For the last few weeks I have been taking some polystyrene cups and a silly little flask to University, with soup in it, so that I could offer the homeless people whom I pass, a little something to warm them up. It’s a ridiculous futile offering in the face of such a big problem. To see people sitting and sleeping on cold stone pavements, with nothing but a blanket or a thin duvet over them, is a tragedy, especially in such a wealthy area.
Businesses right next to them have to carry on as usual, people have a living to make, times are hard. They could not survive if they fed their profits to the homeless. But I could not bear to walk past people who are literally freezing and hungry, and not offer any kindness at all. Partly because of the way it leaves me feeling to have turned a blind eye, partly because how can we watch another human suffering and not show them that somebody cares that they suffer. And partly because I wanted to see Christ in myself, even if nobody else could.
I was to get a big fat shock!
The first few weeks it was kind of awkward. It was freezing. There were no homeless on the pavements. Thank God, they were hopefully all in shelters. But I confess I was a little disappointed. I personally do not like soup from a flask for lunch and the full flask made for a heavy bag. So in my awkwardness, I brought a Big Issue magazine from the seller on High Street Ken and edged my way in, “You must be freezing” I said “Yes, I am” he replied, “Would you like some hot soup” I asked (as if it were a spur of the moment offering) “No thanks, I’m fine”. Drat! I didn’t really have a spare £2.50 for the magazine, that was my lunch money, but serves me right.
I went off for my coffee and croissant and on the way back Big Issue seller caught my eye, “Excuse me love, I don’t suppose that offer of soup is still going, I was just being polite, I’m freezing” I say “Of course”, secretly I was made up. I white lie, I don’t tell him that he is my first ever customer, I tell him, “I’ve been bringing it for the homeless people, but today it is too cold and there aren’t any about”. He is so very grateful. Oxtail soup delivered and piping hot, bag lighter, nice warm glow all round. Big Issue seller tells me he sleeps by night in a night shelter up the road, “Sometime I manage to get this slot, and sometimes a Romany lady gets here first” he tells me. I catch him again the following weekend. He seems really decent.
Last week I took him soup, he was not there. Soup goes half way through the day with me. Now only luke warm. Bag hideously heavy. On my way home, on Kensington Church Street there is a man crumpled on a step in a dirty old grey/green coat tied with string, with a blanket over his legs. I now feel slightly less awkward. I can see he has a fresh cup of coffee. I sit down on the step next to him. I say, “I don’t have any money, but would you like some warm soup?” It just sounds so pathetically thin and poor. “I have just brought a coffee”, he says. “No worries” I say, “It’s not very hot any way, I usually give it to the homeless people in the morning, but there was no one about this morning, so its going cold”. He looks at me and says, “I could heat it up later, at my friends hostel”. Deal done. As I pour it into the polystyrene cup he looks at it, and says with a longing, “Oh my favorite, Cream of Chicken”.
I ask him why he is homeless? He tells me he fought in the Falklands war, and was injured; he came out of the army and was not looked after. He has been homeless for a long time. I can feel people walking past watching us. Although I feel a little bit self-conscious, I am also feeling a little smug with myself for being a good Christian and showing the homeless man a little bit of Christ. After chatting for five minutes I say “goodbye” to him and tell him to “have a good day”. The homeless man looks me straight in the eye and says out loud in the most genuine kindest and compassionate way, “God bless you”, and at that point there was only one of us Christ like, and it was not me. I manage to squeeze out a feeble “and God bless you too” before tearfully walking up the road completely humbled. That blessing was all-powerful, more powerful than any priests blessing that I have ever received.
Today there was no-one to take the wretched soup, which also incidentally comes with bread, until that is I get almost back to Notting Hill Station. A foreign man is sitting at the bus stop on the cold floor whilst every one is standing waiting for the bus. The man is asking for money with his hand extended, he can not speak English. He looks so cold. Today is the coldest day this winter. I shake my head and say “Sorry I don’t have any money” but I show him the flask and say “Soup” He holds the polystyrene cup, and I empty the contents of the flask. He puts the cup down on the floor and puts his hands together in the prayer posture and he bows his head. The people at the bus-stop look half embarrassed and half full of pity at us. I half-smile at the man and say you’re welcome and hurry away. Homeless man so full of Grace.
This week I was truly blessed. I took my children to see the Watoto Ugandan Children’s Choir at Brentwood Cathedral. These children have lost one or both of their parents either to the Aids Virus, or have been made orphans through war and the murder of their beloved parents. They live in the Watoto Christian Village, where they have new families, ‘new mothers’ and a new community. So much sadness and suffering has been inflicted on these children, and yet their faith was so genuine and radiant and true, and despite each and every one of us in the audience feeling pity for them, it was the Watoto children who were so close to Christ, who wanted to pray for us.
Christ shines so radiantly from all of these people.
I have so very much to learn from those who are genuinely so full of Grace.