My Life on the Streets

My life on the streets - Rob Ferguson
Photo credit: The Press

In 2018 Rob Ferguson reflected on his time as Durham Street Methodists’ inaugural chaplain to the StreeTs, using the three Bible readings set for that Sunday.

There have been times in the last two and a bit years of walking Christchurch’s often-munted streets when I’ve wondered what I ever thought I was doing. Sitting, watching the world go by. Watching the quite empty inner city struggle for meaning. Listening to the voices that said the city is doomed, it will never recover. Listening to the stories, often told to me with tears, of wondering how to live in this strange place. Disorientation, loneliness, anger, frustration, helplessness.

Voices at the bus stop, on the street, overheard in cafes, at business meetings, at City Council meetings, heard around tables and over coffee. Eyes avoided, sometimes sounds so quiet that it’s easy to believe you are deaf. And the sometimes wondering in me – I am so small and this sea is so wide. What are you doing?

In those moments I often heard someone in my mind reading one of my favourite Gospel stories – often titled the feeding of the 5,000. Luke 9:1-6; 10-17. [External LINK]

Mistitled, I believe, because if you listened carefully to Luke’s version, you will notice that it’s more about the failure of nerve of the disciples than anything else. They subscribed to the small boat, large sea mentality in the face of the huge crowd. And gave up rowing instantly. Too many. Too few resources. Can’t be done. Let’s go somewhere for a quiet coffee instead.

I tried that. But the coffee ceased to be quiet. In a city we always live among strangers. We are strangers ourselves to everyone else, and often I suspect to ourselves too. We need to come to grips with this. Stranger-crunching is the greatest characteristic of city life. The one that leads to both isolation, and crowd jubilation. Urban life is a dance between these extremes.

Sit anywhere in a city and look at the interactions between people. See where they don’t happen and where they do. I watched 8 men recently around a cafe table – they were communicating in sign language – I couldn’t comprehend a thing. At one point they burst into raucous laughter. I have no idea what about. But it reminded me of the often exclusive way the church operates – believing in the language of family and close community among a plethora of strangers.

We use words that are largely incomprehensible, and often without intention, we exclude. Even though our door signs say we are inclusive, and all are welcome. Saw one the other day at a church – All welcome, private car park.

To sit on a pavement, eye to eye with a streetie, having a coffee together, chatting as you do about the world, goofing off, having a good time together, gathering the strange looks and sneers of passersby is to discover a world where there’s nowhere to be but where you are, and no one to be with except whomever you are with. There’s no time. No diary full of appointments. No meetings, no cult of busyness. No programmes to invite anyone to join. No building. Nothing in fact to get in the way of being where you are. Always on other people’s turf.

It took me some time to discover the richness of all those nothings that had been my excuse for a life of ministry. StreeTs as we came to call it turns the attractional church model upside down. Deliberately. There are no KPI’s. There is no diary. There is randomness and there are people and places to explore. And inevitably after a while there are questions that occur, and curiosity. There are plaques to read which tell conflicting myths of the founding of Canterbury and the city. There are clues but no straightforwardness.

John 4:5-9 [External LINK] How then is such a strange way of life to be conducted I asked myself. By walking slowly. With eyes wide open. With ears tuned to the sounds of the city. Collecting people’s stories as they told them to me. Having fun. Finding wells to sit by all over the place. Discovering that when someone sits by a well there’s a story to be shared, and a meaning to ponder.

There’s a deep celebration of the crap of life and the great excitements of life. There is pathos, and there is humour. There are things never attended to, and other things with too much attention. There is always a continuum.

Context is never a place it’s a perception. You don’t need a map, you simply need a compass. And always there are wells with folk sitting beside them who will teach us stuff if we simply are, and if we have no thing to offer but our time and our attention. StreeTs is about those ways of being above all else. Ministry without props, nothing to hide behind. Ourselves is all we need.

A woman is standing by the chairs installation near the temporary cathedral. She is gently crying. I stand nearby and as she turns to go I asked her if she was looking for somewhere in particular. She wanted to see the other cathedral – the ruins. I’ll walk with you I said, and we talked. She talked about the sadnesses in her life and the cathartic way being here has triggered unbidden tears. She was from up north.

A barista puts my coffee down. She knows what I drink because I have made a habit of going to that place often. She knows I am a street walker. We often joke about that. Got the streets cleaned up yet, she often asks. Not his time. She puts the coffee down and says quietly, I need to talk to you about my father.

A streetie I have got to know well is missing for several weeks from his spot. I ask his companion what’s happened to him. He died I’m told. Really? That’s sad I say. Nah mate. Comes to us all some day. Fact of life. Get over it. Turned out Sam hadn’t died. He just hadn’t used his phone for 3 weeks. There are many ways of dying I guess.

I watch as the new Hoyts site is being prepared for building. It opened on Friday. The machinery remediating the ground, screwing in piles, is amazing. A guy watches with me. Turns out he’s the site manager. See that, he says. We could build this whole building with hardly any people. Could probably almost totally automate the building process. And I glimpse an uncomfortable future.

I photograph the city, and I ask questions of it. The city gives up it’s life for its citizens. The people are what makes a city, living in a particular environment.

Revelation 2:1-2 [External LINK] The river is the umbilical cord of this post-colonial place – a place of confused myths of origin, and confused, shaken, disoriented citizens. Hesitating to return to the inner city because the landmarks of their life are no longer there. A place with world-wide connections; a place of local points of view. Raw beauty in spring, and raw hands in winter. This is the place where the congregation offers sacramental living – showing forth a deep life of beyond our frail humanness. The river with its trout and eels, its whitebait and its weed, flows quietly to the sea. It’s a symbol of life that all who live here treasure. I watch people sit by it and refresh their tired spirits. I watch the gentleness of it, and listen to its sounds. And I am reminded of a guy on an island many centuries ago writing of a river of life and healing trees. And I see it every day.

The last two and a bit years have been an extraordinary privilege. Every day a surprise. Aware of the Godness at the centre of life, and the quiet assurance of companionship – breaking bread is more than crumbs. I’ve learned some stuff: Walk gently lest you disturb what’s there. Listen with deep intent because all we hear is valuable. Collect the stories, ponder their significance. Challenge the crap, discern the bullshit. Don’t worry about what will happen, for then something surprising will come along. Be ready to be curious. Learn to be still in the midst of noise and activity. Know yourself. And occasionally, very occasionally, speak gently the truth of what you know.

May the God who is with us walk with you, alongside you, and meet you around the next corner of your life.

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