My mother was a cleaner, my father a postman. I remember my mother teaching me to pray. We lived in a house with no running hot water, bathroom, inside toilet, or toilet paper. Even now, I can’t look at a copy of The South Wales Echo without a hundred memories flooding back. Grammar school seemed a foreign country to me.
I managed to train to be a teacher, which seemed amazing; but a guy in our church asked me to work in his law practice and offered to pay for me to go to law school. I did my probationary year [teaching] and loved it, but I was also working with kids at church; so I decided to give law a shot. We had a remarkable career together, building the legal practice, and running seminars for lawyers all over the world.
I was also involved in helping to lead a growing church on a large housing estate in one of the most deprived areas in Wales. Although there were many organisations working with families at the bottom of the cliff, helping to put them back together, I also wanted to build fences at the top of the cliff — so we started Care for the Family, working mainly in the areas of parenting, marriage and relationships, and bereavement throughout the UK.
So, one moment I was a senior partner, someone to bring me coffee whenever I want, and the next I’m 40, sticking my own stamps on, and no one’s returning my calls. Suddenly your identity changes. That’s quite a journey, and it was brave of my wife, Dianne, too. All we had to share with people was our weakness, really. We’ve been through some tough times together, but we told them about that and discovered the power of vulnerability.
I’m staggered at the way Care for the Family has developed. Our three values are generosity of spirit, vulnerability, and honouring the least. If you were to tell me you’re running a course on relationships, single-parenting, bereavement, I’d say: come to Cardiff, walk through our warehouse, take what you want and use it. If you upset someone who gives us £10,000, I’ll be cross with you. If you make a single parent who gives us £2 a month feel rubbish, I’ll be really cross with you.
I love our work with single parents, and specially the subsidised holidays for single parents — and weekends for young people who’ve lost a child or a partner. One of leaders told me about last Friday afternoon, when all the men sat there, arms folded, thinking: “You can’t bring my son back.” He told them that he’d lost his 22-year-old son, and his wife couldn’t get near him, and he didn’t want to live or die. People told him time would heal, but this loss wasn’t meant to heal. He just wanted his son back.
By Sunday, the men had opened up like flowers, just because they had the incredible sense that other men have walked this path and come through.
People find their own answers, but knowing they’re not alone is a tremendous relief — otherwise they think they’re just rubbish. Many people don’t have the support of the extended family, or close relationships with neighbours now; so it’s very easy to believe that they’re the only ones going through something.
We’ve got really nice new headquarters — an amazing gift — and, when workmen and cleaners come in, we treat them well, offer them a cup of tea. It really matters. My mother used to clean toilets; so, if I’m in hotel, I always clean the toilet before I leave. I’m angry when we treat people who have little power badly.
We want to communicate with people, whatever their beliefs. We produce books like The 60-Minute Father or The Heart of Success (which was on the Sunday Times bestseller list), which are full of Christian values and contain quite a number of Bible quotes, but are not so overtly Christian they can’t be used in schools and colleges. Our marriage-preparation course is being used by a Muslim couple doing incredible work with young couples in Birmingham mosque. We also have resources for churches, like our Kitchen Table project to help parents pass on their faith.
We’re not looking for a fight. We’re not a campaigning organisation. We call ourselves a pastoral organisation. Sometimes people call us right-wing and so on, but frankly, less and less these days.
I’ve just published a book: From the Heart, subtitled An honest look at life and faith — articles mainly written for Premier Christianity magazine. I was going to call it, Nobody Said It Would Be Easy, which sums up the Christian walk. I wrote them for people like me — who have a faith, but who struggle, fear, and sometimes aren’t sure they can keep going. I wrote it to encourage the broken, and bring hope.
We must give hope, but the hope we offer is bigger than that our individual circumstances will get sorted out. Don’t get me wrong: when my daughter’s life was hanging in the balance eight years ago, I was praying like mad. But we need to know people who are broken still have value.
It’s very easy to to be very active, but to have lost our first love for God. I try hard to keep that inner life alive. I pray the prayer of Job: “Oh that I had the intimacy I had with you in the days of my youth.”
We took 60 Christian parents of children with physical, emotional, or addiction problems away for a weekend. I slipped in on the Saturday-evening worship session to give a message, but during a worship song the woman in front of me ran out in tears. She told me her son was a drug addict who had been set on fire by two dealers, and was later found dead in a squat — she didn’t know whether by accident, suicide, or murder. A 28-year-old widow on the stage spoke about her Down-syndrome six-year-old daughter praying with her friend for healing. What can I say?
I don’t say God loves them, though they aren’t perfect. I remind them that their children aren’t perfect, but they love them anyway, and that’s how they love God: you don’t love him because everything in the garden’s lovely. You’re hanging on by your fingertips, “but though the fig tree shall not blossom. . .” We’ve brought a generation of people up on the idea that there’s a deal with God: “I’ll follow you, and I may get ’flu, but no big stuff — no kids that die, no cancer that doesn’t get healed.”
There’s no deal.
Families’ experiences of Covid were so different, often largely determined by their physical situation. It was a terrible pressure for many parents to fulfil their work roles and sort out their kids’ education. We notice many families go through massive trauma just after Christmas when they’ve been thrown together in an unnatural way, and Covid was similar.
We weren’t able to do any of our live events, but our new headquarters has a film unit, auditorium, and studio; so we were able to put things online for families everywhere. We’ve learned incredible new communication skills in the last two years. We’re fast learners. It’s been an amazing, very fruitful time, really.
For 45 years, Dianne and I lived with our two children and a homeless man who came to stay for one night and never left. The children have now left home, and Ronnie Lockwood died in the middle of the Covid pandemic.
I’ve just finished a Master’s at Bristol in creative writing, and I’m writing a novel and a memoir about life with Ronnie. The way he viewed his education and mine weren’t that far apart, and my heart goes out to kids hanging around on street corners who don’t have someone to help them along.
Creative writing’s fun. You can be anybody, go anywhere. I’ve been running a creative-writing class for the community in our new Ronald Lockwood Centre, and been invited to run one in a prison.
I’d like to be locked in a church with the disciple Peter. I’d like to ask him: “How did you keep going?” Perhaps he’d shrug and say he loved the Lord and knew that the Lord loved him, and that was enough.
Rob Parsons was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
From the Heart: An honest look at life and faith is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-529-35815-5.