Liminal places

So it’s now three weeks since I’ve been back from my pilgrimage / epic prayer walk around the country, and I’m still somewhere fragmented, somewhere in between. Out on the road but also living back in London at the same time. I’m writing the journey up in more detail for a Housing Justice publication, hopefully ready in time for Advent, but here are some reflections on the themes I’m working on.

For people coming new to this blog, it is in reverse chronological order, so a good place to start is probably back at the beginning here, or with the map of the journey here

It is tough on the road!

This is obviously a function of how one lives everyday life but the journey was a tough challenge, both physically and emotionally. While the tasks each day were fairly straightforward they were physically demanding and I do think of myself as quite fit: cycling to work each day, walking regularly, having a reasonably good diet, staying active. But walking 12 miles a day (on average) with a heavy back pack was hard work for this 56 year old! Being on a tight budget and finding food and water and a safe place to sleep each night was also not always easy.

This is in no sense a complaint. I entered into this pilgrimage fully expecting and accepting the hardships. It was the point, after all, to walk and live – to an extent at least – in solidarity with people suffering poverty and homelessness.

Being on my own much of the time, particularly in July, also presented challenges. This was a motivation to pray more, which was good. But I did sometimes feel acutely alone and on the margins – particularly in busy places with large groups of friends or families. Again, I had anticipated this, but the reality of being 2 months away from my wife, family and friends, work colleagues and the comforts of home was sometimes challenging.

God IS an ever present help – see Psalm 46!

While in human terms I often felt on my own, I also felt the presence of God each day. Yes I know this directly contrasts with what I’ve just said in the previous section, so go ahead and shoot me! Life is paradox! I found myself waking and walking and praying with joy, thankfulness and anticipation each day, knowing that God was present, and that I could rely on His promises to protect and provide for my needs. I think this is what is meant by faith. I genuinely approached each day as a gift. In each encounter, each conversation, each step of the way God was present and so it was blessed.

The hitch hiking element of the journey is the perfect metaphor. The task was really about letting go. To trust that, in spite of my powerlessness in the situation, and that I had almost nothing to offer, somehow someone would stop for me. And they did! Each time somebody stopped for me it felt like an answer to prayer, particularly the first time, on the way from Oxford to Chippenham. The first person who stopped for me, after I’d been standing with my thumb out for less than three minutes, had spotted the pilgrim’s scallop shell on my pack. As I got into the car he told me that his mother in law was the Oxford Diocesan Pilgrimage Advisor!

brushes

Jeremy, who I met on the way to Iona, sketched this lovely scallop shell for me on his I-pad!

Family and Home

As I write and explore further the stories and experiences of this journey I know I will discover more of its meaning myself. It is not all planned out in detail.

One theme that has emerged through conversations with people along the way, and since I’ve been back, and to an extent in this blog, is my own story, which I’ve somehow never been very good at articulating. Having opened up a little about my own family, and how we have been affected by mental illness and depression, I’ve had some very kind and supportive responses from many people that know me in the context of my work. I’m not totally comfortable with the idea of writing as therapy, and feel I should reassure everyone that this is not going to be in the sensationalist or breast beating end of the literary or tabloid journalism spectrum! But you probably knew that already.

I’m holding on to some of that sense of the heart breaking beauty which is often seemingly just outside the scope of our vision in everyday life. The idea of the “thin place” or the liminal, in between places, which I am very drawn to. This is a more precarious and uncomfortable place which I believe God calls us towards. It is also more truly where we find ourselves in inter-dependence, and therefore pushed in solidarity towards one other and with those who live in poverty.

That we are all, in some sense, “aliens and strangers” in this world seems obvious to me. We cannot truly be “at home” in this world because we have an eternal home. By the way I can’t even begin to understand the view held by some Christians that this gives human kind licence to allow this beautiful planet on which we live to be despoiled. Exactly the opposite actually.

