Winding down to Christmas
So far this week we've welcomed the Welsh Assembly government carol service, and a company carol service for Quadrant, organised by an employee who is a non stipendiary priest. He brings Archdeacon Bill Thomas along to preside, so I get an evening off, apart from sorting out the public address system beforehand. Two loyal and hardworking members of the St John's 'home team' were there to liaise and sort out problems, and keep an eye on comings and going during services - drunks, thieves, noisy adolescents larking about, and since we are very much on the tourist map now, visitors wanting to look at the church. They appreciate a friendly face, and being told what goes on and when they can come back. Really, we get very little trouble compared to some churches. If something does happen, it's so rare we're taken aback.
St John's Tea Room has been very busy welcoming shoppers this past few weeks. A record six hundred pounds was made in six hours on a Saturday recently. There are different teams of volunteers for each day it's open, Tuesday to Saturday, and different specialities of cake, or home made soups on different days. Delightful smells percolate down the stairs into church. It's very homely. Several of the carol services have been followed by servings of mince pies and mulled wine, and this also leaves its distinct aroma. Likewise when it rains before a service, the church fills with the evocative smell of damp clothing. Incense doesn't get used at St John's. I wish it did really, because I love it. However, the various 'homey' smells contribute wonderfully to making it a very welcome place.
The poor at the gate
There was a less pleasant aroma last Tuesday when a couple of local down-and-outs paid the Tea Room workers a rare visit and were so objectionable in behaviour, the police had to be called in to remove them. One of them, a woman urinated where she was standing, all over the church floor. Usually during the colder months, the church is quite busy, and street people don't seem at ease to be where other folks are around, especially if they just want to sleep. Both the South Wales Artists exhibition and the Cards for Good Causes shop finished on Saturday, so somebody spotted that it was quieter than usual. There's nothing wrong with people having a snooze in church, but sadly, for those who are mentally disturbed and self-neglecting it doesn't stop there. They need help but will only accept it on their terms, which are often unacceptable to others.
There's a small hard core of a couple of dozen homeless people whom the hostels cannot take because they are such a problem to other vulnerable residents, usually because of drink or drug taking triggering psychotic behaviour or violence. There are maybe a dozen people who come into the centre to sit on the floor with a dog and beg, sometimes by cashpoint machines. There's one spot just by the south gate in the popularly named 'dead man's alley' through the churchyard, where a variety of people take turns to beg. Passers-by often take them tea or sandwiches from the Market or from the Tea Room, and when they go the mess from their al fresco meal is added to all the other fast food rubbish cast off through the church railings for someone else to gather, a couple of sacks a week.
One day I was putting up a notice on the south gate, adjacent to a man begging. A middle aged couple emerged from the church, they'd been up to the Tea Room I suppose. The man turned to me and made some remarks about the poor man on the floor behind him then said: "Why don't you get rid of him, spoiling the place, tell him to shove off, it's private property." Well, Dead Man's alley has been a public thoroughfare since 1894, looked after by the Council, policed as a public place. I never know what to say at such moments, when someone publicly demonstrates contempt for fellow human beings. I hope my silent astonishment conveys something by way of feedback. The police devote quite a bit of time to moving beggars on, not least because some of them can be menacing, and leave shoppers feeling insecure. Sooner or later he'd get moved on, so why give the guy hassle?
One of our local bobbies had the idea of offering the beggars he arrested an alternative to a night in clink. He wanted to get them to gather outside the church, sing carols and collect money together. This he can't arrest them for. He wanted to do this Tuesday afternoon, and set about organising things in a bit of a hurry on Saturday. However Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of Cardiff as a capital City, and there was an all-day open air 1950's music event in the street on the north side of the church where he was proposing to have his 'beggar's choir'. I haven't seen or heard from him since, so I suppose his brain-child didn't get the desired reception from his clientele. But he wanted to go beyond the call of duty, to do something more than just arrest and punish.
I confess that I don't know what to say to beggars. Those who work with them state clearly that most do it to support a drug habit. They seem turned in on themselves and any use of conversation revolves around them receiving money. I admire those who do work with street people. I think it's the kind of thing that could quickly absorb one's entire life. Each sad wreck of a person represents a story of abuse, betrayal and plain misfortune for which there's no straightforward speedy remedy. We've had a few people worshipping with us occasionally who have recovered from skid row. They recognise how long a process it is to recover their confidence and motivation, how important their own decision is to 'get a life' once more, and their recognition of God's grace working with them. Healing for them is an extra-long journey.
It takes me back to those words of Jesus: "Do you want to be well?"
By Tuesday, the crib set had been installed in the Priory Chapel, all except baby Jesus, who by custom is not introduced until Christmas Eve, when the crib is blessed. Even bfore the figures had been placed in the 'stable' a few devout visitors were kneeling in prayer alongside it. When set up was complete, one visitor could be heard to say "Aw, look, someone's nicked baby Jesus, there's awful." Clearly the vast majority of people coming to look, far more than will ever come to a service, are ignorant of church custom, and read the crib imagery differently. I feel sorry for parents who bring little ones in to see baby Jesus and go away disappointed. Philip thoughtfully placed a discreet notice in the straw stating that baby Jesus would be added to the scene on Christmas Eve - at the lunchtime Eucharist for shoppers - I hasten to add. I don't actually agree with this custom, unless the crib is built just before the Eucharist at which the crib is blessed, so that the drama is all of a piece.
More and more people come into church just to light candles, two or three hundred people a week, I guess from the offerings. I've put up a Russian Nativity icon reproduction over the candle stand. It's lovely to see people gaze at it, or to have a chance to talk about it with a child who wonders about all the people in the picture. Now nobody would think of covering up or cutting Jesus out of that icon and sticking him back in on Christmas Eve would they? But it's not easy to get people to think clearly about religiously acquired habits.