Sunday 30 September 2018

Walled City

Crossing the Line - part 25

Walled City in 1988
Two things strike everyone who went to Walled City.  It is always dark and it always rains. 

One of its nick-names in Cantonese is Haak-nan which means darkness.  It was always dark at ground level because the buildings lean together at the top, allowing no natural light to permeate to the alleys between.  Then just above head height in the alleyways were a mass of tangled pipes; pirated electricity, water, and phone cables.  Pipes leaked, and waste water was thrown out of windows along with bags of rubbish.  The water then dripped its way through the rubbish and cables to the alleys and the open sewers which ran through them.  There was no sanitation system and even in the 1980’s there were only a handful of public standpipes with clean water for a community of 50,000 people. 

Walking through the maze of passageways was always an experience, especially when you add the rats which ran at will around your feet and sewer spiders as big as your hand.  Bobby led me in.  In an instant we went from blue skies and sunshine to a murky underworld past makeshift shops, and units preparing ‘dim sum’ for restaurants in the street around Walled City.  Alongside the drug dens, brothels and gambling houses, there were tens of thousands of residents simply trying to eke a living.  He took me in through the closest entrance to our meeting room and I tried to remember the turnings which led us there.  Right, left, right turns and then a dog leg into the passageway which led to the entrance.  He told me to be careful on the duck-boards beneath our feet. “You don’t want to fall into that!” he said pointing towards the sound of gurgling liquid not far below. 

Our meeting room was a haven of light, love and prayer.  Light shone out through the door as we arrived to find that there were already about 20 people there.  Some were helpers and brothers who now inspired others; others were addicts looking for help.

They came because they heard that there was a god called Jesus who helped heroin addicts.

The entrance to our meeting room
I found two wonderful ironies in this.

First, I was always struck by the image of Jesus as god of the heroin addicts.  It is so different to a sanitised western picture of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, floating on a Sunday school fuzzy felt board.  If we really read the Gospels of course, we find a very different image.  Homeless at his birth, his family were forced into exile as refugee asylum seekers; he was brought up in obscurity until his presence, teachings and example sent shock-waves across respectable religious society; he was often criticised for spending too much time eating with ‘sinners and outcasts’; often at odds with those who knew about religion, politics and power until his brutal death on a cross.  Yet somehow we have given him flowing wavy hair and beard, perfectly conditioned and styled, and a pristine white robe – hardly realistic for the Son of Man who had no-where to lay his head on the dusty roads of Palestine.  All too often in the West we have made him god of the middle classes, but here he was god of the heroin addicts!

Second, was the way in which this god called Jesus drew people who needed help to Walled City. The place of darkness had become the place of light and healing for addicts from across the whole colony.  The place which had acted as a magnate for those wanting to buy drugs had now also become the place where those enslaved to heroin came to find faith and healing.  What wonderful redemption.

Darkness in the middle of the day
When Jackie first came to Hong Kong in the 1960’s Walled City was at its most violent and dangerous.  In those days, one of the first tasks of the day was to throw out the bodies of those who had died the previous night from drugs, violence and natural causes.  By the 1980’s it was undoubtedly a much safer place to be, and those who were with ‘Poon Siuje’ (Jackie’s Cantonese name) shared the safe-status which she had earned over the years.  Only once during my time there was there any palpable danger when one local triad leader flew into a drug-fuelled rage and threatened to kill any ‘pale devils’ (westerners) who crossed his path.  Those of us who were westerners in The Well that day were taken out of Walled City one my one, surrounded by a scrum of Chinese brothers so no-one could have got near us, even if we were spotted.  But that was the exception and it all blew over in a couple of days.

