It’s a cliché that you must learn something valuable from volunteering. As though, rather than something you do to help or to fill your spare time, it’s Lucy’s cordial, healing you and making you feel all warm inside.
Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it isn’t, and you just spend a few hours wringing your hands and feeling utterly useless.
When I walked into my church’s community centre last Friday, I felt useless. I was spending the evening as a host at our night shelter for the homeless (part of London’s Robes project, a church-run winter night shelter which operates from November to March). Just one evening, but as I’d learned from the bad weeks on the hospital ward, there’s nothing worse than standing around.
Giving up Twitter has been my biggest Lenten success so far, being that doing chocolate gives me borderline panic two hours in, and the year I tried to give up red meat I spent the entire time chomping on lamb thinking that it didn’t count. Other than that, I’ve been too busy to do anything useful, so I was quite pleased when it turned out my church group traditionally does one of the Robes evenings each year.
There will now be a short pause to discuss the loaded meaning of being in a church group
Other than the friends and family who came to my confirmation, I don’t know anyone my age who goes to church near me. I wanted to get to know people, and meet more unmarried, unchildified near my age. When our young lady vicar, Mother W, suggested I join the youth group (and I use that term very, very loosely), I had to confess that I was way, way too old to attend.
“Oh don’t worry about that, I’m over 30 too,” she said, somewhat incredibly given that she has the angelic looks of a 19-year-old. Clearly, sacred wine is better for you than prosecco.
I went for the first time in January and my mind was boggled more than it had ever boggled before. The small group was late 20s early 30s and ranged from gay men to straight women and people with the most amazing-sounding jobs. Then we drank a lot of unblessed alcohol. The senior vicar, Father X, made us the most incredible negronis. Then we had pâté and quiche while discussing that session’s book club choice – The Game, by Neil Strauss. If you’ve not read it, it’s about picking up women through dressing up like a colossal tit and making them feel just bad enough about themselves to go “Hell YEAH I’ll come home with you you exciting and mysterious man.” It is actually brilliant, and fortunately for me, but unfortunately for the book group because I talked a lot, I’d read it a few years ago.
This was interspersed with discussion, prayer and a reading that tried to be as appropriate to Neil Strauss’s The Game as it is possible to be. It was all rounded off with a trip to church for a service called compline, and we then headed to the Game-loving prayer reader’s house for more wine and left-over Christmas chocolates.
It was brilliant, and weird, and really great, but now anyone that I mention it to naturally makes the frozen “Shit me, you’re in a cult” face.
Back to last Friday…
The distinctly un-culty members of the un-cult are great, even if I have a long way to go to make up for my lengthy tirades about The Game. On Friday I was hosting (this is a great piece about what happens during an evening). I got the wrong mugs out of the cupboard because I didn’t know where anything was, piling up little useless green teacups onto the side before another vicar from the church, Father Y, who was running the evening pointed out where they were. Two of the group did the cooking, others also hosted, while visitors from another part of the country joined in, with a view of bringing Robes to their own parishes.
Meanwhile, our 18 male guests were arriving, setting up their campbeds and bedding, wary of each other’s space. I spent two hours thinking one of the charismatic guests was actually in charge of the evening – later, he pulled out a piece from the Brighton Argus, where I’ve been doing my weekend sub-editing course, which told the story of how a friend of his, also homeless, had been beaten to death in Hove and his body left hidden under a duvet on the street.
There is the most godawful quote in this story, from Julian Haddow, the project manager for the homelessness project AntiFreeze, in which he says, “Living as a rough sleeper is very dangerous. People choosing this lifestyle need to be aware of the risks.”
I’m sorry, choose?
What became abundantly clear over the course of the evening was that nobody here had chosen to be homeless. Circumstances, the recession, missed letters, there didn’t seem to be a lot of choice. And as nice as the community centre is, and the Robes Project, it’s not substitute for a stable home of your own.
The men who I spoke to, who were up for a game of cards – I abandoned chess after it was pointed out to me I’d got my bishops and knights the wrong way round – didn’t fit my bill of homeless, my well-honed media-rich bill of what a homeless person should be, and should look like. When a bishop turned up later, I had to stare at him very carefully before the enormous bit of amethyst on his finger finally convinced me that he wasn’t just a latecomer to stay the night.
There was an accountant, a solicitor, a photographer. At dinner, an African man produced a copy of The Times and, as a reader of three years’ standing, subjected me to an extremely knowledgeable grilling about the paper’s direction and what could be done to improve it (I drew the line at reducing the amount of news).
Their stories aren’t mine to tell, not now, at least.
It was snowing that night. I am very glad I have a home, and don’t have to stay in hostels or shelters, like so many families and individuals have to.