There are so many things in the world that make us angry. And quite rigjtly so.
Why, for example, are so many people marginalised and lonely? Why is there so much social isolation in a city like London – inhabited by 8 million people?
These were the questions that a parishioner asked of me the other day.
Why don’t we do something about this dreadful problem, he asked. Why don’t we find a solution? Why don’t we lobby for the state to support the homeless more and those with mental heath issues? Why does the Church not call the government to account for this and many other failings?
These are all good and important questions. But their weakness is suggested in a fascinating study in 2005 by the sociologist Paul Lichterman, Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups trying to bridge America’s Divisions.
In this study, Lichterman looked at a wide range of well-intentioned groups with admirable ideals. Many had utopian visions, prophetic convictions and lacerating critiques of government and general culture. But almost none of them had any significant influence or impact beyond its own members. The groups voted, wrote editorials, donated money, compiled research and exhorted that Something Must Be Done. But they also assumed that someone else should should actually be doing the Doing.
This kind of “being for”, as Samuel Wells writes in the Nazareth Manifesto, ‘is inclined to find greater reasons for inaction…It often generates a great deal of anger, much of which is directed toward those whose salaries or lifestyles seem impervious to the claims of the disadvantaged other… “Being for” can get so preoccupied with the right language or the best starting point or the purity of its motives or the guarantee of its outcomes that the poor remain at as great a distance as they would were there no good intentions at all.’
So what can we do? What’s the alternative to “being for”?
Well, I would say there is – “being with.”
Later, in the same day as my conversation with the angry parishioner, I was on my own in the vicarage getting on with some preparation for a meeting when my doorbell rang.
It was a rather shabbily dressed man whom I’d met before. And I have to admit my heart sank a little at the sight of him. He said he thought that the church would be open and had been hoping for a cup of tea. He apologised for disturbing me.
I said it was not a problem, it was a pleasure to see him. I got my keys and went over to the church and opened up. I made some tea and got out some biscuits. And we sat and talked for about 45 minutes.
The man told me he was lonely. (Something I knew already, because he’d visited before and told me this.) He told me again about the sad recent loss of his closest friend. I listened and sympathised. I can’t solve his problems, just as I can’t solve the problems of countless other lonely people in this city. But I can be there, for this period of time, for this particular person.
And that IS something.
So if you want to do something about loneliness and social isolation in this city, then don’t be angry. Just go and sit in a local church. Or on a park bench. The chances are that you will encounter someone who is lonely and you will have the opportunity to have a conversation, to bring some relief to that person’s day.
It won’t ‘solve’ the problem of social isolation. But it will and does make a difference.