This year Liverpool YMCA celebrated its 170th anniversary, and this year I became the chaplain to this extraordinary community.
My role is to listen, support, care and gently question – to be there for everyone in the organisation regardless of faith or belief. At the anniversary celebration at Liverpool Parish Church last month, I read the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and shared why it speaks to me about my experience of being with the YMCA community:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’
He answered, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’
‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
So what does this say to me about being chaplain at Liverpool YMCA? Let me set the scene:
Liverpool YMCA hasn’t had a chaplain for more than ten years, since before it moved from its iconic building on Mount Pleasant, the world’s first purpose built YMCA facility. As the charity is growing, our CEO Ellie and the trustees felt it was time to explore this role again. Ellie sought advice from Mission in the Economy (MitE), a charity which provides chaplains to workplaces including Merseyside Police and John Lennon Airport.
Ellie asked for one day a week chaplaincy support to help Liverpool YMCA maintain a Christian ethos by providing for the pastoral needs of residents, volunteers and staff, and particularly to help residents understand more fully life’s events as they relate to their spiritual and emotional well-being. As my background is in education, youth work, and support work with vulnerable adults, including people experiencing homelessness, mental distress and substance dependency, I was delighted to accept the role.
I joined in March, and spent the first month shadowing colleagues, observing and taking part in activities alongside residents, listening and learning, before offering what I can in response to their needs and hopes.
From April to July I ran three drop-ins a week, at Leeds Street weekly and fortnightly at the two women’s refuges and two men’s hostels. Based on positive feedback, I increased to two days a week in August, running six drop-ins a week, spending two hours at each hostel, including Stepping Stones, the new hostel launched this year for people moving on from hospital treatment for mental distress with Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust.
I aim to offer hospitality – the residents are living in a place they haven’t freely chosen, and may spend a lot of time alone in their rooms or otherwise feeling isolated. By encouraging them to come together for a hot drink, a snack and a chat about whatever is on their mind, I have begun to build relationships, trust and confidence. I usually bring all I need (tea, coffee, flask, mugs, snacks etc.), so I can focus on being with people. I call it my instant drop-in kit – I just add hot water!
I also offer a person-centred approach – empathy, honesty and unconditional love. Sometimes all that’s needed is a listening ear – residents just need help to hold onto hope amid the chaos and trauma they have experienced.
Some residents don’t have a faith, while others may have had bad experiences with faith communities, so I am aware of the need to tread carefully and respectfully with this vulnerable community. After a challenging encounter in my first month with a resident who demanded respect from others but struggled to show it, I took inspiration from the Golden Rule, a teaching common to all the major spiritual and ethical traditions of the world (see the poster for examples from 13 world religions), which is summed up in the introduction to the story of the Good Samaritan: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus, like many good teachers, answers a question with a question – when the expert tries to test him, Jesus asks him what he understands. In the same way, I don’t see myself as the expert who can tell the members of the YMCA community what is life-giving for them, what gives them hope, but I can ask questions which help them find those answers for themselves.
This Golden Rule, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, formed the basis of a series of workshops on respect and diversity I co-facilitated with Anna, one of our activities workers, in response to tensions between residents in one of the hostels. We also looked at stereotypes – we all related to being stereotyped, and recognised how we can stereotype others, but we also saw that the stereotype of a Scouser, a rough sleeper, or a person in recovery, for example, isn’t true for everyone in that group. The story of the Good Samaritan is full of stereotypes – the priest and the Levite (a teacher of religion), were respectable people with power and privilege who could have helped but walked on by. The Samaritan was from another country, looked down on by respectable Jewish people in Jesus’ time, but willing to give generous support for the wounded person abandoned at the roadside. He wasn’t expected to be ‘good’ by those to whom Jesus told this story, so much so that the expert in law doesn’t identify him as the Samaritan but ‘The one who had mercy’ on the victim of robbery. This story would have shocked Jesus’ audience – we may have become so used to hearing it that we no longer listen to what it’s really saying.
So who are the Samaritans of our time? They include people without power and privilege whom few people expect to be good – rough sleepers, addicts, sex workers, refugees or asylum seekers, who may surprise us with selfless generosity, giving from the little they have for another person in need.
Our modern Samaritans are also those who care for the ones left by the wayside, like the Liverpool YMCA staff. Many of us, myself included, have faced our demons and tended our wounds, which gives us compassion to help others find hope for a better future. We recognise life is fragile – any of us could be person at the roadside, ‘but for the Grace of God’, as they say in the 12 Step fellowship.
The Golden Rule says ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – not less than (don’t look down on others, unless you’re helping them up!), and not more than yourself – we all need to care for ourselves so we have more to give others when they are in need. There’s no shame in seeking support – many people Liverpool YMCA has supported have got back on their feet and given what they can to help others – some have even become YMCA staff!
So who is my neighbour? There’s the challenge – it’s not only ‘the one who shows mercy’, but also the one by the roadside, the one who has power and privilege, and those closest to me, including myself. I know I have a right to be respected and cared for – I also have a responsibility to offer the same to others. Liverpool YMCA enables vulnerable adults to know they deserve a better life for themselves, helps them take responsibility for what they need to do to achieve it, and inspires them to become good neighbours in their new homes.
People may have forgotten that Liverpool has a YMCA since the charity left Mount Pleasant. Let’s not let them forget – Liverpool YMCA is an institution in which our city can justly take pride – it is growing in tough times, reaching 170 beds this year, and reaching out across Merseyside as it merges with Sefton YMCA next year. What better way to mark the 170th anniversary.
I am grateful to Mission in the Economy and Liverpool YMCA for the opportunity to support some of our city’s most marginalised people to have hope for a better future, with God’s help.