All Saints Year C -
Finding holiness in unexpected people
Since we’ve been in Derbyshire, not many people have called at the vicarage asking for money, food or shelter. In fact until last week I can recall only one such person – and that was four or five years ago. Last Tuesday, however, a middle aged man came to the vicarage. I was out, in fact – and in my absence Isobel gave him some tea and sandwiches, and talked to him for about an hour. During that time she telephoned me and I spoke to the man. He asked if he could sleep in the church porch overnight. I said that was fine, and promised to go and see him when I got back.
So about half past seven I went along to Parwich church, and found the man already settled down for the night in his sleeping bag. It had already begun to get quite cold, but this didn’t seem to have perturbed him too much. He said that his name was Brian, and that he had walked for twelve miles or so that day. Last night he had been at Ellastone, where he had not found it easy to find somewhere to stay. He hoped to get to Buxton or Bakewell the next day. Brian was courteous, polite, and very grateful that we had allowed him to sleep in the church porch. Some churches, he said, didn’t allow it – which he couldn’t understand. I got him some sandwiches from the village shop and said he would see him later that evening.
At around 10 pm, I went back, with a fresh flask of hot water and some tea bags. Brian was very glad to talk – he seemed to be very pleased to have some company. He had been on the road since the early 1990s. He was from Kent, and was 40 years of age. I didn’t ask him why he led this nomadic lifestyle – Isobel had told me that when he was questioned too closely about some things this seemed to make him uncomfortable. He obviously knew England very well, having travelled the length and breadth of the country over the years – and he gave some very vivid accounts of his experiences in Northern Ireland.
I found it difficult to make him out. He was quite intelligent – he referred to certain historical and political events in Ireland, for example, which showed that he obviously thought about the places he went to, and took an interest in them. He said several times that he was ‘a believer’, as he put it, and that he had at one point been quite involved in what seemed to be a Christian community somewhere. But I could not make out what had led him to abandon the settled, stable, life in which he had grown up, to live the itinerant lifestyle he had chosen. Was he running away from something? Was there something about him which made it difficult to get work? He said that he did not want to re-enter “the system”, as he put it, and resented any attempts to make him live in shelters for homeless people or similar institutions.
The next morning I took Brian, with all his possessions in a large sports bag and two carrier bags, to Buxton. I said, in the car, that it must be difficult not knowing from day to day where he was going to sleep that night. It didn’t seem to bother him too much – in fact the task for each day seemed to revolve around the challenge of finding someone who would not reject him, but would find a way of giving him what he needed in the way of shelter and some food.
And so I dropped him in the market place at Buxton, and left him getting his bearings and trying to work out the next stage of his unending journey. Why have I told you about Brian this morning? It is because he confounded my expectations of what a person in his situation would be like. I tried to imagine myself in his position. What faith he must have had that someone would help him each night. What faith that somehow he would find something to eat or drink. He said that the frequent rejection he experienced was very testing; he was often tempted to show his anger, but fought hard against this. He said that many people today were becoming over-preoccupied with themselves, and did not care for others, such as himself – and that this had become worse in recent years. I thought of all the things that we take for granted which he did not have – stability, security, a steady income – a family life. And yet he was calm, reflective, perceptive, stoical, and convinced of the importance of trying to lead a Christian life.
Today is the day before All Saints’ Day, which falls on 1 st of November. All Saints’ Day is the day on which we commemorate all Christian saints, known and unknown. When we think about what makes a saint, we think of the word ‘holiness’ – in fact the New Testament Greek word for saint is the same as the word for holy. I’m not saying that Brian was a saint. But I did realise, from meeting Brian, that we can find holiness in unexpected people. Today’s Gospel reading, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, describes what it means to be blessed. We can say the same is true about holiness. Jesus said that the poor were blessed; those who were hungry; those who wept; those who were hated by others and rejected by them. Brian was all of these; and yet he still kept his faith – and indeed I sensed that his faith had become stronger as a result. He trusted in God; he tried hard to love those who were unkind to him, he had learned the patience and perseverance which is part of the Christian way.
As we celebrate All Saints’ Day, then, let us remember that holiness can dwell in unexpected places. We must not stereotype or label people too hastily, and certainly should not write them off because of assumptions we may make about them. For God never writes anybody off – and so nor should we.
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