Cover photo taken in 2019

I am not sure whether I have ‘led anyone to the Lord’ – maybe that is not my gift. But making disciples is, and I have seen disciples made before my eyes as people have tentatively, through teaching, prompting, inviting and encouraging, taken the Lord at His word, their faith seriously, and done what He and the Church says we need to do.

And my word, is that so much more exciting, energising and life-giving than so much of what passes for life in an ‘active’ but Spirituality-lacking parish.

For some time, and in my previous Parish (Brierley Hill and Kingswinford), I had become aware of the crisis in both Dudley and Birmingham of homelessness.

The staggering figures of how many young people were falling ‘between the cracks’ and ending up on the streets, while the local council was saying that there were no homeless people in that local authority.

The cycle was disturbing; a child of a broken family reaches teenage years, has difficulty getting on with the parent’s new partner, domestic conflict and unhappiness, leading to ‘couch-surfing’ where they sleep at friend’s houses – on the couch. This situation by its very nature has a limited shelf-life and so it is not long before they drop out into a life on the streets. These were young people, the age of my own children at that stage, and I saw this path unfold through their friends back in primary school, many of whom had seen the adult composition of their household change at least twice and for some, three times in those early years. The prospects were not good.

Parcels for the homeless

Prior to Christmas in 2017, at the instigation of a family member, we made parcels to take to the homeless in Birmingham, where I had by this time been sent. As a family, we collected socks, energy bars, toothbrushes and toothpaste, plastic mugs and ‘beanies’ – only 12 parcels of these items were put together. We’d never done this as a family and had no idea how these items would be received.

We were certain about the fact that they didn’t have to accept them, and perceived wisdom told us we should not give money.

We followed these simple guidelines, boarded the train from Northfield on the 20-minute journey into Birmingham New Street Station with a shopping trolley containing our prepacked items for the homeless. We also took with us a real awareness of the tragedies that led so many to a life on the streets in winter in the UK. We also wanted to do something, even though we were not sure whether what we were starting with was appropriate.

Ministry for me started in South Africa in the early 80’s – I am only too well aware of how what one group thinks another group needs can go terribly wrong.

We were helped by the homeless themselves. We were met with such courtesy, respect and politeness, that visiting the homeless runs the risk of being addictive for that reason alone. Their appreciation for our parcels, especially socks and energy bars, was enlightening.

Opening up the conversation

The offer of a parcel enabled us to begin a conversation with them about what life was like on the streets and how long they had been living in this way. Any discomfort we had was immediately put at ease by their non-judgemental acceptance of our inadequate attempt to ‘do something for them’.

Their stories gave some insight into the personal and social difficulties in our society and on our doorsteps…..and they never asked for money.

That we had crouched down to speak to them and offer them something by way of relief in their circumstances at such a cold time of year seemed enough. In the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) these were the Lazarus’s at our gate – or were we at theirs? Either way, they were visible, accessible and sleeping rough on our streets.

That began a practice I still maintain. On the first Friday of every month, and having announced it in the parish bulletin the week before, I visit the homeless in the city.

I have only once gone out alone, and during Lent every year we set aside each Sunday for the collection of some items which we then take to the homeless, and these are brought up in the offertory procession with the gifts. These items are distributed when we go out on a first Friday.

The homeless still teach us and we are becoming increasingly more educated in terms of the conditions and continually evolving dynamics on the streets. The context is always changing, and every visit is unpredictable, but we have grown from an “it’s their fault – help is available” attitude to a more open culture towards the brokenness in our world …and even in ourselves. We are becoming more fertile soil for the message of Salvation ourselves, and therefore more capable of making the journey from maintenance to mission.

Might these indeed be “the actions, … our cynical post-modern, post-Christian society”, might begin to recognise and come to understand, as Fr James Mallon argues. [Divine Renovation Pg. 29; Fr. James Mallon]

Whether they will or not, I am continually being changed….by homeless people, and so has the Parish.

I am amazed by the people who want to join me; someone who, through his prayer, had felt he would like to accompany a homeless person to getting what they need to achieve - accommodation – he is looking at the possibility of joining the team at Tabor House.

Both Hagley Catholic High and St Thomas Aquinas School have had pupils and staff come out on a first Friday or provided items to be taken out.

An elderly parishioner said to me; Father, I don’t do much for others, I would like to come out one Friday – I bet she does more than she thinks.

And all of this is being built on the work and witness of those who have worked at and provided for the SIFA Fireside project for many decades.

The backbone of this witness and ministry has been the work and enthusiasm of the SVP from the Parishes of Rednall, West Heath and Northfield, supported practically by the generous donations of money and items, from parishioners, random people and from the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital within the Parish - where a parishioner is a member of staff – sleeping bags, socks, beanies and scarves (handmade and bought), energy bars and whatever people feel moved to provide when out on the streets – the generosity has been overwhelming, and we have never gone out empty-handed.

The last time we went out we encountered a man outside a supermarket outlet in the city. He had only been on the streets for four days. He had very little. No sleeping bag on a cold winter’s night. I took out my last sleeping bag from my trolley and handed it to him. He burst into tears. Another companion bought him something to eat, and we gave him more that he needed to buy a hot drink – again he burst into tears.

He stood up, to offer an elbow greeting with every fibre in his being wanting to hug us; “I don’t experience much human kindness,” he said. “You have been a Godsend – you have been a Godsend.”

What threshold he was at to make such a statement – we will never know – I hope our presence brought him back. Pray for him, and the many who share the streets with him.


 Fr Cecil Rogerson