One autumn Sunday in 1983, a Chinese student turned up at my home church in London. He’d come over from Hong Kong to study civil engineering at a nearby institution. Rather than go to the Chinese Church in London, he chose to find a local group of native Christians with whom to worship for the three years of his studies here.
That was how we met William. Or ‘Uncle William’, as he became known to us.
He got that name on one of the many days he came back to our parents’ house for Sunday lunch. My sister and I told him how when we were children, we addressed our parents’ friends as ‘Uncle’ or ‘Auntie’. “Well,” said William, “I am your parents’ friend, too. You should call me Uncle William.” So we did, even though he was younger than me.
Over those three years we had great fun. We tried to convince him of the existence of the Wombles, an endangered species on Wimbledon Common, but he didn’t fall for it. When he travelled with us to attend Spring Harvest in Prestatyn, we told him he would need his passport for the Welsh border. It didn’t work.
But when we told him about the male and female haggis animals on the Scottish mountains, we got away with it. We span the old yarn that the males have shorter legs on one side of their bodies and the females have shorter legs on the other side. Thus they have to go opposite ways around the mountains in order to meet and mate. If they go past each other, it means another circuit.
William thought this was nonsense, and announced that he was going to visit a relative of ours who would confirm his suspicions. The moment he went out of the door, we rang her, knowing she had the gift of the straight face …
I have only seen William once since those days. It was ten years ago, when he paid a visit to London with his bride, Vicky. My sister hasn’t seen him at all since 1986, I think.
Today, we saw him again. He was in London for a short break and came down to see us. He hasn’t changed. He looks just as young, he still has the humour and it truly was one of those occasions where it felt like we were picking up only from last week, not years ago.
It struck me tonight that William’s example of worshipping with the locals rather than simply with his own fellow ex-pats was a model for all who seek to share in the mission of God. Get involved in the local culture. Don’t stay in the compound. Don’t huddle in the comfort zone. William didn’t.
William, the title of this piece of music is for you today:
I like to think this is the note William would have left on your kitchen table:
This is just to say by William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold