached a youth team for the last few years and last season I came out of retirement after a 15 year gap to play again for my old club side. Playing matches alongside my sons was a brilliant experience that I will always cherish.

Despite my love for the game, it is important to recognise that sport is ultimately unimportant. Eleven people chasing a bit of red leather around a patch of grass really does not mean much in the great scheme of things.

But sport represents and embodies things which are incredibly important such as teamwork, bravery, skill, judgement and character.  Sport gives opportunities to develop these qualities in a unique way.

Deeper issues

Even deeper than these human qualities are the underlying issues of forgiveness, redemption and hope.  As a Christian, I believe that what has happened in the cricketing world resonates with the message of Easter.

Each week we host a mid-week church group at my house. This week to start the evening, I gave everyone a cricket ball to hold (we have plenty) and we discussed the cricket controversy (I had to explain a bit about swing bowling). I asked everyone to reflect on the things we don’t get right.

We all mess up

Gloating and enjoying the suffering of others, especially our competitors, is something humans enjoy. But the truth is that we all mess up – we are all weak, negligent and do things deliberately for our own gain. Rather than simply join in gleeful condemnations, this week is an opportunity to examine ourselves.

Smith, Warner and Bancroft have done wrong and are paying a bitter cost for their actions.  Time will tell whether in a cricketing sense they will be rehabilitated and come back successfully.

But the message of Easter is that in an ultimate sense, redemption is always available.  Jesus offered forgiveness even to those who condemned and killed him. And through His death and resurrection, God showed the world the kind of love and grace powerful enough to break any wrong-doing.

Cricket is great and has been a big story in the news this week.  But the message of Easter is the Big Story which endures and speaks to our deepest needs.  We all mess up – but hope and redemption is available for everyone.

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Cheap grace: theology which fails to safeguard the vulnerable

At the moment the Church of England is being investigated by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Initially the focus is into the safeguarding of children in Chichester diocese.  This will be followed by a focus on the handling of Bishop Peter Ball, who was imprisoned in 2015 after admitting abuse of 18 young people over a fifteen year period.

The Rt Rev Peter Hancock, the lead-Bishop for safeguarding, warned the church: “We will hear deeply painful accounts of abuse, of poor response, and over cover-up.”

It is painful.  I have had countless conversations with people affected by these kinds of scandals.  Understandably, many have lost all faith in the Church.

Institutional sin

Any abuse of vulnerable people is deeply wrong. But what compounds these sins is the incompetent, reluctant and dishonest ways the institution responds. So often, the Church is shown to have got it priorities wrong: seeking institutional damage-limitation, protecting perpetrators and safeguarding the reputations of its leaders. This all adds up to marginalising or silencing the victim.

The focus of learning is often mainly on the lack of accountability, organisational culture and effective systems.  But, theology plays a role too. And I think a key reason for the poor way in which safeguarding matters are handled lies in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed ‘cheap grace’.

The deadly enemy of the Church

Bonhoeffer was a German pastor-theologian who was appalled by the inadequate response of the German Church to the rise of Nazism. As a leading member of the ‘Confessing Church’, he ran an illegal seminary for trainee pastors in the late 1930s. During this time he wrote The Cost of Discipleship. The opening lines of the book are:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.”

Bonhoeffer was part of a Church deeply shaped by Martin Luther’s emphasis on salvation by grace alone. But Bonhoeffer saw how Luther’s theology had become warped as it was turned into a theory detached from practice:

‘Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…an intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.’

The radical way of Jesus can never be followed by mere ‘intellectual assent’. The cheapening of grace removes the transformative elements of faith and church practice:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”


God offers everyone an opportunity for forgiveness, a new start, a true hope. But we cannot detach this grace from the demands of truth. The route to grace is via confession, an honest admission of the wrong done, and repentance, a radical change of direction. Without authentic confession and repentance, grace costs nothing.

Often in safeguarding scandals, senior ministers or priests have accepted private, verbal assurances from perpetrators that in reality cost them nothing. Too often, instead of proper investigations which seek the truth, perpetrators move on, remaining in positions of influence without the situation really being dealt with. Because of this, these people remain in a position to abuse again.

The cross

The cross is the symbol of the Christian faith. It reminds us of the cost of what God did through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is the opposite of a magic wand.

God chose to deal with the brokenness of the world by engaging with all the shit, carnage, pain and injustice in our world. Sin was confronted and defeated – not ignored or skirted over.

Living costly grace

Jesus said that if we follow him, we must take up our crosses and live out this costly grace. This is what any church caught up in a safeguarding scandal needs to learn from.

Cheap grace is easy to grant – but it changes nothing. When it comes to safeguarding, its a theology which helps hide and deepen the sin.