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Here’s a good quote about the liminal from the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr:

…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 

As quoted on the website called Liminal Space

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Preparedness

Less than a week to go now and I am feeling some trepidation. To leave behind my wife, home and friends, work routines and support systems for 2 months is fairly radical. Of course I knew this all along but as the start date of 1st July approaches I find myself feeling quite unprepared. A bit daunted too, in truth. But even if I did somehow have the illusion of feeling prepared, it is still a big enterprise.

Other than a couple of items I have most of the kit I need for the journey. Some good boots and a waterproof jacket, an excellent backpack and sleeping bag kindly loaned by Brother Vaughan. And thanks to my friend from Phoenix Housing  Penny Quinton I have a wonderful Hennessy Hammock to sleep in.

Something about the idea of going with just the clothes I am wearing appeals. Didn’t Jesus send the disciples out telling them to take only the absolute minimum and to trust God for the rest? And when the early Celtic monks and saints set out on their voyages they considered their lives as offerings, giving up all their rights and self sufficiency and praying that the Lord would guide them where He wanted them to go. And I also consciously making the decision to give up my (illusory) self sufficiency on this pilgrimage.

But I am going to need a phone and maps and other essential paraphernalia. I’m not exactly Bear Grylls after all.. And I do have a not-very-cunning plan on the route, you might be pleased to hear. At least I know the starting point – my front door – and end point – Iona – and a few of the places in between!

On Monday, ready or not, rain or shine, I will set off walking along the Thames Path to Oxford.

thames-path

Hopefully by the end of the first day I’ll have reached The Community of the Sisters of the Church at Ham Common where hospitality is offered. Amongst those who live in the community are some who are in Home Office limbo, without recourse to state support or public funds. Housing Justice is involved in developing better accommodation and support for people facing this difficult situation, especially through London Hosting, with colleagues from Praxis, Spare Room, the Catholic Worker and others.

Much of my 9 weeks on the road and on the street is lightly sketched, for the reasons already outlined. But among the places I hope to visit, if the winds are fair, are Hillfields, St David’s, Whitby and Holy Island. Hitch hiking is maybe the modern equivalent of setting out in a little leather coracle – my way of trusting the Lord to lead me where he wants me to be. If it doesn’t go well, of course, I could end up stuck at a Service Station in deepest Wiltshire.

Join me in the adventure by checking back with this blog now and again. And if you are a believer don’t forget to pray for me! Especially that I don’t get stuck at the service station. Thank you

Less than two weeks to go..

July 1st is now less than a fortnight away, so I’m starting to feel excited about this thing l’ll be doing. This what is it? This pilgrimage. This retreat. This walkabout. This time on the road and on the street.

Most people I’ve spoken to about the plan have understood what it’s about. In fact a few have said they would like to join me! My Franciscan friend Brother Vaughan has offered to walk the first day with me, out of London. I think I am going to take him up on that. He is also the one who is lending me one of his backpacks. He has 3! He does a lot of walking, including the Camino to Santiago de Compostella.

I’m experimenting with writing this on the blackberry, to find out if it will work while I am out on the road, but it doesn’t work so well. I may have to find the use of  computer at a internet cafe or day centre as I go.

I will post again a bit later as its a bit of a palaver on the blackberry..

On the Road and On the Street

Pilgrimage to Canterbury photos

one of the many fields of rape we walked through this year

one of the many fields of rape we walked through this year

the pub was not open..

the pub was not open..

Introduction: about this blog and about me

I am starting this blog mainly with the aim of documenting some of my thoughts and reflections, with a focus on homelessness and the state of society today.

