By Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, published in The Pastoral Review
Palm Sunday 2020. Normally for the Christian community a day of processions often in beautiful early spring sunshine, and with the joyous expectation of Holy Week. A day when our church would normally be full and we would be looking forward to the busiest week of the year. Not so in 2020. Churches under lockdown, the streets deserted, and a sombre eerie feel of anxiety about what was to come.
The start of the lockdown was, to say the least, such an unsettling time for our parishes. Priests with no people to meet, greet, serve. Parish communities scattered and finding a way to live out eucharistic faith at a time of communal fast. Like the first Christians after the first Easter Sunday locked in behind closed doors, finding ways to share their faith, pray together, and be a community of believers in a new way. The source and summit of that faith for us, the Mass, was celebrated together by clergy and faithful but with the barrier of a movie camera between us, even most poignantly and painfully on those days of the Easter Triduum when the entire parish community should be gathered as one.
And yet amidst all this trauma there was something else, altogether more tragic and desperate. Walking out into the deserted city it became clear there was another population who were being forgotten. As the Christian community prepared to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with what hope we could muster there was a huge number of homeless left on the streets of London. Here, it became clear, was the stark reality of central London under lockdown, beyond the threshold of our closed doors and not caught on anyone’s video camera. The usually teeming streets now a ghost town – shops, pubs, restaurants locked up and displaying stark notices along the lines of “closed until further notice on account of the pandemic” and, anticipating the worst, “no cash is held here”. All offices closed and no workers on the streets. And in the midst of this, in pockets around the city, the most desperate who, in the panic of the exodus had simply been left behind. This group had no family to lock down with, were without shelter as all the night shelters had closed, and without food as soup runs had had to stop for safety’s sake and there were no businesses or people to beg from. In addition no public toilets were open from King’s Cross Station to the north to Victoria in the south. A Council official I spoke to on the ‘phone described the scene on the Strand as Armageddon and a police officer advised anyone visiting there alone would be in great danger.
Amidst all this it was also clear that much was being done to address the issues by national and local government. March 29th, Palm Sunday for the Christian community, was the date by which all homeless left on the streets would be housed in hotels and bed and breakfasts. This was the “everyone in” policy which we might have heard referred to on the news. Very many homeless were indeed housed and this was one of the great achievements of this time. Many die-hard homeless in normal times refusing help, a substantial group of whom would have entrenched addiction and mental health issues, really flourished during this time as they were given the tender loving care they surely always needed. And yet, despite the partial, very partial, success, media can cloud reality, especially at a time of great panic when our psychology is programmed to survival and part of that is to believe things are better than they are. What we hear through the media, even if it is partly true and partly fake news, becomes the true narrative.
I think it is worth stopping to reflect on this phenomenon of twisted narrative if we are to begin to comprehend the homeless issue during COVID. Palm Sunday is a helpful connector. For the crowd on that first Palm Sunday are surely victim to this phenomenon of fake news. How else would their singing hosannas to their Messiah lead to “crucify him” within just five days? Governments and politicians have always been good at this and learnt how to present what is not quite true as the Gospel. There are surely many parts of the world today where that is true and in the Church indeed, one must add with shame, we have seen how the truth can be masked by power and we end up trusting the least trustworthy and most heinous. In the midst of this, recognising how we are all sinners not just personally but socially, as society, as Church, as the human race, we are called to a new integrity which is the greatest form of truth in an age of so much fake news. That is why I think Pope Francis is reminding us especially at this time we are called not just to contribute to society through what we do but we are called to take the reins and build a new future. This must be a future of justice which exposes the truth and builds a new society in which all in society are given the respect the human being deserves as made in God’s image, and especially those who are weakest, who are forgotten, who are left in the gutter and consigned to the abyss. It is for me why, as John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue, puts it, we are called not simply to give handouts but give a hand up.
If we are guided by such a vision, the response of the Catholic community along with other Christian denominations and faiths, and importantly working together with secular and governmental authorities and organisations, has the opportunity to be truly prophetic. For me this experience of helping to rescue the homeless, in the midst of a time of great crisis, a ‘kairos’ in the biblical sense, has turned our minds and hearts back to the raw demands of the Gospel. It has called us to begin to embrace the truth about ourselves and our identity as human beings made in God’s image who are part of wider society, and to embrace what the Church can be.
As soon as this crisis became evident our neighbouring parish St Patrick’s in Soho Square started feeding over 200 people a day. After a few weeks their resources were running low. Food was running out. Two large hotels in our parish stepped in straight away. While already housing and feeding NHS staff they volunteered to provide 200 meals twice a day for three months completely free. Our main managerial contact at the hotels is a Hindu but it was that common belief in what was just and true to our common calling which led him to make the offer. Soon we were using our knowledge of the local hospitality trade to work together with the authorities. In Soho Square there were significant antisocial behaviour complaints from neighbours, not surprisingly for a homeless population who had nowhere to go and where the nearest public toilets were two miles’ walk away. Westminster City Council asked us to help so we assembled a large team of volunteers from Farm Street and neighbouring Catholic parishes to service a new refreshments and pastoral care hub for the homeless in Trafalgar Square and this became the central mission of our parish and those parishes working with us for the time of the pandemic. The project has evolved into a homeless service under the name of Central London Catholic Churches as part of Westminster Diocesan Caritas.