But this not just relevant for the institutional Church. It is a principle true across all walks of life: in the management of organisations, in marriages and other relationships or personal conduct.

If we settle for the cheap grace of easy forgiveness, air-brushing the issues and not confronting problems, then it all comes back to bite us.

We need the faith and courage to confront and tackle the real issues. Only then can we experience the costly grace which has the power to transform.

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 2 Comments

Homelessness: have we lost our Christianity in our caring? 24th April, central London

Christian distinctiveness in helping people who are homeless

Many churches acknowledge the importance of helping people who are homeless. Nationwide there are over 100 Night Shelter networks and churches make up the vast majority of the venues. Also many of the larger, established homeless agencies have Christian roots.

But, confidently integrating faith alongside our practical care is challenging and complex.

In 2011, a report Lost and Found was published, by the secular agency Lemos & Crane, on faith and spirituality among homeless people.  One of its conclusions was that many homelessness agencies, even ones with a Christian basis, marginalise the relevance of spirituality.  In contrast, their research found that for people who are homeless, issues of faith and spirituality was important.

This event will explore the integration between faith and the action it inspires.  Hosted by the London District of the Methodist Churchit will be interactive and will include 4 short talks which will provoke discussion on the theme.  I will giving one of the talks and WLM’s chaplain, Ruth Bottoms, will be giving another.

It is aimed at ministers, volunteers and professional staff who work alongside homeless or vulnerable people.

  • Free
  • 24th April, 2.00-4.30pm
  • Hinde Street Methodist Church, close to Bond Street/ Oxford Circus tube
  • To book a place: visit our Eventbrite page

For more:

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged | 2 Comments

Authentic change does not come easily – a weekend retreat October 5-7th, 2018

Lee Abbey, Devon, UK

In the last 20 years there has been a significant rise in Christian social action projects and initiatives to combat poverty. Foodbanks, night shelters and debt-relief such as Christians Against Poverty, have grown at a remarkable rate.

But in the enthusiasm for social activism, we cannot deny a central fact: change does not come easily.

For those labouring day after day on the frontline, it is easy to become dispirited amid the continued rise of inequality, debt and desperation. On a more basic level, people let us down, problems don’t get solved, volunteers don’t turn up, staff argue and funding runs out. It’s not easy to avoid cynicism.

More than ever, I believe in the relevance of a Christian hope which can resource and encourage us in our work. Reality is liberating – God wants us to be honest about the struggles we face. Accessible and applied theology can equip us and underpin a spirituality which sustains and nourishes us.

Weekend at Lee Abbey, Devon, October 2018

I am leading a weekend at the beautiful Lee Abbey in Devon on this theme. We’ll explore the transformative power of Jesus’ message of grace and truth and what it means in the gritty reality of our broken world.

It is a weekend for those who are working hard for others and who need encouragement and inspiration in their work. Do you know someone who could benefit? Why not send them the link and encourage them to come?

For more details and how to book a place on the weekend, see the Lee Abbey website.

Grace and truth in action

As an example of the kind of teaching we will explore, here is a short talk I gave at a recent conference hosted by the London Diocese on Responding to street homeless people:

Chris Ward, with whom I wrote the booklet Homelessness: Grace, Truth and Transformation  also spoke powerfully about his recovery journey from homelessness and addiction.  Chris will be coming to the Lee Abbey weekend too and you can hear some of this story here:

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I’m not surprised at The President’s Club scandal – it’s just like my University Rugby Club

The waves created by the Harvey Weinstein eruptions in Hollywood are being felt all over the world. But you can imagine the organisers of The President’s Club, an all-male, exclusive fundraising event, felt pretty safe.

After all, they had been running it for 30 years, high rollers from major City firms were guests and it was held at the world-famous Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane. And, of course, the event was really all about raising money for charity.  What could go wrong?

A really good boy’s event

Maybe it was these factors that assured The President’s Club that it was fine to contract with an agency who hired hostesses based on their looks, instructed them to wear skimpy dresses, dictated the colour of their underwear and plied them with wine before the event.  Perhaps they thought these are just what makes for a really good boy’s event.

And maybe they thought that insisting these young women sign non-disclosure agreements was just the sensible thing to do. After all, these days people sue over the slightest little thing…

But in this unpredictable world, the very concept of this kind of event has come crashing in on those involved. And The President’s Club is no more.  Shocking but true – groping women and putting your hand up their skirts is not acceptable.  And an event which seems to have institutionalised and condoned this kind of behaviour has not survived public scrutiny.