Nevertheless, Walled City retained its reputation.  When Peter, a member of my parents’ church in Sutton came over to Hong Kong as guest of the Chief of Police, I offered to take him to the outreach meeting in Walled City.  His host was horrified and said that he could not allow this – it would be much too dangerous for a guest of the Hong Kong government.  When Peter insisted he wanted to go, the Chief of Police felt he had no option but to arrange a trip around the harbour on a Chinese junk with the promise that he would be back in time.  Needless to say, he found himself miles from shore at the time we had arranged to meet with no way of getting to land!

Later in my year there I was given a job to do in Walled City each Wednesday.  I was given the keys to the meeting room and asked to unlock and clean it before the meeting started.  That meant walking across the duck-boards above the sewers alone in the darkness, feeling for the padlocks and bolts to open the door; then reaching my hand around the corner to the light switch and flinching as the lights flickered on, causing the spiders, rats and cockroaches the scatter before my eyes.  Then I would sweep up the dead ones, disinfect the floor, and make the room ready to welcome everyone.  Those of you who know my fear of spiders may not be surprised to know that this was by far the scariest thing I had to face in Walled City!  Nevertheless, being entrusted with the keys to the meeting room in Walled City is possibly the greatest honour I have ever been given, and through it I learned to overcome my fears.

Prayer ministry in Walled City
Back in the meeting, as each new addict arrived they were not preached at or told what to believe.  They were simply gathered up in prayer, with brothers and helpers asking the Holy Spirit to fill their empty lives with God’s love and power.  I quickly became aware that this prayer was almost invariably answered within minutes.  Here were tough triad members, addicted to heroin who were being visibly filled with the Holy Spirit.  Most spoke in tongues within a few minutes, receiving a prayer language as naturally as drinking from a cup.  Experience of God was taken for granted in Hong Kong.  This was no theoretical theology of the mind.  Pained faces melted into smiles or released tears of healing and joy.  Addicts high on heroin spoke in tongues before they knew what speaking in tongues was.   Gentle prophecies gave encouragement to those being prayed with and even those who had tried and failed before were used by God to bring this outpouring of his presence into the lives of new brothers.  They came with nothing and received the riches of God’s grace.

From the moment we arrived I was encouraged to join in.  There was no room for passengers in Walled City meetings.  If you were there, you were there either to be ministered to, or to minister to others.  Joining a small group praying with a young man, I prayed in tongues for him.   Given the language barrier and my lack of experience, I had little idea what to pray for, so entrusting my prayers to the Holy Spirit was the most natural thing in the world to do.

Worshipping together in Walled City
After about an hour, there were about 40 people crammed into the room and the formal part of the meeting began with worship songs.  I knew many of the songs although singing them in Cantonese was a skill which took time to acquire.  The song books had three versions of each song – Chinese characters, English and ‘romanized’ Chinese, where the Cantonese was expressed phonetically in the western alphabet.  After about 30 minutes of worship, there was a bible reading and message which Jackie gave. Then more prayer ministry, with everyone ministering to each other rather than queuing up for the ‘experts’.  It was remarkable. The whole meeting took 2-3 hours but the time flew by.

At the end of my first meeting I was introduced to Deri and Chen (both English helpers at Tai Tam, the First Stage House I was bound for) and Tony, a Chinese brother who was translating for them.  They had a new brother with them too.  He had been coming to Walled City meetings regularly for some time and now he was ready to come into a house and come off drugs.  He was both excited and apprehensive, having tried to come off heroin several times before but always failing.  “This time Jesus help me” he said, in broken English with a nervous smile.  “Before, no Jesus. This time, Jesus.”

Leaving Walled City I found that the sun had set and it was now night-time.  We all ate noodles at one of the street cafes outside Walled City, transferred my luggage to their minibus and began the drive over to Tai Tam.

