One of my favourite parts of my job is when I am asked to facilitate the spirituality discussion group at West London Mission’s Day Centre for homeless people. We see around a hundred rough sleepers every day who come in for breakfasts, showers, medical help and appointments with our team.
The spirituality discussion group meets every Tuesday. At the start of each term, the regulars in the group plan out the different weekly topics they want to look at for the months ahead. The group had asked me to help them ‘look at an Old Testament book’ so I gave them three options: Amos, Habakkuk or Jonah. They picked Amos.
As always the group this Tuesday was a highly diverse group of people: Latvian, Polish, Jamaican, Mancunian – as well as a few Londoners. Some with Catholic backgrounds, others Baptist and Pentecostal, some agnostic, some who don’t believe in God at all. And one who described himself as ‘Bapticostal’.
In some ways, it is very much like a regular church home group. In other ways it is completely different.
There is an honesty and openness in the group which always inspires me. Sure, the group needs managing. People disagree, interrupt each other, go off tangent. But when we grapple with the Bible and share the thoughts and feelings invoked, scripture comes to life in a fresh and powerful way.
What is a prophet?
A number of the group admitted they had not even heard of the book of Amos. So to get us started, I posed the question ‘What is a prophet?’ Initially a few thought it was someone who predicts the future. But this was challenged by others who felt a prophet was not so much a ‘fortune teller’ but someone ‘who stands up and says it like it is’.
We then watched a brief clip of Martin Luther King speaking. The group were struck by how firmly and clearly King connected his political and social action in God’s vision. As someone put it ‘He clearly believed he was speaking God’s words’.
Amos’ fiery message
We then turned to Amos. I introduced what we know of him – that he was a shepherd and fig-tree farmer and was not a priest or religious professional. He lived at a time when Israel was very rich and prosperous but where there was widespread mistreatment of the poor. He was from a small, remote village but took his message right to centre of power.
Rather than have a polite ‘spiritual’ figure in mind, we needed to think of Amos as someone with a fiery message – who challenged the political and religious establishment. And the powerful didn’t like it.
Corruption and injustice
We focused on Chapter 5 in Amos and everyone took turns to read a few verses. Amos’ fierce criticisms of corruption and social injustice struck a chord with many in the room:
“You people hate anyone who challenges injustice and speaks the whole truth in court. You have oppressed the poor and robbed them of their grain. And so you will not live in the fine stone houses you build or drink wine from the beautiful vineyards you plant.”
We discussed his criticism of a society where people keep their heads down and don’t speak up:
“You persecute good people, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts. And so, keeping quiet in such evil times is the smart thing to do!”
And many comments were made about how critical Amos is of religion itself:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me….Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Reading the Bible with people who have so little and have been through so much can be a rich experience. And especially when people can sense the relevance and power of these words for today. As we ended the session, one person said:
‘I reckon Amos would have plenty to say if he was around today..especially to people like that Donald Trump!’
- Next Friday, I am doing a sponsored sleep out in central London with my son (13) and daughter (8) to raise £1,000 for the work of the West London Day Centre. Could you sponsor me? See my Just Giving Page.
- R&R has a 6 session course for small groups called: The Amos course: God’s word to a world of injustice