Vile behaviour

In some ways, the interesting thing about the controversy is the surprise it has caused.  I am not surprised because the scandal reminds me of behaviour I saw when I was at Hull University in the early-mid 1990s.

For a year after graduating, I was Vice-President of the Student Union for a year. It was a paid, full-time ‘sabbatical’ post and meant being on a committee, along with five others, who were responsible for the clubs and societies run by the Union. And this included the Rugby Club.

Sexual harrassment

Every year, the Rugby Club held an Old-Boys dinner at a local hotel. As can be expected for rugby social, it was always going to be a lively evening but things got a slightly more out of hand than usual. Food was thrown, plates smashed, the room they hired was trashed and yes, the waitresses were sexually harrassed. The guests exposed themselves – as the hotel themselves phrased it – the waitresses had ‘penises waved about in front of them.’

The damage to property totaled over £2,000 and the Rugby Club were responsible for finding the money.  So, in a stroke of genius, the club decided to hold a fundraiser – an all-male, ticketed event titled ‘A Gentlemen’s Evening’. What could go wrong?


I remember being asked to buy a ticket by an enthusiastic Rugby Club member. I had been heavily involved in the Cricket Club for 4 years and I loved (and still do) a beery sporting social. But there was no way I was going anywhere near this.

The Gentlemen’s Evening was basically a night being entertained by strippers. But the women they booked offered perhaps more than these middle-class boys imagined. In the event, various members of the audience ended up on stage, engaged in sexual activities in front of everyone. Furthermore some of it was filmed.

A scandal erupted and though it was pre-internet, the story got into various newspapers.


The scandal led to many other disclosures about other incidents involving the club – the trashing of rooms, throwing drinks, urinating out of the back of coaches. So, as the committee running the Student Union, we took the decision to ban the club for bringing the university and union into disrepute.

This meant withdrawing them from the tournaments they were in and suspending their RFU insurance so they could not play matches.


After such incidents, you may have thought that the rugby club members felt a level of shame and that being banned was a fair cop.

But actually the key people in the club were incensed about the ban. They argued vociferously about how harsh it was and how this was just a bit of lad’s fun.  It was the arrogance in their responses to being challenged that was the most disturbing thing of all – because it showed the underlying belief that they had a right to behave like this.

Reality exposed

Their attitudes were an aspect of boys private school sub-culture which is frequently exposed at university. Attitudes and behaviours towards women, generated in all-male environments, are freed from the moderating influence of parents and let loose in a sea of beer. Its a phenomena captured well by the film, The Riot Club.

And, as we see with The President’s Club, this goes beyond just some bad behaviour by individuals.  The key issue is the institutions and clubs which exist to cement, embody and celebrate these cultures. And its good for everyone, not least the men involved, when the reality is exposed and things have to change.

Posted in Social commentary, Sport | 2 Comments

Grace in the face of oppression: what I saw in Egypt – by Martin Kuhrt

Land of the Nile, pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, a centre of early Christianity; Egypt well deserves its status as ‘a cradle of civilisation’. But its glories do not all lie in its past.

Its fast growing, population of roughly 100 million people is among the most youthful in the world, with a staggering 75% of people under 25. Whilst the ‘heart of Islam’ is in Saudi Arabia, scholars believe the ‘mind of Islam’ is in Egypt. Its ancient Al-Azhar University considered the ‘Oxbridge’ of the Muslim world.

Despite widespread poverty, illiteracy and political turmoil it remains a key nation in both the Middle East and Africa.

My visit to Egypt

I recently visited Christian communities in Egypt to learn about what God is doing here. Today there are at least 10 million Coptic Christians and one million Evangelicals.

Since the 1970s, Christians have been increasingly harassed and discriminated against. Long running dictator Hozni Mubarak was toppled in the Arab Spring of 2011 and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power.

The Muslim Brotherhood government, however, was quickly regarded as a disaster by most Egyptians and was ejected by a second popular uprising led by the army in 2013. Elections produced a new president but extremists blamed Christians for the demise of Islamist rule.  It has led to constant attacks on churches and monasteries throughout Egypt since 2013.

Without bitterness or hatred

Christians in Egypt have been willing to both to face martyrdom and forgive their oppressors.  I stood in St Peter and St Paul’s chapel in Cairo, where one year ago a suicide bomber killed 29 worshippers. Some of the dried blood still stains the masonry, pock-marked with the force of the blast. The youngest killed was a ten year old girl called Maggy. I heard her grandfather speak about the family’s grief. Yet he spoke without bitterness or hatred and emphasised how Christians should unite in prayer for the nation.