Deri (left)
Chen was a few years younger than me.  Deri was a few years older and in charge of the First Stage House at Tai Tam.  Most of the ministry leaders at St Stephens Society were women.  This wasn’t some kind of reverse sexism.  It was simply that for the brothers, it was easier to be challenged by a woman than a man.  With men, there was always the risk of an authority clash, and some of our brothers had been senior Triad members who were used to telling others what to do.  They often found it difficult to be told what to do by a man.  Ego and the risk of losing face were high stakes for any self-respecting Chinese man.  Any confrontation with another man could involve someone losing face whereas being challenged by a woman did not carry such risks, especially if done with a smile.  In time I learned that male helpers like me had to be twice as gentle as women to gain trust and respect, which was completely counter-intuitive to my 25 year-old male macho mind!

We drove through the Cross Harbour Tunnel to Hong Kong Island and along the coastal highway past Causeway Bay, Tai Koo Shing, and on to Chai Wan.  There the multi-lane dual carriageway and the street lighting ended and we climbed the twisting road into the mountains. As we started to go down the other side I could see reservoirs glinting in the moonlight and shortly after crossing a dam wall, turned off onto a single track road down to sea level again.

We arrived at the Tai Tam around 10pm and all was quiet apart from the noise of the crickets. With the sea on one side, and jungle on the other, this wasn’t quite what I had imagined for life in Hong Kong.  This was to be my new home.

Sunday 23 September 2018

Touch Down

Crossing the Line - part 24 

Flying into Hong Kong in the 1980’s was always a striking introduction to the colony.

The only airport was Kai Tak whose runway was a narrow strip of concrete built out into Victoria Harbour.

If the wind was from the South or East, the pilot would, quite literally aim the plane at a large orange and white chequerboard painted onto a cliff.  The automatic landing system would guide the aeroplane directly  towards this rock face until the plane reached an altitude of little more than 500 feet, at which point the pilot had to take manual control, bank sharply to the right and look for the runway.  Having located the finger of land jutting out into the sea, the pilot would then have less than 30 seconds to line up with the runway, level the wings and touchdown.  Passengers on the right hand side of the plane could, quite literally see people eating rice or noodles or watching television in apartment blocks as the plane banked over.

For my first flight into Hong Kong the wind was blowing the other direction so I was spared this.  Landing from the ocean side was not without excitement though, as the only thing passengers could see beneath the plane was sea until the very last second before touchdown, when the runway finally came into view and the wheels hit the concrete.  While I was in Hong Kong, one China Airlines plane landed in a squall from this direction and slid off the runway into the harbour.  Flying into Hong Kong was regarded as one of the most challenging airports in the world for pilots until it was replaced by a new one in 1998.

It was a warm and sunny winter’s day when I flew into Kai Tak with my luggage and guitar.

Joining Jackie Pullinger’s work at St Stephen’s Society was a great honour, and I knew that there would be challenging times ahead.  The most prominent part of their ministry was with heroin addicts in the British colony, of whom there were many thousands but St Stephen’s Society also worked with all the poor of Hong Kong.  They fed the street-sleepers and set prostitutes free, providing men and women with a home, food and hope through practical ministry, prayer and a church where everyone was welcome.

The week before I arrived, they held a lunch for street sleepers and catered for 300.  When the time came, more than double that number arrived and the kitchen were more than a little worried.  There was nothing they could do with the food – they had already prepared everything that they had.  So they prayed and started to serve the food to the waiting crowd.  In a scene reminiscent of the feeding of the 5,000 everyone was fed and they ended up with plenty left over.

For those who don’t know, Hong Kong was established as a British Colony specifically to support the trade in opium during the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.  British trading companies shipped in opium from India to sell in Canton and when the Emperor reacted to the enslaving of their people into drug addiction by banning the trade, Britain went to war to defend it. After winning the 1st Opium War, the treaties which followed ceded Hong Kong Island and then the Kowloon peninsula to Britain in perpetuity as a military base from which we could further our greed and protect our colonial drug dealers.  In 1898, the New Territories were added on a 99 year lease, including over 200 islands and expanding the colony to over five times its original size.  Not exactly a glorious part of British history.

