WHAT will you best remember from all the years you went to
church? It may not be songs or sermons, liturgical choreography or
obscure festivals. It may be the sweet old lady who always said she
would pray for you; the teenager in a wheelchair brought by his
carer; the woman who died before you really got to know her; that
man who seemed to have got it together, until it all fell
It may not be a gospel from book or priest that spoke to you. It
may have been the gospel sitting next to you.
In the Christian tradition, we revere the four Gospels because
they hide clues to what it might be likeif God lived among us. But
the Church, as someone once wisely noted, "is the fifth gospel",
and in our north-London parish we began wondering how to read from
this overlooked publication - the gospel according to you and
We started including an additional gospel: "A reading this
morning from the gospel according to Sam." Or Carol. Or Gary. Or
A reading from the life of a 60-something daughter caring for
her 80-something mother in the long years of dementia. About how
she loses her a little more every day, but finds a place for her
grief in church. Or from the life of the homeless man, who, like a
sceptical psalmist, interrogates God for failing to provide a roof
over his head. Or from the artist who reflects on her journey into
- and out of - "madness", and is able to name it as some kind of
These gospels are based on conversations - recorded,
transcribed, edited, and recomposed; an imaginative retelling in
someone's own words. Agnes was our first. She was a single mum
living in a tower block, stony broke, and with a violent, estranged
partner - but never harbouring a doubt that God would look after
her and her children.
It was not hard to see the glinting tributaries of faith
illuminating Agnes's journey all the way from Ghana to north
London. A couple of hours of conversation, edited to retain the
interest of a Sunday-morning congregation, became a literary life
of faith and hope, love and longing.
I WOULD encourage any church to gather stories from its people.
Stories like these can be good news, even on the days when the news
is bad. They can help us see how faith shapes us, changes us,
surprises us. "I hadn't been brought up in any of this," Carol
says. "I didn't know what you did, and when you did it."
Among the rewards of putting down roots in a faith community is
the chance to become friends with people unlike ourselves, those to
whom we would otherwise have remained strangers. At some point -
sharing a hymn book, at the communion rail, over coffee - we catch
a glimpse of their stories.
Who would have known that that bearded man in the choir has an
estranged wife, and grown-up children, who have shunned him ever
since he came out? Or that the woman who welcomes you at the door
is living with an illness that must soon take her life.?
The gospel truth in the lives of the people around us is often
buried in story and anecdote. But, as the writer Frederick Buechner
puts it: "All theology, like all fiction, is at its heart
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, but most days
we don't witness them, as they reveal their rich and moving
stories. We don't recognise them singing the same song in the next
pew, calming a child in the so-called silence of the prayers. We
don't imagine that we might be witnesses ourselves - that our
lives, too, might hold the gospel truth.
Maybe the gospel is not where we think it is. Maybe, some
Sundays, we are sitting next to her, an elderly woman holding
divine presence, a limited edition of God incarnate.
The Revd Martin Wroe is Associate Vicar of St Luke's, West
Holloway. The Gospel According to Everyone, Volumes I, and
II, price £5, plus £1.50 p&p, are available from
www.martinwroe.com. These edited extracts appear by kind
The gospel according to Carol
FOR many years, I was a social worker for a Christian health
charity, looking after people with HIV. I'd never experienced the
death of someone close, but, suddenly, it was all around me. People
were dying every few weeks, but there was so much stigma about AIDS
that these men needed someone to listen to, and understand them.
Someone to be on their side.
It was a Christian organisation, and as I wasn't a Christian, I
worried about whether I was good enough to take the job. I expected
all these Christians to be kind, wonderful, and caring. Some of
them were; but many weren't, especially those who talked a lot
about their faith.
They'd chosen to work in a Christian organisation where the
major client group was gay men, but they believed that
homosexuality was a sin. They couldn't hear the lives of these men
over the noise of their own theology.
I had a brilliant manager, who helped me to see that there were
other people there who were also Christians - they just didn't talk
about it all the time. One day, I was telling a colleague about how
strange some of these Christians were, when I suddenly thought he
might be one of them.
"You're not a Christian too, are you?" I blurted out. He said:
"Yes, but don't worry. I know what you mean about the strange ones,
and I'm not one of them." At the time, I didn't know that Paul went
to church, I just noticed that he was kind and gentle, with no show
For a long time, I was nervous coming to church. I hadn't been
brought up in any of this. I didn't know what you did, or when you
did it. I think it took me about ten years before I had the courage
to stay for a coffee. What if people found out how little I knew
about God and the Bible?
I grew up on the Hornsey Lane estate, and baptisms and weddings
were the limits of church for us. Dad had a kind of reverence, but
if Mum heard that someone was going to church, she'd say "they've
gone a bit religious," as if they'd lost their mind.
Although we didn't do church, I always had a sense of God being
with me. As a child, I had conversations with God which, now I look
back, I realise was prayer. I asked for help or for guidance. I had
a firm belief, but not in organised religion. Finding St Luke's has
helped me to confirm that belief in God, and the feeling that every
small act of kindness is what life is about.
I've always worked with people whom no one else wants to work
with, people not being listened to. I believe that we should do our
best for them, and understand them. For a long time that left me
feeling a bit of an outsider, but being part of a church has shown
me I'm not alone.
