Church Life · Social Action

Be the Angel (and other tips)

Wow! That last post of mine sure got a lot of views. Thanks everyone. I put a link at the bottom of the page in case you didn’t see it.

I read a Twitter post from @blackbuttongirl who asked me what can be done? And I got thinking. I’m excellent at saying what’s wrong, but a bit slack on the solutions. So here are a few ideas I thought about on my way home tonight (Yay, I can afford to go to knitting groups again)

I met a bonafide Angel once, seriously!

Many moons ago I decided I would go to a church that my parents didn’t go to. I had a little 50cc moped and every Sunday I drove the 25 miles down the A58 to a church in Halifax. 

I was driving home late one Sunday night after youth club, about 11pm. This was back in the day before we all had mobile phones, where only banks had cash machines, and two-stroke petrol was still available at the pumps of most petrol stations.

Almost all of my motorbike stories start this way… So, I ran out of petrol.

There I was, on one of the lonelier parts of the road, no petrol, no warm clothing, no mobile phone. How did we ever survived before mobiles, but somehow we did.

Within a very short time a little red mini pulled up in front of my bike and a man in a black leather jacket and long hair got out.

“You ok?” He asked,

“No Petrol”

“Two-Stroke?”

I nodded

“It’s ok, I got some”

And without saying another word he opened his boot and took out a can of petrol, filled my moped and made sure the bike started fine. After grateful thanks, he got back in the mini and drove off with me following behind. Ahead there was a little roundabout and as I came up to it I realised, he was nowhere to be seen.

You either believe that a man, just happened to be driving down the A58 at almost midnight, instead of taking the motorway, with not only the right amount of petrol, but the right type, at the exact moment I needed it. Or something supernatural occurred.

Either way, I saw an angel.

1. BE THE ANGEL

The Internet is filled with Angel stories, I don’t mean people seeing glowing blokes in long dresses shouting Hosanna, I mean everyday people who get a buzz from doing something in secret.

This video I really find inventive…

Yes, you can video it, put it on YouTube, get a viral Facebook post about the great kid who gave his lunch money away, that’s all very nice… but if you REALLY want to get a buzz, do it in secret. Find some inventive way to give, without anyone knowing.

I’ve told this story before, but my dad (being a Salvation Army officer and someone who grew up in the workhouse and really knew poverty) used to give presents to families at Christmas. He knew that in houses where a parent was an alcoholic or the family were desperate the toys might be sold for money before Christmas Day, so he came up with a plan.

On Christmas morning, he went to each house, knowing the children had a better chance of keeping the toys if he saw them opening them. He also knew the shame of poverty, so he had a story. 

He pretended that Santa, being old, had somehow messed up. The presents meant for the children had accidentally been delivered to his house and he thought he’d best bring them straight round.

Of course, the parents knew the Salvation Army had given them the gift (I don’t think they knew they were on a list for donations – that too was a secret list he got the local headmaster to help him write) The children thought Santa was just a bit forgetful. Most importantly, the children didn’t feel their parents were in poverty. 


2. FILL THOSE SEATS

I have a real bug-bear about driving with empty car seats. I don’t have a car, but sometimes my mum will let me use hers. I make a point of asking people if they need a lift, because, well, it’s like this… It’s something I can do. 

Seek out people who don’t have their own transport and ask them if they want a lift, always tell them it’s not out of their way (even if it is). 

When the church has an event away from the building put a list up asking for names of people who have seats and people who would like a lift. Believe me, people who need the blessing don’t always ask for it, seek them out. On your way home look at bus stops for church members waiting for the bus, or people walking home.

Just as I once saw an angel, I was once called an angel…

It was one of those days when I had the luxury of a car for the day, it was also raining very hard. There was me, all alone in a people carrier, while outside the rain was pouring down. I thought to myself, If I see anyone getting soaked I will ask if they need a lift (offering lifts to strangers is not something I advise!) I saw an older lady, huddled in a doorway, soaked. 

Y’know that moment in church, when you hear the verse, I was naked and you clothed me. You snigger and say to God, “OK, well the next naked person I come across, I’ll give them my clothes” then you take a wrong turn and come across a nudist beach?

So I pull over, open the window and ask the woman if she is heading into town and would she like a lift. 

She is, and she does, so in she gets.

Driving towards town I start a conversation. The woman is going further than town, but says she can get a bus easier from there. She’s heading to the hospital to find out the results of a long stretch of treatment for cancer. Her daughter would have come with her, but her grandson was unwell so she is having to take this worrying journey all alone.

I drive her to the hospital, very much out of my way, but God approved. I stopped the car at the entrance of the hospital and asked if she was ok going in alone, she said she was, but thanked me, called me her angel, then asked if I would pray for her.

I tell you one thing, I sat in the car praying with this lady who thought she saw an angel, yet it was me who got the greater blessing.