The present government fears religious extremism and doesn’t want to be seen to be soft in dealing with terrorism. Most Muslims are genuinely appalled at murders of Christians and minority Muslim groups like Sufis, hundreds of whom were slaughtered recently in Sinai.  Armed soldiers guard all Christian places of worship now but they too become targets – I saw many wearing balaclavas to protect their identity.

Easy targets

However the powerful disdain for Christianity within Egyptian Islamic culture regularly spills over into mob-violence against the most vulnerable which the police are disinclined to prevent or punish.

Christians are easy targets for neighbourhood bullying and bureaucratic discrimination. Even minor repairs to church buildings require government permission and it is nearly impossible to extend or build new churches. Many Christian girls have been abducted and forced to marry Muslim men and convert. Whereas the mere rumour that a Christian man has designs on a Muslim girl can result in the most savage of attacks.

The most severe persecution occurs against believers from a Muslim background. This year alone in Upper Egypt eleven girls who wanted to follow Christ have been killed by their families. No police action has been taken over these so-called ‘honour killings’.

Turning to Jesus

Despite all of this, many are turning away from Islam and considering the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I went to a large Evangelical church where about 10-15% have a Muslim background and many Muslims are turning up to hear about the Christian faith.  During the uprisings and violence in Cairo this church turned itself into a hospital, providing help for all those injured, whatever their religion.  I saw a huge range of Christian ministries: helping lift people out of poverty, care for refugees, literacy programmes, bible teaching, marriage and parenting courses.

The ugly face of Islam is prevalent in Egypt. And many are rejecting and seeking the truth of Christ. The day after 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by the Mediterranean coast, a Christian pastor (who is also a medical doctor) I heard preach in Cairo, composed this poem. It soon went viral.

Two Rows By the Sea

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free. 
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right, 
The other of innocents, true sons of the light. 
One holding knives in hands held high, 
The other with hands empty, defenceless and tied.
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes, 
The other with living eyes raised to the skies. 
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death, 
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath.
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats, 
The other spread God-given peace and rest. 
A Question… Who fears the other? 
The row in orange, watching paradise open? 
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

Martin Kuhrt is vicar of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Aylesbury, UK

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My cousin and the bitter cost of drug addiction

This weekend, I was on the BBC1 programme Sunday Morning Live (see on BBC iPlayer, 24 mins in) discussing homelessness and begging.

I was on the programme because I disagree with the view of journalist Matt Broomfield who believes people should give ‘directly and unconditionally’ to people who are begging.


My views on this issue have been shaped by 20 years of working with homeless people.  All my experience tells me that handing over cash does not help and often makes the situation worse. (for more see How should we respond to people begging or When helping the homeless doesn’t help).

In the discussion on Sunday, one of Matt Broomfield’s points is to ask yourself how you would treat someone in your family? Well, for me this is not a hypothetical question because alongside my professional work, I have also seen the terrible cost of addictions in my family.

My cousin James

My cousin James and I were the same age so as youngsters we spent a lot of time together. He was very good looking, cheeky and outwardly very confident. But in his teenage years, he began drinking heavily and in his twenties he became addicted to heroin. It began a 20 year battle with the drug.

James died suddenly just after Christmas last year. He was 45.

James’ mum asked me to speak at his funeral in January. After a long gap in our 20s and 30s, we had re-built a close relationship and we often spoke on the phone.

James’ life was chaotic as he continued to use drugs on top of his methadone prescription.  He gave permission for me to speak with his case worker at the drug clinic and we tried to support him to make progress. But it was hard and there was many ups and downs. The pattern was that James was able to go through physical detoxification from drugs but was  not able to undertake the psychological rehabilitation that would address the underlying issues.


One of the reasons we got on well was that we were honest and upfront with each other. He would often say ‘Let’s have no bullshit Jonathan’.

Crucially, we agreed some clear boundaries. Firstly we agreed that I would never lend him any money. Secondly, although he could phone me whenever he wanted to, I would end any conversations where he was simply blaming everyone else for his situation.

Rather than find these judgmental, James appreciated these boundaries. Perhaps they made him feel secure as he was not able to blag anything off me or even disappoint me. We had many heated conversations but the relationship never got broken.

The especially tragic thing was James had been doing well before he died. He had met a new partner and they were happy together. He had a nice meal with his Mum and her husband and he had given her a Christmas present for the first time in decades. He had even come off the drugs.

But the damage he had done to his body caught up with him. And shortly after Christmas he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Re-thinking kindness

Its not easy to write this. But I wanted to share it (with James’ mum’s permission) because its a personal experience. I loved James as my cousin. He was not someone I was paid to work with. There was no contract or strategy.  In one way it was nothing to do with my work.  But in another way it has everything to do with my work because the same principles apply to helping him as they would to anyone struggling with an addiction.