I like the way that church encourages people to listen to those
who are not being heard, and to help them in their lives. . . It
has helped me feel I am not an outsider in what I think and
Church helps keep me awake to the needs of others. Faith, for
me, is about listening, and about service, and I find that this
community gives me strength and resources for both.
Mum is 94 now, and lives a few streets away. The family have got
used to me being a church person. I don't think my mum's fears
about me "going religious" have been realised. I think they see
that being part of church has helped me find myself - that it's
helped me understand better who I am, and why I do the things I
The gospel according to Gary
I WORK in a Tesco warehouse, where I pack food for
internet shoppers. If you get through an order quickly, you might
have a minute to chat before the managers notice. I work with a
very argumentative atheist, and a very argumentative Jehovah's
Witness. The atheist is always saying "science disproves God," and
the Jehovah's Witness always disagrees.
As I can't really get away from them, I usually end
up getting dragged in, but I think God made science. What's the
problem? Why can't God and science co-exist? The Jehovah's Witness
says it's wrong to be gay. The atheist says church is conformist. I
tell them both they should come to St Luke's, where you can be gay,
and you don't have to conform. I'm quite happy that they know I'm a
Christian, I'm not embarrassed about it.
I first came to church here when I was six weeks old.
Ivy, my great-aunt, sits on the front row with her friends Sissy
and Doreen. They always sit there. They should have a sign which
says "Reserved" on it. She first started coming with her sister
Ethel, my nan.
They came to see me in the nativity play. I loved the
nativity plays, and I was upset when I got too old to be in them. I
played the Holy Spirit one year. Another year, I was Joseph;
another year, aBig Issuesalesman - I think that was a modern
version of the nativity.
People think of churches as being against things, but
what I like about St Luke's is that there are lots of different
kinds of people, and we don't judge them if they're different in
some way. You can come here whatever you believe, we will still
accept you. My fiancée, Katya, brought her mother once, and even
she liked it.
Being present at St Luke's is important for me in
feeling closer to God. It might be the bread and wine, or a hymn,
or it might just be talking to people afterwards. You don't want to
put everything on God, because he's got so much to do, but it's
good to know he's looking out for you, that there's someone to show
us a better way. I believe in a creator who designed us, and when
things are going bad, I look to God for guidance.
I've been coming to St Luke's all my life, and now
I'm getting married here. It seems right. Maybe if Katya and I have
children, they'll be baptised and confirmed here, like me. Maybe
they'll be in the nativity play, like I was.
The gospel according to Joan
MUM's stroke happened in 2003, when she was 83. It dramatically
affected her memory. She could remember something from 50 years
ago, but not from five minutes ago.
Although she couldn't remember that Dad had died, she'd often
start folding up material as though she was about to sew it,
because she'd been a seamstress as a young woman. Mum and Dad had
come over to Britain after he'd retired from work in Kenya, where
they'd met and married, where we'd all been born and brought
When she first got ill, I remember Mum saying: "There'll always
be rice on the table." She had faith that God would look after her.
Even when she won at the bingo, it was a sign that God was looking
after her. She had a very deep faith. She was an old soul, someone
Most people at St Luke's will picture Henrietta as the old black
lady in a wheelchair, who smiled at you but didn't speak. I
wondered what people would think if they knew who she'd been as a
younger woman. When my brother, sisters, and I were teenagers, Dad
got her to chaperone us to discos in Nairobi. She always had more
fun on the dance floor than any of us.
She used to help at Sunday school in Nairobi. She got involved
in everything at this church - Bible studies, PCC, services - and
we were all christened and confirmed there.
My formative years were in Africa, and I think of myself as
Kenyan. It never leaves you, growing up in that wonderful weather:
playing out as children, following the river up into the country,
huge family meals, weddings, christenings.
I arrived at 21, with £200 and a relative's address. London was
terrible. But I stayed, and found work. I got married, raised my
daughter Pearl, and now look after my grandchildren in Enfield.
When Mum became unwell, I took voluntary redundancy to look
after her. She loved to get out and about, and pushing her in her
chair is how we found St Luke's.
She liked the people here, especially the children. When she
reached out to befriend them, I could see that Sunday-school
teacher in her again. She loved rediscovering her church traditions
- receiving communion, sharing the peace, getting a blessing.
It's a long grief when you lose someone to dementia; you keep
thinking maybe your old mum might come back. But, in becoming a
parent to my own parents, I discovered an inner emotional strength
I hadn't known I had.
St Luke's has been important in all of this, something Mum and I
did together, our club where we made new friends. In those final
years of her life, I found I couldn't cry, a lot of the time, but,
sometimes, I would be in a service and find the tears streaming
down my face.
Something would start it, like the children saying the Lord's
Prayer, or the words of absolution. . . Church became a place where
I was allowed to cry. A place where you are accepted and not
judged, where you feel held, and part of something bigger.
Some Sundays, I hear the choir and think how much Mum loved it,
and I turn towards her before I realise she isn't sitting with me
any more. But I also know that she is here, that she is enjoying
My faith is based on her faith, and the traditions in which she
raised us, but it's less about religion now, and more about
spirituality - a Christianity that embraces ideas from
Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. And travelling that journey with Mum
made me look at life and death in a new way; helped me to see it as
more of a process that we're all going to go through.