Homeless for the Olympics
Already it feels like a distant memory, but a few weeks ago I really fell in love with the Olympics. I doubt I'm alone in that.
Earlier in the year it had mainly been “something that I need to be aware of” – a likely cause of great travel disruption – some important dates to put in the diary – something I might like to watch on the TV – and for sure a potential opportunity for ministry. By and large I felt it was an event involving other people, for other people, serving other people's interests. But as the Olympics went on I found myself enthralled by them. Bit by bit this supreme sporting contest felt like it involved me.
I felt proud of what Britain had done and was doing: the impressive opening ceremony, the efficient organisation, the friendly assistance from the volunteers, the engaging television coverage – and most of all the heroic victories of the British athletes (and one or two Jamaican ones). I felt that I was a part of it, that I belonged, that this huge national effort involved me. The Olympic Games and the Olympic competitors somehow didn't feel distant any more.
This wasn't someone else's event in someone else's private pad; this was our Games in our country, our city. Time after time I'd switch the television on again, eager to hear how things were going. “Is it all going smoothly still? Are we doing a good job of it all? Have any of our guys got into the finals?”
And before long it wasn't just the big name athletes in the well-known events who were grabbing my attention. I even became engrossed by the dressage. As the horse of a British lady I'd never heard of hopped daintily from one foot to the other, there I was, looming over my screen, punching the air and shouting, “Come on!....COME ON!!!” Boy it felt good when she won. I don't know anything about horses. And definitely not dressage. Weird how I'd come to feel that every moment of the Olympics was for me. There was something wonderful about that.
But then I remember Richard. Richard was a guy I met whilst serving as a Games Pastor during the first week of the Olympics. He was homeless. I hadn't even noticed him until one of the Team London Ambassadors pointed him out. My colleague and I had been talking with them about Games Pastors and More Than Gold and our desire to be of assistance to anyone who was travelling through London.
“Well there you are....there's a man asking for money over there. You can help him,” one of them said. So we dutifully wandered over to meet him. It wasn't quite what I had in mind; I'd been hoping for a good chat with someone from Moldova or Venezuela or Burundi – someone who was visiting London from abroad and who wanted nothing more than a discussion about life, the universe and everything. But Richard was the one the Lord gave to us. And Richard was the one the Lord used to open my eyes to some deeper realities.
Richard was looking to go to a hostel in Wood Green. It turned out he'd not had an easy upbringing: when he was younger his father had left him in hospital for going out with a non-white girl. Something like that must leave deep scars. And now here he was, outside Euston Station, begging for money. He said he wanted food for him and his dog. We took him to Sainsbury's, urging him to choose whatever he'd like. Touchingly, he kept replying, “I don't want you to spend too much.”
We sat with him as he tucked into a sandwich and tapped the dog food out onto the pavement. He was sober, self-effacing and polite – not at all difficult to talk to. As we chatted, a well-spoken white lady came over to talk to him and stroke his dog. “He's not looking too good at the moment – I had to put some stuff on him to get rid of the flees,” he said. “Oh, don't worry. Dogs are always getting flees. It's nothing to worry about. I think he's gorgeous!” she replied.
I was moved by her respect for him and compassion towards him. It was a humbling model for me. She'd just come back from a Daniel Barenboim concert and was enthusing about his work for peace in the Middle East. She told us she was a socialist and couldn't stand David Cameron or Sebastian Coe or all the money that had been thrown at the Olympics – if anything it had made the homeless problem worse, she thought. I realised that just now was when the Opening Ceremony was due to start. The whole world was celebrating the Olympic Games, but life for London's homeless was still no celebration.
A young Asian-looking man also came over. He held out a paper bag –“There's a hot meal in there for you” – then walked off. Another touching moment of compassion. As the lady dashed off to meet up with her friend, it occurred to me that perhaps practical compassion for needy people isn't so hard to find in London. What is hard to find is people who would combine this with sharing the gospel, patiently and appropriately. I had a brief go, sharing Psalm 27 and explaining how God would be a refuge to us: “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me” (v.10). I did a pretty rubbish job. I wish I'd done better. I'm also not sure how much he really wanted to hear. But who will share God's life-giving word with people like Richard? Who will reveal to him the compassionate attention of God when the attention of the world is absorbed elsewhere?
The Olympics brought enthralling excitement and joy to London for a while. But for our homeless, it's little comfort. It provides no refuge. And yet our God is the one who can provide enthralling excitement and joy, true comfort and a secure refuge for everyone, for ever. May the Lord send out workers into the harvest field!
Martin Street is a London City Missionary in Battersea, attached to The Bridge Church