Dr Ludwig Guttmann was the founding father of the Paralympics. He was an eminent Jewish doctor who had fled Nazi Germany just before the start of the Second World War and became head of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville, near Aylesbury. There, ‘Poppa’ Guttmann, organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948 which began on the same day as the Olympics in London.
We are justly proud of this heritage in Buckinghamshire.
More Than Gold
Every year, the Aylesbury Church Network run a big Family Fun Day, with inflatable games, stalls, BBQ food and loads of cake and drink all offered free. It’s a fantastic event for the whole community. But the Olympic Christian initiative More Than Gold challenged us to run a festival just three days before as well, on the Opening Ceremony Night of the Paralympics – and to do it at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium.
The values of the Paralympic movement resonate with Christian themes: recognising the unique and immeasurable worth of each individual, the possibility of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, and recognising that the greatest battleground of life is within ourselves.
Unity and vision
We’ve already seen in Aylesbury the enormous potential of what the church can do when it believes the Gospel and especially the call to loving unity. But this Festival would require a lot of pulling together. Some caught the vision, as so often, rather too late for comfort. But they caught it.
The night before I felt we had everything in place: all the key jobs delegated, and the potential to welcome thousands of people, feed and entertain them for four hours without charging anyone a penny.
Weather or not?
But on Wednesday morning the weather looked ominous. The forecasts varied, but a common theme was dark clouds and rain, and boy did it rain.
At 3pm we had a crisis meeting. Should we stick to the vision? The rain eased a little as we frantically tried to get set up. At 4.30pm we thought we might to be winning, but then the rain came down heavily again. We were well behind time with many of the 250 volunteers were cowering under the marquees that had been erected. It felt like a shambles.
It took a lot of willpower to believe in my favourite bible verse: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8 v.28).
A brief break in the clouds and five minutes of sun raised our spirits only for them to be dashed by further driving rain. 6pm came and – amazingly – people did begin to come. But we weren’t prepared. There were power problems. All our giant inflatables were lying airless on the ground. The sound system wasn’t up. The ‘control’ tent looked like a chaotic refuge rather than the hub of a well-run enterprise.
The rain not only stopped but, contrary to all the weather forecasts, the clouds cleared. Suddenly everything came together. The Stadium field had absorbed the water incredibly well – other venues would have been turned into a swamp. The inflatables rose swiftly and majestically. The amazing variety of activities and sports seemed to start working brilliantly, and the three BBQ stations even started serving the free food ahead of schedule. People just kept coming, although they must have started their journey in awful weather.
Then the media arrived. Channel 4 and BBC World Service set themselves up, as well as local press. Suddenly everyone was saying “how great is this”! The church was doing its stuff and in a way only the church can. Smiles, clowns, giant bubbles and laughter greeted the people streaming in.
A sign of grace
We estimate that three thousand people enjoyed a great night out. Marilyn Baker, the blind singer, sang a beautiful blessing over a hushed, listening, crowd in the name of Jesus. Under the still blue sky and after a golden sunset, people gravitated to the Big Screen to watch the Opening Ceremony. It was wonderful. I’ve never felt prouder of being part of God’s church. To come to this banquet, you didn’t need a ticket or even a wallet, only a desire to come and have a good time. God’s grace – absolutely free!