At lunchtime the other day, I went into a small town near where I work to meet an old friend for coffee. When we came back to the car park where I’d parked the Jesus Army minibus, we found a bloke sitting on the tail plate.
“Can you help me?” he asked, pointing at the word “Jesus” on the minibus. He had a wild look: matted beard, big pack on his back. To be frank, he was slightly scary. I opened my mouth to ask what help he’d like, but he was already saying, “No, I can see you’re going, don’t want to be any trouble. I just wanted to know about the Jesus Army.” I got halfway into saying, “It’s ok, we were about to leave, but what would you like to know?” But on the word “leave” he interrupted again in a sudden change of mood.
“F*** off then” he growled. “F***ing Jesus”.
Taken aback, and with half an eye on my friend who looked (like I was) a touch disconcerted, I asked him what he needed, and told him about the Jesus Centre, in the next town, where he could get some help.
“Take me there,” he said, and he pointed to his shoe. The sole was coming off. “I trod on glass,” he added plaintively.
“We’re not going there now,” I said, about to ask if he’d like the bus fare. But before I got to that, Hyde had taken over from Jekyll again and F-words being fired at me like bullets.
Now for a confession. I’m not proud of this. In a moment of horrible right-wing vitriol I wanted to yell, “F** off yourself, then, and get yourself a f**ing job, you scrounger!”
I didn’t, thank God. Apart from anything else, this man was not well mentally. Instead, I waited patiently, then explained again about the Jesus Centre, blessed him, and got in the minibus. As we drove out of the car park, I saw him swoop down on another guy, pointing at us, and gesticulating. I think I can guess the theme of his animated speech. (Something to do with “f**ing” and “Jesus”.)
My friend and I talked about the incident. I mused on how sometimes at the Jesus Centre in my own town, Coventry, people can get abusive – and are fairly regularly eye-wateringly ungrateful for food and other essentials that they are being given for free (or heavily subsidised).
Any idea how fussy people can be about how they like their fried egg – even one they’re getting for a few pence?
But I realised years ago that giving “the poor” the right to complain, the right to be ungrateful, is in fact an important part of affirming their human dignity. Why should only the rich have the right to complain? Or even the right to be ungrateful? Nobody thinks twice if a rich person complains in a restaurant if he doesn’t like his food. Why? Because he has money on his side.
Well – we revolt against money being the main measure of human worth. That’s one of the reasons I joined the Jesus Army. It’s a church of the poor.
The Dickensian view of the “grateful poor” can be deeply patronising, and part of our gospel work is to take complaints from the poor smilingly – and recognise something of justice restored in it.
So I didn’t feel I’d responded very well to the bearded brother in the car park. Maybe I should have given him my shoes. Maybe I should have taken him to the Jesus Centre. I’m quite sure I would have been sworn at a lot more for my troubles.
As it was, I drove away. And though I prayed for him, I felt uncomfortable as I recalled the biblical warning: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
Here it is, then: my confession.
The one redeeming feature of the episode, perhaps, is that I gave him a chance to complain. And in complaining he was saying, “I too am human. I too am a king.”