Jackie Pullinger had already been in Hong Kong for 20 years and the strategy for heroin addicts was simple.  Introduce heroin addicts to Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit; then pray them off heroin and help them build a new life.  Over the years Jackie had seen many heroin addicts come off heroin by concentrated prayer and the healing power of the Holy Spirit without the usual pain or cravings which withdrawal brings.

Their outreach at that time was focused on the Walled City, a lawless anomaly which housed around 50,000 people in a little over 6 acres and was run by various Triad gangs (China’s version of the mafia).  Until the treaty was completed between the UK and China for the handing back of Hong Kong to China in 1997, neither side governed the enclave.  Diplomatically it was still part of China and so any police action there would have been seen as an act of aggression by China.  The ancient walls had long gone, replaced by precarious blocks of flats up to 12 floors high which leaned together at the top like a house of cards.  In the legal vacuum, the Triads flourished and it became a mecca for drug dens, brothels and gambling, as well as unregistered doctors, dentists and those fleeing the law.  Jackie lived in Walled City and had a small meeting room which provided a place for prayer, worship and hope every Wednesday and Saturday.

Beyond that, there were two ‘Frist Stage Houses’ in more rural areas of Hong Kong where addicts came to withdraw from heroin and lived for several months, growing in their new lives as Christians. When ready, they then went to Hang Fook Camp which housed the main base for the ministry and where the church met for Sunday Services.  Here ex-addicts would work out what to do with their lives; find work, return to their families, or join the continuing ministry of St Stephens.

I was met at the airport by two western helpers from St Stephen’s Society.  They had big smiles on their faces and made me feel welcome.  We put my luggage in the van and they drove me through the busy Hong Kong streets to Hang Fook Camp for my introduction into life and work there. 

The camp was a former refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people.  It consisted of rows of wooden huts with metal roofs, a makeshift sanitation system, together with a large central kitchen and meeting place.  When the mass-migration from Vietnam started to slow, the camp was no longer needed for refugees and the Hong Kong government offered it to Jackie for her work with heroin addicts and the poor.  It was located in Cheung Sha Wan, a mixed industrial and residential area in Kowloon and it became a focal point for Jackie’s ministry.  Her church met there on Sundays and the kitchens produced food for both residents and street sleepers.  In addition to providing accommodation to a community of around 100 people, there was a small T-shirt factory where some of the brothers worked, a vegetable garden, sports area, and the office for St Stephen’s Society.

Arriving at the camp, I met Jackie almost immediately – by coincidence not design.  I don’t know who was more taken aback.  For my part, I was in awe of her.  For hers, she saw my long hair first, and was worried.  Long hair on men was not an acceptable part of Chinese male culture then and as I learned later, could provoke irrational negative reactions among the brothers.  After a brief conversation however, she concluded that I would be OK.  Apparently, there was something in my eyes.

It was now early evening and I joined the community for food, eaten together around large communal tables with rice and various communal dishes shared and devoured at speed, particularly for a chop-stick novice.  I met some of the brothers (ex-addicts) and tried to understand snippets of conversation where I could.  Then I spent a while playing guitar with John To (who later married Jackie).  John had come off heroin some years ago and was the main worship leader for the camp and church. He wasn’t that impressed with my guitar skills, but then I had a lot to learn and I knew it.  Worship songs flowed at Hang Fook Camp in an effortless way which required both spiritual discernment and the musical ability to move from one song to another without written music in front of you to tell you what to do.  Although I was ok at playing guitar with music, this was beyond me and I wasn’t at my best after the long journey.  Later in the year we would lead worship together every other Sunday but that’s another story.

Around 9pm, I was shown to a bunk bed in the huts and advised to get some sleep for the next day, but I couldn’t sleep.  I was far too excited and jet lag hadn’t hit me yet.