We need to re-think what it means to be kind because often the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.  If we are to really help people with addictions then we will need to hold boundaries and be thoughtful about what we do.

The best things to give

I wish with all my heart that my cousin James was still alive. But I know that the best things I gave him was friendship and time because it was these things that built an honest and real relationship. It was not by giving him easy cash or colluding with a victim mentality which justifies destructive behaviour.

The growing homelessness in our country is deeply wrong and social injustice and economic inequality are the primary cause. We should be campaigning for more affordable housing and against austerity.

But once someone is in the grip of an addiction, the underlying politics of what has created their situation counts for little.  We cannot just use homeless people, as Matt Broomfield is doing, as illustrations of political failure. True compassion means being focused on what actually helps them take steps of recovery and come off the streets.

This is because, like my cousin James, each person sleeping rough or gripped by addiction is a precious human being of infinite worth. We need to ensure the focus is on their true needs, not our emotional need to respond. If we are to truly help them we must have the courage and confidence to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged | 13 Comments

Seeking Francis and finding renewal in Assisi – by Danny Daly

Last month I was fortunate enough to be part of a group undertaking an Ignatian Pilgrimage of Rome.

Before joining them, however, I had decided to spend a couple of days by myself in Assisi.

‘Francis effect’

I have been influenced by a Francis effect, generated by the Pope choosing to take Francis as his papal name. He had been prompted to do so by Cardinal Hummes, who upon his election in the conclave, embraced him and said “Don’t forget the poor!”

So in preparation for my trip, I immersed myself in a number of books such as Eager To Love by Richard Rohr and St Francis – A Model For Human Liberation by Leonardo Boff, as well as a good straightforward biography, St Francis and St Clare of Assisi by Sr Clare Agnes OSC.

Tourist chatter

Arriving at Assisi I was immediately struck by its beauty and how compact everything was within its walls. I visited the impressive Basilicas at both ends of the town – one dedicated to St Francis and the other to St Clare.

Although it was mid-October, there were still a large number of tourists visiting, and both places were crowded and somewhat noisy, full of tourist chatter. It seemed as though photos were the main priority, and praying was a somewhat distant second.

I was somewhat disappointed that this personal attempt to try to disconnect and engage in contemplation was quite difficult to achieve. As a London Jesuit Volunteer, we aim to be “contemplatives in action.” I am relatively fine on the latter, but struggle with the former! So I knew I needed to make time to get away from the crowds and find space to contemplate.

Isolated places

The following morning, I set off early to Eremo delle Carceri (“Hermitage of the Prisons” or “Isolated Places” ). It is now a monastery located three miles outside Assisi, up in the forests of Mt Subasio. It is where Francis would often come to withdraw and pray and contemplate.

You can go by taxi, but I opted to walk, and was glad that I did. It allowed me to take in the sights and sounds of the beautiful Umbrian countryside, and prepared me mentally for the visit.

After seeing the caves where Francis and his followers prayed and slept, I headed to the chapel. It was a perfect place to initially just sit and gather my thoughts, before undertaking some contemplative prayer. It was a true oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of Assisi’s main tourist attractions.

San Damiano

I walked back to Assisi (much easier going downhill!), and headed outside the walls again to San Damiano. This is the place which was in a state of abandon during Francis’s time and where he heard God tell him: “Go Francis and repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruin”.

Francis took these words literally and did rebuild San Damiano. But he then realised that God was referring to the task of rebuilding the Church generally.

San Damiano has so much history relating to Francis and Clare, and I make my way around slowly, taking it all in. It was noticeable how there was always a respectful silence maintained throughout by the visitors. The Friars who live at San Damiano maintain and animate the place with liturgical prayer and with spiritual hospitality to pilgrims. It meant that I could find the space to truly pray.

‘The edge of the inside’

When I left Assisi to get the train to Rome, I reflected on my visit.

The places that I had felt closest to the charism of Francis and Clare, had been outside of Assisi itself – Eromo delle Carceri and San Damiano. I think the fact that there are resident communities in both places helps facilitate a sense of reverence and contemplation that I had found lacking in the large Basilicas within Assisi itself.

This should not have come as a complete surprise, I thought. Francis and Clare had to go outside the walls in order, as Richard Rohr puts it “to live on the edge of the inside of both church and society”.  Renewal does not come from the centre, but from the margins.

If you are able to, then I would strongly encourage a visit to Assisi. If you do, take the time to go outside the town itself to gain an inner contemplative experience that takes you closer to Francis, Clare and God Himself.

Danny Daly is a London Jesuit volunteer and works for a charity helping homeless people 

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