Last night a group of us slept out in the Cloisters to raise funds for the work of the excellent Church Urban Fund.
It cannot be considered any great hardship to go to sleep amidst the wonderful architecture of the Cloisters, the vaults covered with one of the greatest collection of medieval roof bosses in the world, but the floor was unforgiving and did not encourage sleep.
Thankfully there were no loud snorers, but the floor was unforgiving and sleep did not seem to want to come.
At least I was nice and warm despite the settling of frost on the Cloister Garth, but the floor was unforgiving and encouraged hard thoughts rather than deep sleep.
Why was I doing this? Why in 21st century Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, do we need to be raising money for the homeless – some of whom would be huddled in doorways not more than a couple of hundred yards from where I was curled up? And yes I was warm in my many layers of clothing and blankets together representing more possessions than most of the homeless of our city possessed, but representing just a small fraction of the clothes hanging in my wardrobe back home.
It is the sheer inequalities at the heart to our society that are so breath-taking. In any society there will always be some that struggle, or who, for what ever reason take a wrong turning and life starts to unravel. Conscious of this we proudly created the Welfare State; together we would look after the most vulnerable and weakest in our midst. Or at least that was the vision we thought was on offer but instead a narrative emerges of the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The poor it seems have to be sifted and as the wholes in the sieve get bigger more fall through the net. Too many get no help and many have to wait to long for the little help on offer; stripped of their dignity they must learn to be grateful for what little they receive.
When we encounter the growing numbers huddled in shop doorways some encourage us to intervene, to offer food, or warm clothing. Others tell us by doing that we make the problem worse, we need, instead, to encourage them to use the agencies on offer, and donate to the approved charities. Help is out their we just need to be aware of it and signpost people on. We are left confused and feeling helpless. And when you do get to know the statutory teams you find good people, trying to give of their best but overworked and under-resourced – they too often feel helpless in the face of the need that confronts them.
To mention the need for more resources has almost become taboo. The new mantra is that you do not solve problems by throwing money at them. There may be truth in this but there can be no denying resources help – austerity has done more than trim the fat, it is now cutting into the bone. One party tells us to encourage wealth because it trickles down to benefit all but it does not seem to trickle down very far. The other party talks of taxing them, of making them pay their fair share, but for fear of lost votes the talk is always of “them” not of “us” – and even rarer still of “me”. The rich are always those with more than me.
But this “have” is willing to have less in order that the “have-nots” may have more. I would willingly pay more tax, still pay my prescription charges whilst working even if I have reached a certain age and as long as I am working I do not need other discounts or free passes because of my age. I would rather live with less it that will lead to a more just and equal society.
Lying on a hard floor provokes hard thoughts. There is nothing virtuous about being part of a sleep out. Our joint efforts may help others apply another sticking plaster on the sore of inequality but we are long past the time when deeper, longer lasting solutions are needed.
As dawn creeps into the cloisters, I pull on my glasses and the roof bosses come into focus and there above me, weather-worn but still discernible, is the image of Christ on the cross. Two thousand years on and we still have to learn the lesson of self-giving love. The challenge of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace needs to be proclaimed afresh. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and wonder how today I can achieve that task.