3. EXPERIENCE THE SHAME

I can tell you the shame of asking for a handout, but it doesn’t come close to the real thing.

If your church gives out food parcels, next Sunday go and ask for one. Don’t let on that you are doing it as a test, or it’s not real. Plan a story, wage didn’t come through, caught speeding and had a huge fine, find a story that explains why you have no money.

Then ask the person who deals with the food cupboard for a food parcel. If you don’t know who that is, then ask the minister. I dare you.

If you manage it, take the request as far as you can, fill in the paperwork if they use it, if they put your name in a book think about the people you know who might see your name and ask yourself how you think they will react.

You don’t have to take the food, you can hand it back straight after (or secretly leave it on the doorstep of someone you know needs it)

Use the experience to enlighten others about the shame of asking for help, that way you might come up with an easier solution.


4. DEVELOP YOUR NOSEY GIFT

Going back to my dad and his Christmas parcels. He knew his stuff, he knew that a struggling alcoholic would be tempted to sell his kids toys, he knew that Christmas is harder for an alcoholic than perhaps other times of the year. 

My dad once said “One of the most important skills a minister should have is being nosey”

Y’see, when he was in the house handing over the box of toys and food, he was also having a nose.

Was the electricity working?

Did the house smell of mould?

Was the house warm?

Were they wearing clean clothes?

Mentally ticking off things he could sort out. Being nosey helped him help others.

Another moped story (and this time I had petrol)…

During the winter months I continued to ride my moped ‘over the tops’ to church. Through thick snow, ice, sleet, rain.

Sunday after Sunday off I went.

One Sunday a lady came to me in church and handed me a little gift, “something she saw that I needed”.

This woman was extremely wealthy, but she sat with the homeless, she was nosey and she noticed what no one else had. I drove through the cold with woollen mittens on. The gift was a pair of waterproof leather riding gloves.

She didn’t need to buy them, I certainly hadn’t mentioned I needed them, but she noticed.

Start taking notice of people, have deeper conversations so you know exactly what the need is.

5. PAY AS YOU FEEL

In Leeds we have a few cafes that use a pay as you feel approach. (http://therealjunkfoodproject.org) These are places where food is sourced mostly for free, then used to cook meals in a restaurant/cafe. The menus don’t have prices, instead a bucket (with a clever lid to stop people seeing what you’ve put in) sits there for those who feel they can pay. 

Sounds risky, but guess what, it works.

When you can pay, you pay (and many people pay over the odds to help those who can’t), when you can’t pay, you don’t. 

There are two great things that come from this way of doing food for free.

A) since no one knows who paid what, everyone is treated fairly.

B) the place looks like a cafe, not a soup kitchen… Which brings me to

6. PAINT THE PLACE

There is a church in Leeds that does a cheap meal on a Wednesday night. It’s very popular with the homeless, who manage to get a good, hot, homecooked meal in the evening. 

The church also has a choir practice which they now hold on the same evening, and yep, the church members who work in town no longer go home for their tea, then go out to church. They come for the cheap meal straight from work. Rich and poor, sitting together, in a nicely decorated room, with tables and tablecloths, a little bunch of flowers on each table. 

Move away from calling your meal a soup kitchen, call it a community meal, do anything to avoid making people feel like they are in line for the poorhouse. Sit with them to eat rather than create a ‘them and us’ situation.

7. MAKE SURE WE REALLY ARE ALL ‘GOING ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY’

If your church is planning a retreat or holiday consider setting up a holiday fund, start as early as you can. Maybe I can’t find £200 for a holiday three months away, but putting £2 a week in the fund for a year gives me over £100.

Find cheaper alternatives to the luxury hotel or private residential accommodation. 

Remember the pay as you feel cafe? Well, the United reform church has a wonderful hotel/residential training centre in Windermere that, well… Here’s a link to their page that explains the hotel prices.

http://windermereurc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Pay-What-You-Can-FAQs.pdf

I’ll try and tell you their amazing story.

They were facing a decline in visitors and were having to charge for little things to make up the money. During a staff meeting, where they were discussing a £40,000 arrears balance and what could be done to make more money. There was a suggestion that they charge 10p for cups to use the water fountain.

The manager spoke up, reminding the staff that Jesus mentioned giving cups of water in His name, we shouldn’t charge for water. This stirred an idea in the managers head.

The church, probably feeling they had nothing to lose, agreed to allow the manager to turn the hotel into a pay as you feel hotel, and people who could pay, paid. Within months the hotel overdraft was down to £500 and it’s still going strong. I stayed there for a conference on poverty last year and it was wonderful, and the staff treated us (most of who lived in poverty and didn’t pay a penny) as though we were VIP guests. 

There was no distinction between rich and poor, we were all equal.

