I watched them coming down the road, a sad trail of folk in the constant drizzle.
First there was Julie. She stopped for a chat. She had recently moved to the area when she left her partner. He had been beating her up over many years and she’d had enough, and got out. Trouble was, he was still after her. A neighbour in the downstairs flat had recognised her and phoned him to tell him where she was. He had come straight round and was knocking on her door. She was so afraid. And he had told her exactly what he was going to do, just what he was going to do to her. So she stayed in the flat as much as possible. She was too scared to go out much. She couldn’t relax. The threat of violence hung over her all the time.
Then there was George. He asked for food. He told me he had a partner and three children. I gave him the red voucher that he could take to the foodbank. That would be a lot of food for five people. It was only later I realised that he had deceived me. He lived on his own, and had spun me a story about his family so that he could get more food. And his claim to have had his benefits sanctioned was yet another story. In reality, he would rather spend his money on drink and drugs than on food. When he got free food, there was more Diamond White. I learnt I had to ask for proof when people said that benefits had been stopped and about the size of family. Nevertheless, his life was messed up. You could say it was his own fault, and, yes, there’s truth in that, but I never did find out what had driven him to drink in the first place – what was the pain he had to paper over with pills. Later, I heard that he had been evicted from his house because he had caused such damage.
Constance shuffled along the road with her walker. She was glad to stop for a chat. She told me all about her John who died four years ago. They hadn’t quite made their diamond jubilee. It wasn’t always the best or happiest of marriages, she admitted. He had been faithful and he hadn’t laid a hand on her, but he was often more preoccupied with his pigeons than with her and the family. She missed having someone around, someone to bicker with. It was all the memories they shared, everything they had been through together – that’s what she missed. She thought about him every day. Her son and daughter had moved away. They had their own lives, and didn’t come home very often. She barely knew her grandchildren. Her daughter phoned every Saturday afternoon, and that phone call kept her going. Friends had died or they were stuck in care homes. Truth was, she was lonely. Nothing to do, no one to talk to.
Zac really did have five children, one in the pushchair and rest straggling behind, his partner Ashley, trying to keep control from the back. They had furnished the new flat from Bright House and couldn’t keep up with the payments. The beds would be taken away next week. Money was always a problem. There was never enough. And the benefit cap was a nightmare. And it was coming up to school holidays, which meant extra pressure. In term `time, the oldest ones got lunch at school. There was nothing for them in the holidays. He had tried to get a job. But when he was at school, they hadn’t realised he had dyslexia and he ended up with no qualifications. And then he had been mugged, which left him with injuries and huge anxiety.
There was another woman. I didn’t get her name. She wanted to tell me what was wrong with the world. It started with unhappiness with the government, the council and British Gas. Then she grumbled about her neighbours and the noisy children, and the way they used to kick balls at her back gate deliberately. After that, it was her family, and the sister she wouldn’t talk to any more because of a deep held grievance going back decades. I didn’t get a word in edgeways. She was angry, but didn’t know it; her anger was buried deep – such a heavy weight inside her.
What could I do? I listened. I let them talk it out. I gave out food vouchers, and kept a few emergency supplies for those who were desperate. I prayed for them. That was probably the most important thing. I carried them on my heart, but they didn’t always want me to keep in touch. I wanted them to know that Jesus loved them, each one of them, with all their hurts and struggles, that Jesus was saying to them – and to us, all of us –
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.