The poor and homeless ARE messy

In an astonishing and frankly scandalous piece of ‘journalism’, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have both launched in to Fr Ray Blake for his ‘scathing and un-Christian attack’ on the poor and homeless in a recent blog piece. Neither paper had the courtesy to link to the original post, which makes one wonder whether they bothered to even read it, as it was abundantly clear that far from attacking. blasting, condemning or whatever other hyperbole was used, Fr was actually reflecting upon his own attitude one which is probably shared by many of, us which he believes, falls short at times. What any reasonable or thoughtful reader would have taken away from that, is that the poor are challenging, and if we are to live out Gospel values, then we must be shaken out of our complacency and be prepared to get our hands dirty and help.

I’m not going to launch into a premature hagiography of Fr Ray, not least because he’d undoubtedly be mortified, but there are a few points I want to make. As most people are aware, Fr Ray’s parish is in the heart of Brighton which is beset by homelessness and drug addiction. Fr Ray is therefore in a good position, as indeed are most Brighton and Hove clergy of all denominations to comment on this, because it is the local churches who are doing much to mop up and alleviate the social problems, together with various local charities. Far from attacking the poor, the parish of St Mary Magdalen (I note the Daily Mail can’t even get the name of the parish right), under Fr Ray’s leadership, has a soup run, providing soup and sandwiches to the homeless on a daily basis. Fr Ray frequently joins them and for anyone cynical as to his motives, as he says here, the food comes with no ’emotional conditions’ or devotional element, they feed the hungry because that is what Christ commands us to do.

A brief glance at the comments underneath Fr’s post, shows him passionately advocating for a compassionate attitude to the poor and homeless, specifically even giving money if required, which isn’t a popular attitude in today’s society. Another fact that has not been alluded to is that Fr Ray has given over a substantial portion of the presbytery to house asylum seekers. So this is not a priest who dislikes or attacks the poor by any imagination, quite the contrary, he sets a stunning example by word and deed, from which clergy half his age could learn.

Anyone who regularly reads Fr Ray’s blog will see how his words are always infused with compassion, which is why those of us who know him, either in real life, or simply by virtue of his blog, will be quite so incensed by this misrepresentation. What I will say about Fr Ray, aside from the fact that my 9 year old thinks he’s quite the nicest confessor in the whole wide world (which when you’ve got a daughter happy to go to confession thanks to a kindly priest is some feat), is that he is one of the few people whom I would feel comfortable phoning up in an emergency and knowing that he would do his best to help, regardless of whether or not you are his parishioner.  There is a sense of genuine ‘care’, even if it means sometimes saying the things that one doesn’t always want to hear.

Moreover, Fr Ray is right, when he talks about how the poor are messy and complicated and turn our lives upside down. There is an unhealthy tendency to believe that Christians are somehow immune to squalor, filth, disease and deprivation, by virtue of our faith. It’s almost as if we are expected to walk around with a ‘Ready-Brek’ glow, meaning that we don’t notice the stink of stale urine, or the open weeping sores and that somehow our belief allows us to transcend the more sordid elements of humanity. Whilst ideally we should all wipe the backsides of the poor, elderly and disabled with a beatific and happy smile on our faces, giving thanks that we can be of service, it’s much easier said than done.

This is what was at the heart of Fr Ray’s post, pointing out how physically difficult and challenging the poor and homeless  can be, but this is why we are commanded to love, because it doesn’t come easily or naturally to most of us, particularly when faced with the earthy reality.  There was no element of blame attached, but equally we need to be careful about a glib and patronising characterisation of any group in society, just because people are poor, it does not mean that somehow they are without fault, unable to put a foot wrong, as this clerical blogger points out.

As a fellow Brighton and Hove resident, I also want to point out how the homeless challenge me on a regular basis. This isn’t to attach blame or fault, but to point out the reality, which does force us to respond.

When I moved into the Rectory I was alarmed to discover a bevvy of double locks and panic button by the front door. The reason being that by virtue of being a Rectory, the homeless would come knocking on a regular basis. Robin had previously given money and thus earned a reputation as being a ‘soft touch’, so much so that on one occasion when he genuinely didn’t have any cash in the house, an addict was so desperate for money that he kicked the front door down  in anger.

As a result of living next door to a Church and homeless shelter, we frequently get people knocking on the door, and as Fr Ray relates, the story almost always involves needing a train fare to go somewhere, usually a Catholic funeral. The same person will come and tell you a myriad of different tales, but all variations on a theme. We live on a busy street and often discover people have urinated or defecated in our front garden or against our wall. It’s sometimes troubling when you are trying to leave the house with a multitude of babies and toddlers in tow, wanting to pick up the gravel or cigarette stubs and who can’t play very safely in our front garden. A challenging inconvenience in fact.

Most often the knock at the door comes in the early evening. Usually when the children have just finished dinner, are tired, running about naked before bath-time and a dirty dishevelled, wild-eyed man smelling of urine, stale tobacco and with bleeding sores comes to your door. If I were a good Christian, I’d invite him in and feed him, perhaps even offer him the spare bed in the insulated shed in our back garden. Instead, I panic about the children running out of the front door, worry about him coming in and casing the joint or touching the children, ask him to sit on the bench outside our front door and hastily make him some kind of packed lunch, sandwiches, crisps, fruit, a chocolate bar and a can of fizzy pop to take on his way, rather than actually having to engage. I do what I need to do, but is it out of love, or simply duty? Am I being too comfortable and middle-class, a better woman than I would no doubt invite him in and in so doing act as a model of caritas for the children.

Another example might be having to remind my daughter to step away from the piles of vomit, urine and used needles often found around St Andrew’s Church on Church Road, while walking to school. Or not taking the short-cut, around the back of Tescos, in order to avoid the homeless and drug addicts who congregate there.

I’m not going to defend my actions, I know full well that I ought to take more time than a brief 5 minute chat with the local Big Issue vendor or making a hasty packed lunch or dinner, or giving out the odd cup of tea to the homeless. I need to overcome my natural aversion to dirt and mess and smell. But it isn’t easy, it is challenging, I haven’t yet discovered that regular Mass attendance, prayer life and access to the sacraments gives me a magical imperviousness to either physical or spiritual murkiness. But what it does do is remind me of the example that we are called to follow.

Christ wasn’t afraid to touch the unclean, we have to pray for similar fortitude and rise to the challenge, no matter how much it takes us out of our comfort zone.

Still, Catholic priest reminds us of  our obligation to the poor doesn’t make such a great headline.

NB, Just before hitting publish, I spied Fr Ray has officially responded here.