8. TREAT EVERYONE AS POOR

Another idea comes from a Salvation Army church in Cannock. Every Summer the Salvation Army hold week long music schools for the kids, these are quite pricey events, but the Army has a fund that can be applied for. You just have to ask your church minister or youth worker for a form. 

Oh, dear, that same old shameful experience of going cap in hand to ask for a handout form.

One of the youth workers realised the problem and decided to get enough copies of the fund forms for everyone. He sends one with every letter home to parents asking if their child wants to go. Every parent gets the letter and application form, no one feels singled out, no one has to know the fund has been applied for except the minister, everyone is treated equally.

It’s a small thing, but important.


9. REALISE OUR POTENTIAL

One positive thing about being ‘on the dole’ is the amount of courses I can do. I love learning new stuff and my pile of achievement certificates now have their own folder.

I’m qualified in a while range of stuff from Food Hygiene and First Aid, to Chocolate manicures and ear piercing. You want to have Hopi ear candling while having your shirt buttons sewn back on then I’m your gal.

I have been known to talk about being a flute player and yet, going to a church that only has brass band players, but I learnt the flute while at music college studying brass and woodwind instrument repair, of course, to know whether you’ve repaired an instrument properly you need to know how to play it. Maybe I’m not so useless at a church full of brass players after all.

What I’m saying is this. Some of us might not be able to put into the collection plate, but we might just have that skill your church is desperate for. All you need to do is talk to us longer than the few minutes over tea and biscuits after the service. Be nosey, ask what we like to do, we might not even be aware of our potential.

If you ask what I’m studying at Uni I’ll tell you I’m doing a knitting degree.

If you ask what sort of things I do at Uni, I’ll tell you how great I am at computers, how much I love using Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign (InDesign is what would turn the drab yellow church newsletters into stunning professional magazines).

I might tell you about a little idea I have in creating jobs for vulnerable women in the area, or how I love teaching crafts and am looking for a venue to start a new craft group. Or I might let you know about the new skill I’ve learnt in quilt making at Uni and how I’m finding a way we could bring churches together in making banners.

But as of yet, I don’t think people know any of that. I’m still known as Betty who knits.


10. SIT WITH THE SINNERS

I was always told that the back row in church is for the sinners, but I thought my mum told me that to make me sit near the front (so she could keep an eye on me when she was leading a meeting). 

Several years ago I realised, if you want to get involved in people in need, the back row is the place to begin, so that’s where I sit. You might think I sit there because I’m a rebel, our church has a back row that’s a short distance from the rest of the seats, a real back row. I sit there on purpose.

If you feel ‘not good enough’, depressed, not worthy to be in a church, as if no one will want you, if you are the type of person really in need, you most likely will sit in the place where you can hide. In church that is often the back row. No one can see you on the back row, no one can look down on you or turn their noses up at you when they can’t see you.

I have another seat on the row in front where I sometimes sit, but if someone comes in during the service and sits on the back row, I want to be able to move and sit next to them. Yes, I’ve had occasions when I’ve wanted to get the air freshener out (I’m also a qualified reflexologist and know how to be close to smelly feet so I can handle BO). At the moment I’m building up a friendship with a woman who brings her dog to church. 

It’s my own little ministry. I don’t need to wear a uniform, be ordained, get permission, be commissioned, apply for missionary funding. I sit there and knit (which also helps them relax and feel there’s no ‘airs and graces’).  I have a real love for the back row people, the sinners, or perhaps the ones who are honest enough to know they can’t do it alone.

11. WANT IT, GOT IT, GIVE IT

The Jesus Army have a fantastic section in their church news letters called the ‘needs and givings list’ It’s my favourite part of the letter. It comes in two sections.

Needs – things people want, like a toaster, a study book, baby clothes, bunk beds.

Givings – I have a spare guitar, we have been given a load of flour if anyone wants some, our apple trees are ready if you want to come and pick some.

Anything and everything has been put on this list over the years and with each want I think to myself, do I have one of those that I can give away?

It’s a fantastic way of again allowing someone to ask for something specific, without feeling singled out as a beggar, because the whole church uses the system.

SO, There it is, my list of things that can be done to help people in poverty.

But it is quite simple:

1. Be an Angel, but remember secret Angels get an even bigger buzz.

2. Develop your nosey giftings, don’t just ask what they do, ask what they enjoy, how they do things, get into their lives and build deeper friendships.

3. Find ways to avoid the shame of begging, but have a go to see how deep the shame goes.

4. Realise that just because isn’t working, or working a low paid job, doesn’t mean they haven’t got a huge wealth of experience in things you just might be desperate for.

The Post I mentioned at the beginning is linked here:

https://bettyvirago.com/2016/07/18/communicating-poverty/

Here also is an advert by The Salvation Army in Canada, which is blooming marvellous at saying the same sort of thing.

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