By 10pm I had got dressed again, left the camp and began to walk.  Heading back towards the Kowloon peninsula I walked the 3 miles to the Star Ferry opposite Hong Kong Island, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of this new continent.  I was mesmerised.  Everything was different.  The huge housing blocks, the flyovers, the street vendors and street sleepers in their box-homes under bridges and roads; the lights, the skyscrapers, the constant sound of traffic, ships and people, even in the early hours.  It was intoxicating.  As I stood at the end of the Star Ferry pier, I could see Hong Kong’s spectacular skyline across the water and feel the warm breeze of the ocean.

Arriving back at Hang Fook Camp about 3am, I finally got some sleep.

I don’t really know what I expected for the following day.  Perhaps a gentle introduction to routine life in camp?  Perhaps a few days to acclimatise?  I certainly didn’t expect to be entrusted with anything significant for a while.  I was a novice rookie in a brave new world.

What I didn’t expect was to be thrown in at the deep end.

Bobby at Hang Fook Camp
That morning, Bobby was assigned as my mentor for the day.  He was a lovely, gentle American with a wicked sense of humour who had served in Vietnam during the war and had been with St Stephens Society for some time.  He introduced himself and took me out to brunch at the American CafĂ© on Hong Kong Island.  He showed me how to use the MTR (Hong Kong’s underground) and told me the plan. 

I wasn’t going to stay at Hang Fook Camp.  I had been assigned to live and work at Tai Tam – the first stage house on the far side of Hong Kong Island.  To get there, I would be going to the Walled City meeting that afternoon where I would meet Deri who was in charge of Tai Tam, and then travel back with her and a new brother.

Now I was amazed.  The first stage houses were where new bothers came off heroin with nothing but prayer for support.  Along with Walled City, they were the sharp end of the ministry.  What were they doing, letting a rookie like me anywhere near this hallowed ground?  Bobby just smiled and said “You’ll be fine.”

After going back to Hang Fook Camp to collect my guitar and luggage, Bobby drove me to Walled City for the meeting.  I saw the blocks of concrete flats leaning together at the top because they had no foundations.  I saw the darkened alleyways which acted as gateways and streets.

Less than 24 hours after landing, I was led into one of the most notorious places on earth.  There was no going back now.

Sunday 9 September 2018

I had a dream

Crossing the Line - part 23

The final piece of the puzzle during that year in London was to find a church to go to.

I moved into my friends’ house in Corbyn Street, Finsbury Park on a Saturday and was looking forward to finding a lively church to join.  I had no idea where this would be, but I did notice an old, rather grubby looking Anglican church in the next street.  Ok I thought, I’ll go there tomorrow and then find somewhere more exciting next Sunday.

Then the strangest thing happened.  That night I had a dream.  I was walking into a church I didn’t know.  As I walked in, I saw that the pews had been taken out of the back half of the church and replaced them with second-hand sofas, easy chairs, carpets and cushions.  There was a small music group practising at the front and a warm welcome from the people I met.   When I woke up, I thought ‘That would be nice but where am I going to find a church like that?’ 

I think you can guess the rest.

When I walked into St Saviours, Handley Road that morning, I found a church with the pews taken out of the back half of the church, replaced with second-hand sofas, easy chairs, carpets and cushions.  There was a small music group practising at the front and a warm welcome from the people I met!  I was absolutely astounded.  Before I knew it, I was invited to lunch after the service and I knew that God was telling me that this was the church he was leading me to.  The congregation was quite small, and the elderly vicar was not the most dynamic person I had ever met, but I started to realise that this was God’s choice for me. 

I met some lovely people there.  There were Simon and Pauline who invited me to lunch that first day; Joy who led the music group; Jeanette who was a journalist and was planning to launch a Christian arts magazine.   Then there was the Vicar, Tony and his wife, but more about them later.

One of my hopes for the year was to find out what it was like to be part of a church without a ready-made role, while juggling the demands of work, friends and faith. 

