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Interview: Kelvin Woolmer, London Olympics chaplain

05 August 2008

I didn’t want it, to be perfectly frank, when the ad for this job of chaplain to the Olympic construc­tion site came out. My wife was born in Stepney and she wasn’t too keen. I’d been 30 years a policeman in east London and ordained in 2001 as an NSM, and we lived in Essex. It meant moving to Stratford, to be half-time Vicar of St Paul’s parish, too.

I’d spent four years as a police chaplain in Tower Hamlets, and set up the only two multifaith rooms outside Hendon and Scotland Yard, in Bethnal Green and Limehouse.

We were at home in Essex when we heard about London winning the bid. My wife was jumping about for joy. I was a bit numb actually — I mean we’re British, and never win anything.

I’d retired in March 2005 and started doing voluntary work for the Intercontinental Church Soci­ety. They sent me to Zermatt, which was very kind of them — but you know what? You walk out of the front door and see the Matterhorn and it’s marvellous. After eight weeks you think: “Oh, it’s still there then. . .”

I learned something for this job out there, on the international building site. The builders would take the mickey out of me. I took the mickey back. They bought me drinks. And my wife said later: “Did you realise there was absolute silence for twenty minutes when you were telling them about Jesus?” It gave me an insight into what chaplaincy would be like on site.

So, just to be polite, we thought we ought to come and look. When we walked into the church, it was beautiful — and the Holy Spirit was a physical feeling. I applied, though I didn’t expect to get the job. Now I’m a round peg in a round hole . . . but don’t tell the Bishop of Barking. I don’t want him to realise I’ve got the best job in the Church of England.

St Paul’s must be the fastest-growing church in the world. When I came, there were eight in the congregation. Now there are 24.

I get to watch people work. . . It’s a privilege. And the site is so many hectares. I have a big yellow jacket with “Chaplain” on the back, and get access to the whole site. I don’t think anyone else besides Seb Coe gets to go over so much of it.

And people come and talk to me. The men seem to realise that they’ve found someone they can talk to. The image of a builder is someone who’s big, hard, bum-cleavage, thick. . . But they have the same problems as any­one — with family, kids, and so on.

Building sites are like dry sponges. I share the love of Christ, and they are just soaking it up. Of course, I need to be very PC. I’m a Christian, but I’m there for everyone, Muslims, pagans, and all.

The job is already changing. There are in excess of 6000 people on site, and I’ve just recruited five volunteer chaplains. That’s going to peak to 30,000 people, and I’m going to have to recruit more. I’ve already been given two offices — although I do most of the talking on site or in the canteens.

Living here in the East End, I see what it’s going to do for the people: regenerating the area, raising aspira­tions, and providing work. There’s going to be 15,000 jobs in the shop­ ping centre, and jobs in the stadiums and media centre which will be left.

There are more than 15,000 unem­ployed people in Newham alone. I teach 16-year-olds under the New­ham Enterprise Scheme, going into schools to help with job applications and interviews. I’m also encouraging people to enrol in the Constructions Skills College at Stratford, because, with these skills, they can get jobs anywhere in the world. The adven­ture opens up if you look at the opportunities.

I won’t be going to China this sum­mer. I’m going to France to conduct English-language services for four weeks. Terrible, isn’t it? But some­one’s got to do it. I’m taking my grand­children, and there’ll be lots of sandcastle-building.

I used to do a lot of weight-training; so I’m a fan of strong-man compe­titions. And I love the Tour de France. After all — those cyclists are athleticism personified, aren’t they?

The Church should be involved with the Olympics: it shows it’s not just a secular event. It covers people from all walks of life and nations, from the poorest to the richest. Many of them have faith, and all of them need pastoral support and care.

“We are where we’re supposed to be,” is what they all say if you ask them how it’s coming on. They all know there are many things that can go wrong — if the weather changes, or a piece of equipment doesn’t arrive, or someone gets hurt. The main stadium is well in advance — the aquatic centre is not doing so well. But they will get it finished.

I’ve read loads of theological books, and sometimes I think they pontifi­cate too much. So I like adventure stories, especially Bernard Cornwell. He’s top of my list for relaxing reading. And my wife’s a writer of romantic historical fiction, pub­lished by Orion. I like her books, and she’s historically spot on.

I’ve got three lovely daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren of three, 18 months, and seven weeks. They are the biggest influence in my life. I’m so proud of them. We get on so well, and my sons-in-law are friends — not imposed relatives. We talk. There are no difficulties. (We do argue: don’t get me wrong.)

I’ve always wanted to be a police­man — sad, isn’t it? My youngest daughter is in the CID.

The most important decision I ever made was to pursue the woman who became my wife. She was en­gaged to someone else when we met. We’ve been married for 31 years now.

My biggest regret was probably not becoming a Christian sooner. I didn’t till I was 33. If I had, I might have been a Royal Army Chaplain.

I’d like people to say: “He laughed a lot. He loved God. And he did something good, sometimes.”

I like Luke 10 best, when Jesus sends out the 72 disciples. We don’t get to find out what the instructions are; but they come back, and then he says to them, “Don’t get too up yourself — you’re not doing it without the help of God.” That’s how I feel: I think I’ve done well some days, and then I think: “No, I haven’t done well. It’s you that’s done it. Thank you for letting me be part of it.”

If I wasn’t doing this job, I’d prob­ably be running a security firm. That’s what a lot of retired police­men tend to do.

I last got angry, frustrated, really, teaching these kids for the Newham Enterprise Scheme. I was trying to tell them that life doesn’t owe them a living — but they knew it all. It wasn’t going to matter what life threw at them. You try and enhance their opportunities, and they throw it back in your face. But one young man turned round afterwards and said: “Thank you very much” — and that made it all worth while.

At the moment, I’m happiest with my three grandchildren. I get to sit and cuddle them, and spoil them, and then when they’re hyper, I hand them back.

I pray for the people in my church. Many of them are poor, and lots have special needs, but I’ve seen many develop in their faith. And my big prayer every day is that everyone who walks on to that construction site will go home again, injury-free. It’s the second-worst industry for occupational death and injury after farming. A moment’s inatten­tion and you can get yourself killed.

It has to be two people I want to get locked in a church with: Stephen Fry and Alan Davies. I love QI, which they’re both on, but they seem to think they have a right to have a go at the Christian faith and the Bible —not at other faiths. I just want to sit down and tell them that, though they may not subscribe to it, they don’t have the right to denigrate it. But I still watch them. . .

The Revd Kelvin Woolmer was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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