Conversion of St. Paul
- Have you ever bought the Big Issue?
The magazine which is sometimes sold by homeless people – a way of helping
them to earn some money? I don’t usually buy it – I suppose that attitude
stems from my time in London, when so many people were selling it, sometimes
quite aggressively, that it seemed easiest just never to buy it at all.
We don’t often see Big Issue sellers in Ashbourne. But one day, the week before
last, there was such a man. “Big Issue …” he mumbled. I walked past him.
I came back, he was still there – “Big Issue”, he was still mumbling.
A third and final time – on my way to the car – I saw him. “Big Issue”
… This time, though I noticed that his accent wasn’t quite what I would have
expected. I stopped – I bought the Big Issue. He thanked me – and this
confirmed that he was not British.
- We started talking – he seemed so
grateful that I’d bought one of his magazines. It emerged that he was from
Croatia – part of the former Yugoslavia. He seemed so anxious to talk, even
though his English was very limited. He began to tell me about his family
– his wife and four children, one of whom had been badly injured with a wound
to the head back in Croatia. He told me how his town had been caught up
in the Civil War. He asked me if I could help him some more – he couldn’t
express himself very well, but he seemed desperate. We exchanged telephone
numbers – which revealed to me that he actually lived in Nottingham.
- I went home wondering what to make
of him. So much of what we hear and read about immigrants is negative.
While I had learned very little about him from that brief encounter, if a
middle-aged father of four was selling the Big Issue, his circumstances must
have been pretty extreme. It made me realise just how much I have that I
take for granted – a home, secure employment, children in a good school –
and so on.
- The man’s name was Ivan. A few days
later, I telephoned him. I wanted to go and see him, to judge for myself
what his circumstances were, and to think about ways of possibly helping,
if that was appropriate. So last Tuesday, after a meeting at Church House
in Derby, I drove to Nottingham to try to find him. I had no idea just how
squalid and sleazy parts of Nottingham are. He and his family live in an
area north of the city centre – an area that reminds me of Camberwell, where
my first parish was, in one of the poorest parts of London. Small, dingy shops;
just off the main thoroughfares row upon row of dilapidated brick terraced
houses, more non-white than white people on the streets. I found his home,
on Cope Street, a particularly depressing terrace in which several of the
houses were sealed up with severe and forbidding metal sheets. Ivan’s eleven
year old son showed me in, warmly greeting me. Only on a few rare occasions
in London have I seen such living conditions. Old pieces of carpet on the
floor; tatty wallpaper, a few bits of furniture from a junk shop, some forlorn,
cheap poundstretcher pictures on the walls.
- Ivan’s son was the translator (he
had two older brothers, who were at school; an older daughter, who was very
thin, sat quietly in a corner). They clearly have very little: several
times they said how difficult it was to pay £300 a month in rent.
Selling the Big Issue clearly doesn’t bring in anywhere near £300 –
Ivan said he might get £10 a day, and he isn’t able to go onto the streets
every day – it depends when and where the bus goes which takes him to different
selling sites. They were also all deeply worried for Ivan’s wife, who was
going into hospital tomorrow for an operation on her abdomen. She sat in
another corner, wearing traditional Croatian dress, complete with headscarf
and long black dress.
- I went out and bought some food for
them, and gave them some money. They seemed deeply grateful, but I went
home quite uncertain as to what I had got myself into.
- What are we to make of all this?
I’m sure that most of the time, most if not all of us feel we cannot get involved
in the lives of those in need in our society. The need is so great – where
would it stop? and how are we to decide who is deserving and who isn’t?
I don’t know what it was that made me do something different this time.
Maybe it was the thought that a very genuine looking, almost pleading, middle
aged man, was selling the Big Issue. I could not find out much about him.
I have no idea how he got here, and why – except that it was about a year
ago. Whether he was fleeing something or someone in Croatia – or whether
he just wanted a better life for himself and his family. I don’t know how
legal his status is – but he said he was trying to get permission to remain
in this country from the Home Office. He ended up in Nottingham through
a friend, he said.
- Was he perhaps drawn here by the illusory
prospect of streets proverbially paved with gold, perhaps paying some unscrupulous
operator to enable him to get here? He almost certainly did not have enough
money to get back – even if he wanted to do so. Was his motive for coming
to seek medical help for his wife? but which one of us would not do
anything within their power to get the best medical care for our wife or husband,
if they were seriously ill?
- All these questions, and more, have
been going through my mind. But I keep coming back to the brute fact that
a middle aged man was trying to support himself and five other people in a
slum by selling the Big Issue. All those teachings about going the extra
mile, giving one’s tunic as well as one’s coat, not walking by on the other
side, caring for the foreigner – kept haunting me.
- I said I would go back sometime.
I know it’s only one family among what could be thousands in similar situations,
and I know that we know very little about them. But can I appeal to you
to help me to do something for this family which shows something of Christ’s
love for those in need?
- I suggest a food package – perhaps
when you next go to the shop you can buy something extra for Ivan and his
family, and let me have it. If you want to give some money it will help
them pay the rent.
- We are, I know, taking a risk in doing
something like this. But it shouldn’t really be seen as a risk – it should
be something which springs from the compassion, given by God, which God has
planted in the hearts of all of us. I haven’t spoken about St. Paul so far
in this sermon – despite the fact that this is the day when we celebrate the
Conversion of St. Paul. But I think he is actually a very appropriate person
to be remembering today, as he was someone who, after his conversion to Christ,
was one of the most fearless risk takers in the early church. He put his
life on the line for Christ countless times – so I hope at least some of you
will be able to put yourselves on the line in this very modest way, for Ivan
and his family.