Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Naomi Campbell and I

The popular quiz question is ‘what links these celebrities?’ or ‘what links two pictures?’ and in the case of Naomi and I the surprise is that there is an answer at all. The answer turns out to be community service at the Whitechapel Mission.

I left school thirty years ago this term and went with Community Service Volunteers (CSV) to spend my ‘Gap Year’ there. I now dread to think what they really made of an ill prepared, immature, naive, over confident school leaver; it can’t have been much more strange having a Supermodel turn up thirty years later to serve her community service punishment imposed for air rage and assault on the police.

CSV expected its volunteers to receive basic accommodation and pocket money, but I was in fact generously given a large vacant flat in the Mission building. I had no real idea how to keep it clean and I set off the firm alarms on my first morning because I had even less idea how to cook for myself. The hospitality of Sister Nora, the dedicated Wesley Deaconess whose smaller flat was across the corridor, was one of the things which enabled me to survive.

A limited staff was supplemented, for example, by people like a
doctor and a couple of nurses from the London Hospital next door who volunteered to run an informal clinic for the men and women living on the street. There were many more such.

I remember using those inadequate cleaning skills over several days in a council flat the Mission had been allowed to take over because it was ‘hard to let’, and I remember the caretaker’s doubts about my level of application to the task of mopping the Mission's floors. I remember trying to hide my total inexperience at cooking when someone off the street was ill and given a bed for the night in small clinic created in a basement, and I remember one evening opening a huge number of tiny baked bean cans instead of the usual catering size ones because these happened to be what a supermarket had donated (because they were as about to go out of date). I only got through because of the tolerance of the staff and other volunteers, and they even gave me occasional duties like a hospital visit, pastoral work and taking a service at which to try my hand as a potential ordinand.

This discovery of Methodism in action made it my second spiritual home for twenty years. It was directly responsible for my joining the MethSoc at University, trained in a joint Anglican / Methodist /URC Theological College, doing postgraduate work at the Irish School of Ecumenics, and working in a joint Anglican / Methodist /URC congregation as my first incumbency.

It is possible that it will make as much difference to Naomi Campbell; she is reported as saying that she will want to continue to support the Mission after she completes her sentence there, and she may be able to do more than I can with my modest but grateful annual Standing Order.

Of all the snaps I could have posted I haven’t chosen one which shows work with those who live on the street but one which shows Sister Nora and happens also to show the haircuts favoured by small boys in the East End in the 1970s.

1 comment:

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

and as it happens, Peter, our eldest (Catherine) has just been doing 6 months CSV (post graduation) with homeless people at the West London Day Centre (Lord Soper's old place) in Marylebone! I hope what goes around comes around! She is now interested in social work...