Anne M Jones shares her experience of finding hope and joy in places of outward desolation and oppression
The annual remembrance service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London for homeless people who have died on the street was held on 8 November. The church was packed to capacity with people from all walks of life, including many homeless.
Four speakers quietly read out the names of all the known 169, each adding more detail about the lives, personalities and quirks. Tears, if not already behind our eyes, began falling when we were told of the one who had been impossible to identify, even after a police search through paperwork. A poem was read by a woman moved to compose a modern psalm to this man who had died on an abandoned mattress in an alleyway.
The song ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ had a special place in this service. It was played from its original recording – a slightly cracked voice singing passionately: ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.’
It was made in 1971 by Gavin Bryars, a young filmmaker working among the down-and-outs around Waterloo, then taken back to his rooms in Oxford where he developed an orchestration around the main theme. It is haunting and profoundly moving, and was played by a small instrumental group. I first heard it at least a decade ago, at a time when I was still caught up in the conventional world of work. Then, the word ‘failed’ might automatically be associated with homelessness, in contrast with the ‘success’ of home ownership. At the time, I dismissed the song, because I did not comprehend the hope that lay behind those words. However, I have since learned to re-frame ‘success’, not least because of working in the Calais Jungle and with homeless people in London. I have also been inspired by writers such as Dorothy Day, who worked fearlessly among the poor.
In her book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, the activist Dorothee Soelle writes: ‘Mystical jubilation lies hidden in everything… and produces beauty.’ She reminds us of the words of saint Francis: ‘It is the devil’s greatest triumph when he can deprive us of the joy of the spirit.’ She says: ‘Francis… flees from the joylessness… and dullness and all-embracing sadness that takes away our ability to feel.’
In St Martin’s, ‘never failed me yet’ brought realisation of the depth of hope and joy I have found in places of outward desolation and oppression; places that teach one so much about how much people like me can learn from being in the presence of the dispossessed.
The service was organised by St Martin-in-the-Fields; The Connection, which arranges support services for homeless people across London; and Housing Justice, the national voice of Christian action in the same field. During the service, each member of the congregation was handed a card bearing the name of a person who had died homeless during the past year. I looked at the name inscribed upon my card and wondered who he was, how old he was and where he came from. I shall keep this card, a reminder to constantly keep my mind open to new understandings, as well as doing what I can towards contributing to improving the lives of the homeless.
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