Here in Chelmsford, many Christians are pleased to support a charity set up by the local churches called Chelmsford CHESS, which supports homeless people, not only with night shelters but also with long term help. About 25% of their funding comes from Government grants administered by Essex County Council. They have recently learned that their funding application to accommodate rough sleepers in the colder winter months has been declined. Even right now in June, the charity knows of fourteen people sleeping rough in the town.
Of course, we all understand the need for austerity in these straitened times. And especially Essex County Council, who – in the spirit of self-discipline – have just awarded themselves a 41% increase in councillors’ allowances. I mean, you can’t afford to risk running out of biscuits at council meetings, can you?
On Friday night, my wife slept outside in the cold. And I am proud.
Am I proud to be a heartless husband who is happy to allow his belovèd to be subjected to the onset of winter? No. I am proud, because she did it as one of sixty or so people participating in a sponsored sleep out for Chelmsford CHESS, a Christian organisation that supports homeless people in our town. Among them were what we used to call Sixth Formers from two local secondary schools.
I have calculated that after the addition of Gift Aid where claimed, she will have raised £684.53 towards the amazing work that Chelmsford CHESS undertakes. They began when the churches of the town used to open their halls on a rota basis as places where the homeless could sleep. Then they bought a property and made it a night shelter. They now also have a day centre which offers job skills and recreation, and another residential property for people they are helping to move on back into ‘normal’ life.
I am proud, too, that I have two of their trustees in my churches. One is the Managing Trustee. He has had a passion to serve the homeless since he took early retirement from the world of banking. The other has only recently become involved when he retired early from business. He plans to run an Alpha Course among the clients. That, to say the least, will be interesting.
Obviously, a sponsored sleep out is meant to simulate – but only to a limited extent – the plight of the homeless. It took place in a churchyard. The night had begun with musical entertainment. There were security patrols. Participants could go into the church and make a coffee if they wanted one. They had access to toilets. At 6:30 am, the sleep out was formally broken by the arrival of bacon sandwiches. None of which is to pretend it was easy – Debbie only slept for about twenty minutes all night – but it is to remember that those who are on the streets have it even tougher.
I’ve never been very good in dealing with homeless people. I’m not streetwise enough to find wise ways of serving them. I have oscillated between naïveté and insensitivity in my responses. But I am glad we can find simple ways of supporting organisations like Chelmsford CHESS.
It’s rather like the attitude my grandmother took to world mission. Inspired by the example of her friend Gladys Aylward, she longed to serve the church in overseas mission. However, health reasons prevented her. Unlike Aylward, who was also initially turned down, she was unable to find another way of going abroad. So my grandmother became a lifelong fundraiser for world mission causes. When it’s not possible to go in the cause of mission, Christians can pray and give.
The other side is that it’s easy for us to default to giving and prayer as a way of not doing mission, however much finances and intercession are needed as key jigsaw pieces in the picture of mission. Sometimes they are what we do as a cop-out, because we’d rather not find vulnerable ways of sharing the Gospel ourselves in word and deed. I have known too many churches where the understanding of mission is limited to fund-raising. A Home Missions or World Church Sunday has meant a visiting speaker and a collection. The congregation has then thought it has shared in mission. Church authorities have colluded in this deceit: just pay us, we are the experts.
But I do know that in Debbie’s case it was different. She had been so moved by hearing a speaker from Chelmsford CHESS at a church midweek meeting that she had to find something she could do as a Christian about this terrible social need – one that will surely only worsen, the longer current financial strictures continue.
So, yes, I am proud of my wife.