From the Oxford Catholic Worker

See recent photos here

It was so good to arrive in Oxford yesterday! I’ve never before walked over 100 miles, while more or less sleeping rough for much of the time and carrying a 15 kilo pack, so I was VERY glad to arrive at this destination.

My body is very tired, of course, although it is noticeable how fit one can become in just 11 days. I walked the 10 miles or so from Abingdon, my camp of the night before, in just 3 hours, and felt I could easily have carried on. But now that I’ve actually stopped it is definitely catching up with me.. My muscles ache, and I feel all the scratches and insect bites. Remarkably so far the feet have been pretty OK, apart from blisters on my little toes and a bruise under my big toe nail. That’s probably too much information, but it is amazing how the body adapts so quickly.

I’ve been resting most of the time but have been made very welcome by Soo Tian and the other residents. The Oxford Catholic Worker actually predates the London Catholic Worker, where I know most of the people, especially my friend Fr. Martin Newell who started it. For those who don’t know The Catholic Worker is a radical international christian anarchist movement founded by Dorothy Day, which seeks to put into practice the gospel of Jesus Christ in a very direct and uncompromising way. I have great admiration for their work, and am sort of affiliated with the London group, I suppose.  The founding inspiration of The Simon Community was the Catholic Worker, and Simon volunteers and workers still seek to live out the same message of inclusive community today.

Apart from Soo Tian all the residents of St Francis House are people who came to the UK for sanctuary, but whose claims were rejected without a full and adequate assessment. Tens of thousands of people are in this “no recourse to public funds” category, a phrase used a lot in this context, and which is actually a terrible short hand for destitute, without any rights, in between states – a truly horrible bureaucratic limbo. One young guy I’ve been chatting to has at last been recognized as having a genuinely founded fear of persecution in his native Afghanistan, and after 11 years (words fail..) he has recently been accepted as a refugee.

I’ve been weighing it up carefully and have decided – I think – against going to sleep on the streets. It feels too much like being a homeless “tourist” or sensation seeker. And I know I have  a bank account and home and life to plug back into when I am done. During times in these travels I will inevitably rough it, perhaps even bed down on a cardboard box or 2. I’ve already been sleeping in the woods more than half the time, after all. I wonder what other people think about this?

I will probably blog a bit  more before setting out on the next phase of the journey on Monday. That’s all for now folks!


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!”