The Greenbelt festival got off to a bad start for me as I rather unwisely told my two boys (Danny, 8 and Tom, 6) to ‘go and explore the site’ while we put up the tent. Three hours later I began to be a bit worried about where they had got to. I was relieved and very grateful to find them in the Greenbelt’s ‘special office for lost children’ and tried to pretend I was testing the festival’s childcare systems. It only took a couple of forms and some slightly embarrassing explanation to reunite us as a family.
The next day, I helped run a seminar with colleagues from Housing Justice and Boaz Trust on Getting Real about Homelessness: the Complexity of Compassion. It included a debate on whether we should give money to people begging (thanks to all who voted on my poll). The debate was brought to life by a planned disruption of the meeting by Phil of the Whitechapel Mission who played the role of someone asking the room for cash. Crucially, it meant that we did not discuss the issue in abstract but had a ‘real’ appeal in front of us. After short speeches for and against giving money we asked the room to divide in two based on whether you would give money to him or not. Some tried to sit on the fence and not move and in return got heckled by some passionate Franciscan monks: “You can’t stay in the middle because he’s there in front of you – are you going to give him cash or not?!”
During a later seminar on Including people who don’t fit easily, I met a great bloke called Chris who had been street homeless for many years as a heroin addict and alcoholic. He told the group his deeply moving story of how he had got his life back together and how the local church had helped him to recovery despite his abusive behaviour to them. Interestingly, it was not just through the obviously kind and compassionate things they had done but through an elderly lady who had looked him in the eye one day and told him that he stunk, looked disgusting and that he should stop abusing himself and others and sort himself out. Among everything else it was these words which hit the spot and provoked him to take responsibility and change his behaviour. As Chris himself said, it was the perfect example of the need for truth as well as grace in the process of transformation.
Straight after this, I was due to lead a seminar in the youth tent on homelessness. I had the session planned out but I felt it would so much better if I scrapped it and instead asked Chris to speak to tell them his story. I was so glad I did. Chris was amazing and he had the whole youth tent listening to his every word about his descent into addiction and the reality of street life – but also the wonderful and hope-filled journey he had made since with the help of the church. After he spoke we put the words of Isaiah 61 up on the screen:
‘The spirit of the LORD is on me…he has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…to comfort all those who mourn, to bestow a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.’
As the young people clapped him, you could see how Chris’ story was a living embodiment of these famous words. Here he was, at a festival, receiving praise and appreciation from others rather than the spirit of despair that had imprisoned him for so long. It was the best illustration of faith that is alive, real and transformative. Forget the theological debates, the platforms, the books and church politics: this was the real deal.
It was also a good lesson to me too. It meant ditching most of my prepared stuff, my clever powerpoint slides and the anecdotes designed to make me look good. It meant taking a risk and focussing instead on the right things (which is not always easy when speaking at a conference).
I spent most of the rest of Greenbelt trying not to lose my kids again. But for me, despite the Rob Bells, the Brian McClarens and the others who write books and have people queuing at the big venues, it was Chris from Kent who gave the best talk I heard at Greenbelt this year. A powerful story of recovery from hopelessness, a real journey of hope and transformation and a brilliant testimony of the commitment of local Christians to love and include someone on the margins. Let’s go and do likewise.