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Interview: Joe Walsh, housing support officer

06 March 2020

‘Giving a kidney cost me very little. Going sequence dancing last week was the bravest thing I’ve done’

I work as a housing support worker in Bradford, looking after service users with chaotic lives. I spend a lot of time trying to make contact with them, building trust, helping them live the best life they can and maintain their accommodation.

Unfortunately, you see the same issues again and again,
particularly with drugs, poor physical or mental health, and poverty — and services being cut. Changes to the welfare system and arrangements for refugees and asylum-seekers are rather hostile. Working with vulnerable people, often with substance-misuse issues, mental-health issues, difficult family backgrounds, and poverty, going round and round the system . . . the problems seem intractable, though some do make a change.

It takes a long time in Bradford for someone on the highest-priority list to get a house, but some people struggle to maintain a tenancy anywhere. When there are no services left willing to take them, they end up back on the streets.

The solution involves stopping these tragedies happening far earlier. It’s how we do family and community in our society. Even then, we need individuals to reach a point of motivation to change.

I try to remember my service users in prayer, and challenge myself not to give up hope. I try to show dignity and respect by the way I work, and that itself is a positive experience for someone in the midst of life’s storms. My clients’ resilience really surprises me, too. Each one has their own story, and it’s been interesting getting to know them.

I thank God that we have a welfare state and we appreciate human rights; but I’d agree that society is increasingly individualistic and competitive. Christianity has always been counter-cultural, and calls us to community, kindness, and even forgoing our own rights. I hope that the Church can live out this attractive non-conformity.

40Acts is a daily reading for Lent, including a reflection and a challenge, and it can be used via a free app. It’s written by a different contributor each day, and encourages radical generosity in all parts of Christian life. I’ve found it encouraging in my own walk of faith, and it encouraged me to donate one of my kidneys for transplant.

I first heard about kidney donation on a radio station. Having read into the risks and benefits, I was immediately persuaded. Later, at a time when I was feeling a bit discouraged about it, I read in 40Acts about someone else who also felt a passion to give their kidney to someone in dire need. I believe it was a God-planned moment of encouragement and validation.

As I say, I felt a bit discouraged. This was because I wasn’t sure many others understood or were excited about my decision. One Christian friend suggested that I was “taking Jesus a bit seriously”, and another said that it was a bad idea. My wife was totally behind me, however, and I felt God’s peace with me.

Statistically, someone who has given a kidney is likely to have a better-functioning kidney than others with two. They only take kidneys from people with very good kidneys to start with. And if donors have a problem in the future, they would have priority on the waiting list over everyone else.

I had to have months of tests, scans, X-rays, and even a psychological appraisal. At each stage, I was given lots of information and NHS staff were very thorough. My recovery was excellent, and I enjoyed the time I had off work. The NHS paid for any loss of income; so I never had to worry financially. I gave in a chain, like when you buy a house. I gave to patient A, whose family member — not being a compatible match for patient A — gave a kidney to patient B, and so on. A non-directed donor like myself can thereby enable two or three transplants.

The process was the easiest thing in the world. I just had to turn up. It didn’t hurt that much, to be honest. I was in hospital for one night, had morphine, and was really comfortable. At home, I had paracetamol, and there was a bit of discomfort, and sleeping was a bit difficult lying down. For a while, your bowel movements don’t get back to normal; so that’s a bit uncomfortable as well, and you have to give yourself injections for six days after the operation, which I didn’t enjoy. But, weighed against the benefit for the recipient, it feels like nothing, really.

I know the name, age, and gender of the person who received my kidney, and I did receive a letter from them. It was really nice to hear from them and how receiving a kidney had changed their life, allowing them to play with their grandchildren. They even said that they thanked God for the operation. It was a real privilege to receive that letter, as I’d set my expectations low for fear of disappointment.

40 Acts was full of stories which inspired me. Giving a kidney is quite niche, but obviously we all have passions, talents, and skills which we can use for God. It’s about encouraging small acts generosity achievable within each day, and I’m trying to do that this Lent.

One area that challenged me was the care of God’s good creation. I’m impressed by people who care for the environment sacrificially.

I grew up in leafy East Sussex, where my parents were both teachers. They came to faith when I was a few years old; so I grew up going to church with my older brother and younger sister. Now I live in Leeds, having gone to university there, with my wife, and three-year-old girl, who came to us under a Special Guardianship Order when a friend had her children removed from her. We’re passionate about fostering and adoption, and if we were to expand our family, we’d like to care for the children who already really need love. That might be our next challenge.

I had many moments of realisation and commitment. I often sensed God close to me when I was worshipping. My commitment was solidified when I got baptised, and was excited to read my Bible as a teen.

While giving a kidney sounds the most heroic thing I’ve ever done, it cost me very little. Perhaps, really, my proudest achievement is providing a home for my three-year-old, which required a lot more time, energy, and money. Anyone who’s adopted, fostered, or been a guardian will understand, as will anyone who’s a parent.

Going sequence dancing with my wife and parents last week was the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

I’d like to advocate for Christian non-directed kidney donation. There’s little awareness of the need for kidney transplants in the UK. There’s one country in the world without a waiting list for kidneys, and that’s Iran, with an ethically dubious policy of paying donors. I’d like to see the UK end its waiting list simply because Christians are living out the counter-cultural generosity of Christ. It’s not for everyone, but, if we see our bodies as living sacrifices, belonging to God, it’s a well-balanced decision to give a kidney, and it’s a great way to show the gospel and what God’s selfless love looks like.

Misrepresentations in the news make me angry. It happens on all sides.

I’m happiest when I’m playing board games with my family or friends, so long as I’m not losing.

Overhearing my little girl singing when she’s on her own is the best sound.

I am trying to cultivate hopefulness. My reason to do that is God’s word: if God himself is living in his people through the Holy Spirit, then there is huge potential for God’s power to be at work.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d like to be with Krish Kandiah (Back Page Interview, 8 September 2017). He’s an author whose books I’ve found so helpful. He’s a great communicator and thinker. He also set up Home for Good, creating momentum for Christian fostering and adoption. I’d love to have his thoughts on my efforts to raise the profile of Christian kidney donation.

Joe Walsh was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The 40Acts Lent generosity challenge was created by the charity Stewardship. 40acts.org.uk

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