That might sound a bit pompous but I had never had the chance to be an ordinary church member of a normal church.  As a child I had always been the vicar’s kid.  University churches are hardly ‘normal’ and I was the strange evangelical in an Anglo-Catholic shrine.  Then I had been the Youth Worker in Haddenham.  I always had a label.

Now I had the chance to start afresh where I didn’t know anyone and no-one knew me.  I could choose what I got involved in.  I could join the struggle to establish a balanced work/church/social life without any aspect overbalancing the rest. 

It was easier said than done.  I did join the church music group and a home group but at the same time, I found that dispatch riding was exhausting.   I had to be in bed by 10pm each night during the week because I couldn’t afford to risk being overtired when riding around London all day at speed.  I often didn’t get home from work until around 7pm and it would take me an hour to get cleaned up and/or dried out.  Often I was too tired to go out again.  What is more, if the last job of the day took me to the opposite end of London (or the country) that meant cancelling plans at short notice.  Juggling these competing demands is a good experience for a future vicar, and one worth remembering.  That is how many working people in churches live.

Even with all these limitations, I was made welcome at St Saviours and supported in a way which showed me what a good church should be.  I saw and received lots of acts of kindness and there were things to get involved with, as and when I could. 

The music group which led the singing was fun, if a little chaotic at times and I contributed as and when I was able.

Jeanette asked me if I would like to review a film for her new magazine.  I found myself in a press preview of the film in Soho, hosted in a luxurious cinema studio alongside people who reviewed films for a living!  I had come straight from work and was dressed in my biker gear.  To say I looked out of place would be an understatement, but I wrote the review and it was published in the first edition.  The film (Almost You) wasn’t a blockbuster and was definitely not my kind of film, but the whole experience was fun!

At work, I never shouted about my faith, but I didn’t hide it either. As I got to know the other riders, they got to know me too.  In time they found out that I was going to be a priest.  Their reaction was fascinating.  Each one said they thought it was fantastic but then promised not to tell anyone else out of concern that I would be ridiculed.  Eventually, one of the radio controllers found out, and he thought he would have some fun with this unusual information at my expense.  He called me up on the radio and with a huge sarcastic laugh he announced to over 100 riders that I was going to be a priest.  Thinking he could then milk this and get some more laughs at my expense, he called up the toughest rider he could think of.  “What do you think of that?” he asked.  The riders couldn’t hear the reply because of the way the radio system worked but it silenced the controller.  Later I discovered that he had responded by saying that he already knew and thought it was terrific that we had a man of God out on a bike.  He wished me all the very best.

That night in the pub, I had rider after rider coming over to ask me about my faith and what had made me decide to be a vicar.  It was such a privilege.

Then in church, there was another incredible coincidence.

By the time I arrived in London, I already knew what I wanted to do in a final year out before going to Theological College.  I wanted to go abroad, to live in a different culture and an amazing opportunity came up. 

My life-long friend Chris, had been to Hong Kong and spent some time working with Jackie Pullinger.  Jackie’s work with heroin addicts and the poor was famous all over the Christian world.  She lived in the notorious and lawless Walled City – a diplomatic anomaly governed by neither the British nor the Chinese.  In the vacuum which resulted it was run by the Triads – the Chinese mafia.  Jackie had already lived and worked there for around 20 years, praying addicts off heroine without the usual pain & discomfort and offering prostitutes an alternative to exploitation.  Her book “Chasing the Dragon” was an international best seller and essential reading for all Charismatic Christians.

So when Chris came back and said to me, “You should go Benny!”  I thought he was joking.  How on earth could I go to Hong Kong and work with Jackie Pullinger?

In fact, it turned out to be quite simple.  All I had to do was write a letter to Jackie, tell her a bit about me & about why I wanted to join the ministry, and then wait for a reply.  Much to my amazement, the answer was yes.

And the coincidence?  

