It was a magnificent evening. Over 150 people had signed up to ‘sleepout’ in the Cathedral churchyard to raise money for the ROBES Project. That is the local cold weather shelter that local churches provide in north Southwark and north Lambeth. The project covers the period from November until March, although there is on-going support during the rest of the year for those who have been our guests. The model is simple – guests arrive in time for an evening meal, settle down for the night, get up, wash and have breakfast and then leave, arriving at the next venue for the next evening. During the day workers support them in finding work and accommodation. And the ‘success’ rate, in terms of getting people off the streets and back into a more regular and stable life, is very good.
This was the fifth time that the Cathedral has hosted the ‘sleepout’ in the nine year history of the project and this was one of the best years that we have had. I haven’t got the figures but I think this was the largest number of ‘sleepers’ and in fact 80% of those taking part were first-timers. We had all been raising money, sponsorship, before hand and it was great that at the start of the evening we were able to announce that £60k had been raised. This morning we were able to announce that that figure is now £71k and rising. The good thing is that the vast majority of the funds needed for the project to run is raised on this one evening. That means that the energy of volunteers is able to go into running the project and welcoming and caring for our guests rather than raising money.
The ‘sleepout’ evening always follows the same pattern. People arrive, register and then, weather permitting, claim their pitch in the churchyard. There is then a ‘show’ in the nave of the Cathedral to entertain people before they bed down for the night.
This years we welcomed two acts. ‘Katie’s Jumping Fleas’, a ukulele band from St Albans, were paying a return visit and were fantastic. They play the kind of songs that take me back to my days at school. A highlight for me this year was a cover of Steve Harley’s track ‘Make me smile’! That made me feel as though I was back in the VIth form – not a bad feeling and lots of good accompanying memories! The second act, and we were delighted to welcome him for the first time in the Cathedral, was Jon Culshaw, the impressionist well known from ‘Dead Ringers’. He was wonderful to listen to – up-to-date enough to do a good Jeremy Corbyn yet reminding us of Dennis Healey and the many voices of Mike Yarwood. Jon was followed by another famous voice, using his own, Canon Roger Royle who was the auctioneer for the evening. He massaged a good amount of money out of the nave full of people.
So lots of entertainment to get us ready for bed but one of the features of the ‘sleepout’ is that it is held in prayer. So after Jumping Fleas and a myriad of voices we calmed down and said Compline. When people woke up at 6.00am the next morning the first thing we all did was to gather around the altar and share in the Eucharist. Then we had our sausage and bacon butties.
It was amazing to see so many people taking part, and enthusiastically taking part. It’s no joke, sleeping out all night. It had been raining hard before Compline finished, the wind was cold, the bars around the Cathedral were still busy and noisy revellers enjoying Friday evening were every where on London Bridge. The trains rumble past on the viaduct, the buses pass on and off the bridge. Sirens on police vehicles and ambulances sound all the time. The lights from buildings all around disperse the darkness and make something like an on-going day. The city doesn’t sleep and here were these sleepers trying to get some sleep. And that is what it must be like for those who don’t just do this one night of the year knowing they have a hot shower and a comfy bed to return to the next morning, who know that someone will be frying bacon and sausage to make them feel good in the morning, but who do it without any end in sight and often suffering the abuse of those who pass by on the other side.
But what was even more moving was seeing just how young the majority of those sleeping out were and to see them all coming to make their communion in the morning, with real devotion, real reverence, coming to Jesus in the Eucharist.
As Compline concludes we say
Come with the dawning of the day
and make yourself known in the breaking of the bread.
It is the cry of the people of God before they sleep and God, who is always faithful, heeds our need, recognises our hunger and ‘in broken bread and wine outpoured’ meets the need of his people.
In a world where the bad, the violent, the harsh, the frightening grab the headlines, grab our attention and make us ask the question ‘Where is God?’ I saw him in the good, the gentle, the caring, the generous, the comforting, the kind, who gave up an evening for people they might never know and did it because they do know Jesus Christ who said to those listening to him
‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25.40)
you had nowhere to lay your head,
but what a stranger gave,
may the homeless in our communities
receive the care
and welcome they need
and know the true joy of home.