We clergy who live over the shop (ie next door to the church) are used to callers. These can vary from photocopier salesmen (yes, all men) to those men (yes, all men) who have some tarmac ‘left over’ from a job down the road that they could use to pave my carpark at a very reasonable rate to those who need something. The latter are in the majority. The ‘something’ they need can vary too. Usually it is money.
Each week I probably have about 5-10 callers who need money. Money for electricity cards, for food, for baby food, for train fares because a close relative has died far, far away, for phone cards for that urgent phone call, for all manner of things. All of them look down on their luck and some are more sober than others. Some are so stoned they can hardly stand or speak. All of their stories begin with “This is the God’s honest truth” and often it isn’t.
It is a tricky situation. They have come to me because they believe that as a representative of the church, I will not say no. That as a representative of the church, my job is to help those less fortunate than myself. But usually I suspect that the money I might give will be spent in the local off-licence or junkie. Perhaps you think that this is okay. That it is their choice and that the good Samaritan gives without question. I don’t believe I’m a very good Samaritan. And I don’t often have any money anyway.
The stories they tell are sometimes long and elaborate. They are often heartbreaking. Remember I used to work with homeless people and I’ve heard some of those stories before. Some, I know, are tall tales. Tales spun out of desperation for the alleviation of their addiction. Tales which I often admire for their creativeness. Sometimes they tell me they have a faith or are born again and that this should count for extra consideration. Some want me to let them in so they can tell their story in peace.
My Vestry are concerned for my safety. Not long after I came here a man tried to kick my front door in because I wouldn’t give him money. I now have locks and chains and a sign on the door which says I don’t give out money. I feel bad about that sign in my door but I know it is for my own safety. I do give out food and drinks. I make cups of tea and fill bags with food which might fill a gap. I refer folk to the Salvation Army up the road who provide hot meals, clothes and washing facilities, and give out food parcels when the Foodbank is closed, but often people come to my door when the Sally Army are closed or at the weekend. And often they tell me its not food they want, its cash. I wonder what other clergy do?
Early on Sunday evening a man came to my door called David. He wanted me to pray for him. Now that I can do. But first he wanted to tell me his story. He wanted us to go somewhere, perhaps the church, where he could tell me what he wanted me to pray for. David is from Lithuania and his English wasn’t very good. He was tall and looked quite clean, with a small backpack and an umbrella. There was no smell of drink and no signs of drug abuse. I asked him to tell his story on the doorstep which didn’t please him but he reluctantly agreed. He’d come over for work which was promised but didn’t materialise. He was sleeping rough in the park when he was beaten up and had spent four days in hospital. (He showed me his hospital wristband, his bruises, his loose teeth.) I think he wanted money for a phone card but I truly didn’t have any money in my purse. He wanted food and coffee and I gave him some and I prayed with him. On the doorstep. The hospital had given him clean clothes and the backpack but no socks and he wanted some but mine were too small. “No man?” he asked incredulously. He wanted me to write down the name of the hospital because he was to go back the next morning at 9am for a follow-up appointment about his ribs, I think. Translation was not easy. (The hospital is over 4 miles away.)
In my heart I knew I should have done more for David. But where could I take him? There is nowhere in Falkirk which does emergency accommodation. And would I be brave enough to get in my car with a 6′ man and drive anywhere? I ended up suggesting the Roman Catholic church because I know they have a big Presbytery and there are plenty men around. But I should have taken him myself. I was too scared.
Yesterday I phoned the local housing department and asked what I could have done. They said he wouldn’t get a house anyway unless he comes from Falkirk or unless he could pay. “No point in giving a house if they can’t pay for gas and electricity,” they said. There are no hostels in Falkirk, no places where someone can sleep out of the cold and rain. Their advice to me was to phone the Lithuanian Embassy in London. “Nothing we can do if he’s come here with no return ticket.”
So my question is: what do you do? If you don’t live in a big city with hostels and temporary accommodation, where do you refer people to? Because nine times out of ten, they come in the evening or at weekends out of office hours. I sometimes suggest the Police but I’ve never had anyone take my up on that suggestion once. They may say they’ve been there already, but often I suspect it is the last place they’d go. In retrospect perhaps I should have phoned the police about David.
He’s still in my mind and my prayers. What would you have done?