As we sat down for coffee after our guests had departed, we all
agreed about one thing. It had been so much easier than we had
feared. For the past two Saturday nights, we had turned the church
into a makeshift night shelter for homeless people. As temperatures
outside plummeted, we put up camp beds, and prepared food for 20
guests, who found welcome, warmth, and food, next to the nativity
scene of God who was born in a stable.
I took the candles from the altar and put them on the dinner
table. It may have been chilli con carne for dinner, but it felt
like a eucharist to me. "Carne", of course, is the root of
incarnation - the Word made flesh. It is the reason why practical
Christianity is not some second-order derivative.
Many churches now run homeless shelters - ours works through the
wonderful Robes Project, a Christian initiative that was mentioned
by Dr Rowan Williams in his New Year message: "Religion here isn't
a social problem or an old-fashioned embarrassment; it's a
wellspring of energy, and a source of life-giving vision for how
people should be regarded and treated." The project does all the
referral business, and provides the bedding, and individual
churches get on with the rest.
The interesting thing about this type of religion is that it is
as much a gift to the people doing the helping as it is to the
guests themselves. It creates a wonderful sense of cama- raderie
and pride among the congregation. And it puts all our other church
disputes into perspective.
I cannot help but wonder what an astonishing witness it would be
if all our churches became involved in something like this. What
holds us back? I guess, in part, the worry that individual churches
do not have the resources to handle such a project. But I would
like to reassure people that it is remarkably straightforward. We
are not a wealthy church with a big congregation - although, even
in the past two weeks, more people have got involved with the
church through this project. You don't have to be St
Martin-in-the-Fields to contribute.
Clubbing together with other churches to take on responsibility
for one night a week for a limited period makes the whole thing
very manageable, and it makes you confident that you can do
Furthermore, the need is obviously out there. Homeless numbers
are rising again, as houses are repossessed and austerity continues
to bite. Wouldn't it be a marvellous witness if the Church gained a
reputation for precisely this sort of activity rather than for
being anti-gay and anti-women? Projects such as Robes present the
Church with an extraordinary opportunity.
Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's,