Back in St Saviours Church in Handley Road, I discovered that Tony, my vicar had been a missionary in southern China for 30 years before coming to Finsbury Park.  His wife was Chinese and they spoke fluent Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Hong Kong. To top it all, he offered to teach me the basics of Cantonese before I went!

I think the word is God-incidence, not co-incidence. 

For 6 months I would go to the Vicarage, early one morning each week and Tony patiently taught this very slow student the fundamentals of a tonal language where the same word could mean vastly different things if said in the wrong pitch!  He would not accept any payment and while I found it hugely difficult, he patiently helped me prepare for one of the most significant years of my life.

There is one more act of kindness which shines out in my mind. 

In those days I had long hair.  When it was wet and straight it went most of the way down my back. On a motorbike, I gathered it into a pony tail which would flail about wildly below my crash helmet as I sped along.  Keeping it knot free got harder and harder as the year went on.  Before I left to go to Hong Kong, I was concerned that my long hair might raise a few eyebrows in a Chinese culture but I didn’t want to cut it short.  Pauline from church offered to tidy it up for me and I turned up at her home one afternoon for an hour to get it done.

Soon after Pauline started to comb through the mass hair, she made a disturbing discovery. High up in my pony tail was an enormous clump of knotted hair buried deep down near my hairline.  It was about the size of a plumb.  It was in an area I found hard to reach, and slowly over the year, it had grown and grown.  The obvious and easiest thing would be to cut it off, but that would mean having a short back and sides!  So Pauline spent the next four hours painstaking loosening the knot with olive oil one strand at a time.  Her husband Simon produced tea, coffee and food at regular intervals and we chatted about everything and nothing until the knot was no more.  I will always remember that afternoon; the kindness and gentleness they showed me and the smooth tangle free pony tail which resulted.

Reflecting on all this makes me think about what makes a good church.  It’s not the size of the congregation or the reputation of the clergy.  It’s not the quality of the preaching, the music, or the relevance of the services.  More important than all of these things is the love which churches show to those whose paths cross it.  St Saviours did not have all the trappings of a ‘popular’ church when I was there, but it brought together the love of God with the humanity of kindness in a powerful mixture of incarnation – God with us.

This is what real church is.

Alongside the excitement of riding my bike around London that year, I leaned about the beauty of an ordinary church in north London and its amazing people; about the challenge of balancing work, faith and friends in the way most of our church members have to.  In retrospect, I wish I had learned the lessons more deeply, but it was a start and now a new challenge lay ahead.

I didn’t know it, but the year I was about to start in Hong Kong was to be the most significant year of my entire life.  It fundamentally changed my understanding of God and people.  It honed and redirected my sense of ministry and calling for the next 20 years.  Through those changes I would later meet my wife in the most unlikely of places and we would raise a family.

As the plane took of from Heathrow, I was excited and a little nervous, but I had no idea of the extent to which the next nine months would change my life.  Twelve hours later a new world awaited - challenging, invigorating, and beyond my dreams.

God can use all kinds of ways of guiding us to where he wants us to be.  Dreams, visions, prophecies are all part of his tool kit, but sometimes he simply wants us to try.  To see a need or an opportunity and push the door.  It was a dream which took me to St Saviours Church in Finsbury Park, but a simple letter of enquiry which took me to Hong Kong.

I wonder how many things we miss in life because we a waiting for a sign?  There were no heavenly neon arrows which pointed me to Hong Kong, and yet it laid the foundation for my life and ministry for many years to come.

Monday 3 September 2018

On your bike

Crossing the Line - part 22

My second year out before training for ordination turned out to be a real adventure.

My ambitions for the year were actually quite low.  I wanted to do a 9-5 job, live in a normal house in a normal street, and go to church on Sundays just like other people but the choice of job made it an adventure! 

While working in Haddenham, I fulfilled a long-time dream and bought my first motorbike – a Honda 125 Superdream.   After teaching myself to ride it in the car park behind the bike shop in Oxford and almost killing myself on the A40 in High Wycombe, I got some proper lessons.  A few months later, I passed my bike test, not far from that spot where I had previously come off the bike and slid down the middle of the road for 50 yards, narrowly avoiding a stream of oncoming traffic! 