Some have asked why the Church should be involved in this when it is really the job of the local authorities and national government? It is often framed as part of a larger question of why the Church should be involved in politics, or be involved in the real world, or have a mission. The answer relates to how we view our faith in Christ. For me the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius teach me to find Christ and my calling right in the heart of the now. This is simply the call of the Gospel. Christ is not to be found just within ourselves nor in our future hope but he is the hope of the world in the facts of everyday life. Our mission is in the present, in the midst of the battle between good and evil right now, under our noses as we are led to uncover the truth and discern what must be done to build that future now. This is a vital part of the role of the Church too who, as the Holy Father reminds us so often, simply would not exist if she did not have a mission in the heart of the world. So our mission to the homeless has been the only response the Church could give, taking account of the facts and knowing our calling as Church. And only the Church, acting as Church and not an NGO or any other organisation, could do this.
That mission has had various dimensions but I would highlight three of them. Firstly, and in common with so many secular homeless charities, we provide both material and pastoral care. This material help needs to be well discerned. The homeless need food and shelter but they also need advice on finding a job, so they need clothing and they need to be clean so need shower facilities. So, discerning the material need, our service has moved into a more personal holistic model.
The holistic model must involve one-to-one personal care. If we believe the essence of the Church’s work of charity is to respect the dignity of every human person, and especially the most vulnerable, our service of the weakest wants to develop a relationship with each individual. This human care is why the “everyone in” scheme was successful for those who were given the opportunity to stay in the hotels and B&Bs. In Trafalgar Square our wonderful team of volunteers would get to know the guests and there we touch that belief in the dignity of the human person in reality. We realise that this woman or man in the queue for food could have been me with just a few wrong turns. Everyone has a story. Relationships have broken down, finance has run out, jobs lost, mental health issues set in. And this is the person in front of us. This is Christ in front of us. And we are called to show that person how much they are loved, how much they are worth.
Secondly, again in common with many homeless services, we have a duty to work with the local authorities and to hold them to account. As Church we have the duty to advocate for these individuals individually and as society. Here the Church cannot but be involved in politics but must be aware that her role must never take on the role of party politics. Looking at the facts and advocating for a just future is very much the Church’s role as we represent our flock and take our place confidently in society. During the pandemic we got to know so many homeless still on the streets, heard their stories, and realised that the “everyone in” scheme was not for everyone. And after a certain time there was a risk that, unless there was pressure from those working with the homeless, “everyone in” would turn very quickly to “everyone out”. In addition we were meeting more and more new homeless, women and men in their 20s and 30s who had lost their jobs and were destitute.
We discovered that many on the streets, and many who were in danger of being evicted from temporary accommodation, at a time of great public health risk, had no recourse to public funds, often due to unsettled immigration status. It was our duty to show our support for them not just through handouts but by campaigning for a temporary reprieve for those in this category. This is not an issue to be used as a political football but is an issue of profound importance to the Christian who, at this extraordinary time of crisis, needs to put aside political views on benefit eligibility and immigration and show the human being in the midst of this the dignity they deserve.
Thirdly the Church has given something very distinctive to our service of the homeless at this time, as she does in all of our work in this sector. All that we have been doing is also a work of evangelisation through which all of us, volunteers and guests, grow in faith. There was one day when we had a large queue in Trafalgar Square. Because the volunteers had built up a very good relationship with the regular guests, they were chatting quite freely, getting to know them. And a guest was having some rosary beads he had requested blessed. Then some more guests got interested in this and started talking with us about the rosary and about faith. So you realized there was that connection being made between the Church and the Catholic faith and this charitable work. That was really quite inspiring to experience.
It’s also been wonderful to see the great generosity of our volunteers. This is what they needed to do to practise their faith at this time. Many parishioners have found this a very traumatic time for all sorts of reasons. I have heard much too about how we have been “starved of the Eucharist”. For all the good the livestreaming has done it is not a substitute for being gathered physically as ‘ekklesia’, as Church. And yet our volunteers gathered five times a week in the heart of the city and lived the Eucharist in such a powerful way. This was not just where the Church found a place to do charitable work as something to do during the lockdown. No, Trafalgar Square was where the Church, the ‘ekklesia’, was, and where the multitude was fed, welcomed to the sheepfold and tended.
So what can we do going forward? I would suggest three concrete things. Firstly, we must pray for the homeless and all involved in this – local and national government, NGOs, the Church and other faith groups’ services.
Secondly, we must raise awareness and find accurate information about what’s going on amid fake news and fuzzy statistics.
Thirdly, we really must learn from this dreadful time. We need to keep advocating for this most vulnerable group of people, and we need to keep our message Gospel inspired, hopeful, and in robust dialogue with those who have tough decisions to make on the issues. In doing so we must never forget above all that those we serve are human beings made in God’s image who could very easily be you or me.
Fr Dominic Robinson SJ is Parish Priest, at Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception and Chair, Justice & Peace Commission, Diocese of Westminster. This article was first published in the Pastoral Review and is republished here with permission.
Farm Street Church – www.farmstreet.org.uk/
The Pastoral Review – www.thepastoralreview.org/