You’ll probably want to know about me, so here are a few things:

  • I work for the national Christian housing and homelessness charity Housing Justice.
  • I started in this homelessness field in 1990 volunteering at the West London Day Centre. I have also worked and volunteered for The Passage, Emmaus, Union Chapel, The Simon Community, North London Action for the Homeless, and Caris Islington Churches Winter Shelter.
  • In May 2003 I became Development Worker for UNLEASH, Church Action on Homelessness in London. We were just 2 part time staff, sharing offices with Housing Justice, which itself launched in 2003 when CHAS, the Catholic Housing Aid Society, merged with CNHC, the Churches National Housing Coalition. UNLEASH merged with Housing Justice in 2006. Sorry about the complicated acronyms!
  • I’m a Christian, worshipping with BethnalGreenMissionChurch since we moved to this area in 2009. And we are: me, my wife Francoise and our youngest son Theo. Our two older children, Claire and Cameron, no longer live at home, except Cameron who comes home from Uni (sometimes) during the holidays.
  • Over my 20’s and 30’s I tried out various careers, and did a lot of travelling. I made a living for a time as a busker, in France, Italy and the US. I also lived in two radical communities: The Farm in Tennessee, and a small anarchist commune in Sardinia.
  • These days I still sing and play guitar and sometimes get inspired to write songs. I lead worship at our church, and can occasionally be spotted playing the blues, the folk, and now and again even a bit of Dad Rock.

I suppose the main thing to know for the purposes of this blog is that I have been involved in action on homelessness for about 20 years, the last 10 with Housing Justice.

A personal pilgrimage: On the Road and on the Street

Another reason for starting the blog is that, thanks to Housing Justice, I have an opportunity to take a sabbatical this summer. In July and August I’ll be doing something that has been on my heart for a while: a personal pilgrimage around this country. I’ll be walking and hitch hiking, visiting places that have significance for me, like Whitby where I was born, and places that have significance as centres of the Christian life, like Holy Island and Iona.

I’m also going to spend some time living on the streets, among people who are sleeping rough and using homelessness support services.

Why a pilgrimage? One reason is that I’ve taken part in the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields Pilgrimage to Canterbury since 2007. Each Spring Bank Holiday weekend over a hundred people come together to walk the 74 miles from St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square to Canterbury Cathedral, raising funds for the Connection’s work with homeless people in London. Françoise and I just got back, so it seems a good place to start, especially as I was invited to give a brief reflection at the Thanksgiving Service on Monday night in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

arriving at Canterbury Cathedral with our banner

arriving at Canterbury Cathedral with our banner

“Some people talk the talk, but we walk the walk, don’t we? And we have the blisters to prove it!

This year was my seventh pilgrimage. I joined in 2007 when I heard about it from Roger Shaljean and his late wife Kath, who came up with the idea. Probably like many of you, the idea of a pilgrimage in support of homeless people made sense.

I first met Roger in 2003 when I started with Housing Justice, the national Christian campaign on housing and homelessness. Among other things we resource church responses to the needs of homeless people, like night shelters. And folks, I probably don’t need to tell you, but the situation is getting worse. However I won’t jump on that soap box here.

What I want to share is something of what this pilgrimage means to me. After seven years it looks like I’m hooked, but why?

Top of the list, for me, is walking with a group of people in companionship, in fellowship. Being part of this community where everyone really matters. As we just heard in the Bible reading (1 Corinthians 12.12-27) we are “One body with many members” and each one is important. Everyone matters. Whatever you do, whatever your “station in life”, and whatever your “status.”

This sense of a supportive community to belong to is something I really value, even something I need. In my own life I have for various reasons had a sense of being an outsider. I know this is partly what drew me to this work, responding to the issue of homelessness in our society.

But companionship, being together in fellowship with a community is vital to all of us, isn’t it? It is no exaggeration to say that we need this to protect ourselves from (hat tip to Xavier and his Shakespeare recitation in Charing yesterday) the “Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Or, more simple, to help us to resist the alienating effects of “modern life”.

The world, as viewed from where I sit with Housing Justice, is becoming a harder place. But we, together, don’t have to become like that. And we, together, can take this difference into our lives, our families, our work (if we have some to do), and our neighbourhoods.

In this community of pilgrimage we find the love of God and of each other. And we discover that all we need is in each other, and this is our real and lasting treasure.

And every time I see the 2013 blue Pilgrimage T shirt it will remind me of the bluebells in Kingsdown Wood!”