Opening doors, hearts and kitchens to the homeless
Homelessness, being disadvantaged, living on the margins. However you choose to describe the life circumstances of too many of our neighbours, it doesn’t change the reality of what it is. Lonely, isolating, confusing, often scary and almost universally misunderstood.
Many great Cornish charities, like St Petroc’s and Cosgarne Hall, are doing what they can and have had an impact. Back in 2011, an article in The Guardian reported that Cornwall had more rough sleepers than anywhere in the UK, outside of Westminster. Today, the landscape has changed, thanks to the work of the charities but also, sadly, because of an increase in numbers in other areas across the country. Cornwall now ranks 11th on the list of who has the most homeless people in the UK, not forgetting the fact that we are the second poorest county in Europe.
So, much is still to be done. In Cornwall, especially during the holiday season, many disadvantaged people head south in search of better weather and an uplift in their circumstances. The weather worsens, circumstances don’t improve and whatever was hoped to be left behind somehow follows.
There are no problem people – just people with problems
Seen by many as problem people, two Cornish churches, St Michael’s in Newquay and St Columb Minor, refuse to refer to those struggling to live as society expects as them. “Neither are they problem people, they are simply people with problems,” say Revd Jem Thorold and rural dean, Rev Chris McQuillan-Wright. People with names, back-stories and lives that deserve to be lived to the full.
When confronted with homelessness or similar issues, many people throw up their hands in despair and ask, often rhetorically, “But what can we do?” Revd Jem and Revd Chris would answer, “Roll up your sleeves, open your doors and work out the best way to make people feel welcome, valued and cared for.”
“Roll up your sleeves, open your doors and work out the best way to make people feel welcome, valued and cared for.”
Each is an associate priest to the other and between them, they have a powerful ministry for those closest to Jesus heart. “Come to me all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:38).
When asking yourself what to do about homelessness, just ask “What would Jesus do?”
Revd Chris is known for opening his church during a bitter winter and inviting all those who didn’t have a bed for the night to sleep in the church. It was controversial at the time, and, he’d be the first to say, didn’t win him any local popularity contests. “But it was minus 5, the police asked me if I would offer shelter and so the question I asked myself was, “What would Jesus do?”
Revd Jem, who had been a policeman for 32 years in Lincolnshire, has met people struggling with life in ways that we can only imagine. “There are always reasons why people behave as they do, often complex and with mental health issues. But sometimes they are simple and obvious – poverty, inability to feed the family, feelings of powerlessness and not being heard.” Jem approached policing in the same way as he approaches ministry, meeting and accepting people where they are and finding practical ways to help.
“There are always reasons why people behave as they do, often complex and with mental health issues. But sometimes they are simple and obvious – poverty, inability to feed the family, feelings of powerlessness and not being heard.”
“Just talking is a good way to start,” says Jem. He recalled a time when he took on a new policing role in an area where a particular character, with a formidable reputation, infamously loathed his predecessor. “I just went up to him, shook his hand and asked him how he was – and after that we got on fine.”
Practicality, common sense and kindness
Practicality, common sense and kindness lies behind the work at St Michael’s. Under the title “Touch the hem of the cloak of Christ,” a programme to offer food and a place to talk runs throughout the week. From Sunday through to Saturday there is something going on that involves food.
On Sunday and Monday there is Little Sparrows, when the church is open for tea, sandwiches, biscuits and cake if someone has made one. Run by volunteer Anthony Marriot, he doesn’t sit and wait for the people to come, he goes out to where they are and personally invites them.
On Tuesday a drop in and share café (DISC) operates, run by another volunteer, Monique, with food provided by a restaurant chef from the town. Buoyed up by good takings, the chef chose to share his good fortune with a seemingly homeless person on the street. Undeterred by the revelation that the homeless person was in fact an imposter, the chef decided to invest in a more targeted way by cooking for DISC.
A drop in that provides a warm welcome, a good lunch, services of a vet and a haircut
DISC is an inspiring model of how churches can reach out and help. It not only provides a warm welcome and a good lunch but also, on occasion, the free services of a vet, barber, debt counselling, access to help with addiction through Addaction and Newquay’s only needle exchange.
On Thursday, they work with the Soul Food Kitchen at the Newquay Centre. It’s a community-based project that provides a meal and somewhere safe to go. Friday is Foodbank day as well as DISC and on Saturday they run SNAK, another food-based welcome to whoever wants to come. Whatever day of the week, whatever your circumstances, there will be a warm welcome at St Michael’s.
The Foodbank, that also operates out of St Columb Minor, is run independently with, they say, a light touch. Vouchers are usually needed, which means whoever turns up will have been referred to them by an agency. But life isn’t always that organised when you’re up against it. Rev Chris, who started the Foodbank in St Columb but has since handed it over to volunteers, explains. “One day, I was dropping off my daughter at nursery and a teacher pulled me to one-side to say that there was a couple there who could not feed their family that day. She felt that I should be able to help, and so did I. Because of the way Jem and I work together, we were able to get supplies organised for that family immediately.”
And then there were three… a God-made team
The duo has recently blessed with an addition to their team, Revd Lee Chantler who was ordained as a deacon last month. The team seems tailor-made. Revd Lee shares their outlook, declining a posting at other more prosperous churches to begin his ministry working with those more likely to be found outside rather than inside a church. Lee had an unexpected epiphany moment with faith when he attended a Christingle Service in Port Isaac one Christmas. “I was a lapsed catholic and had never stepped inside an Anglican church. But I was knocked out, literally!” Rev Lee is not a small man, reaching 6’5’’, and so must have caused quite a stir when he was floored by the Holy Spirit in the middle of a Christmas family service!
“It was amazing. I wouldn’t describe myself as a charismatic, but it’s an experience I will never forget.” It was the start of his calling and shortly after, he told the vicar that he wanted to become a priest. It coincided with him reading an article in a national newspaper about a crazy vicar in Cornwall opening up his church to the homeless. “I thought, that’s the type of church I want to work with.”
“I thought, that’s the type of church I want to work with.”
God’s plans, our plans. His wonders to behold. It was a great moment to hear Revd Lee say that and Revd Chris hear that for the first time.
So how will this God-made team move forward? It will be exciting to watch but even better to get involved. They are looking for volunteers, lots of them. If you have a heart for people, are not afraid to roll up your sleeves and meet people wherever they are, please get in touch with Revd Jem, Revd Chris or Revd Lee.
Written by Jac Smith