I then bought a brand new Honda VT500 and knew exactly what job I wanted – to be a Motorbike Despatch Rider in London. 

The fact that I had never lived in London and didn’t know the West End from the Square Mile made no difference.  I was going to do it.  It was fast moving, more than a little dangerous, and in my mind, more than a little romantic!   Whizzing in and out of the London traffic to collect that vital letter or parcel before zooming to its destination where an anxious customer eagerly awaited delivery.  Ok, so my vision didn’t live up to the reality, but the picture was enough for me.

A home was easy to find.  Most of my friends from university had progressed to London and two of them, Anne and Natalie, had just bought a house in Finsbury Park with a spare room to rent.  We had been in the same student house in Oxford so we knew we got on well, and they became the very closest of my lifetime friends.

Getting a job was easy too.  This was the time before the internet, emails, and mobile phones. Bikes were the standard means of express delivery for documents, artwork, and small parcels. For many companies in the West End and the City, it added to their kudos if they could bike things over instantly.  For a few years it was almost compulsory!  There were bike despatch firms all over the place, and I was spoilt for choice.
I rang up a few companies and got a couple of interviews.  Ironically when I went to one interview, I ended up in totally the wrong place!  I mistakenly walked into another firm on the same road as the one I was meant to be at, and said I was there to be interviewed.  The guy behind the desk looked confused, but asked me a few questions and then offered me a job on the spot with a guaranteed minimum pay of £400 per week. Despatch riders got paid piece work for each item they delivered, so the promise of a minimum wage was staggering.  I said I’d think about it, walked outside and then saw the office for the company I should have gone to!  To be offered a job on the spot after going to the wrong address is hilarious, but that just shows how intense the demand was.

In the end I said yes to a job with Addison Lee.  They were a big firm with over 100 riders at the time and more importantly they had two radio channels – one for their professional riders and a training channel for rookies.  I definitely qualified for that one.  The radio network was the only real means of communication in the despatch world so a good channel was at the heart of any operation.

The first three months were the hardest; getting used to being out in all weathers for 9 or 10 hours a day, finding my way around London in an age before satnavs, and trying not to get knocked off the bike.  But I learned quickly and passed my test to join the professional riders’ channel.  

This was a huge step up. On the training channel, a radio controller would keep track of where you were and feed you jobs to complete.  On the professional channel the controller would call out the work available and each rider had to bid for each job.  You had to know which street you were in, all the adjoining streets and know if a pick-up was within ¼ mile of you before you could even bid for work!  Jobs came out thick and fast so you had to be quick on the radio as well as quick on your bike.

It was then that I started to get to know the other riders. The professional riders didn’t really talk to you for the first three months, because they didn’t know if you were going to stay, get injured, or give up when it rained every day for a week.   As I started to get to know my workmates I began to realise what a bizarre group we were.

Most interviews for despatch riders were just two questions long:
·         Question 1:  Do you have a motorbike?
·         Question 2: (if it was a reputable company) Do you have a driving licence?

As a result all kinds of people who didn’t really want questions about their past became despatch riders. 

We had one guy who used to supply sawn-off shotguns for armed robberies, until he got nicked and spent time in prison.  When he got out, every time a bank or post office got robbed, the police would turn up at his door to look for evidence that he had supplied the weapons.  He needed a new career so he became to despatch rider. 

Then there was Dave – on the one hand, a heavily tattooed skinhead and member of the National Front, and on the other, the nicest softly spoken guy you could spend an evening with. (I am not defending the National Front, by the way!)

And there was Ian who became a close friend.  He was a lovable rogue who lived in a very well appointed squat on the other side of Finsbury Park.  Ian drunk too much and used almost any drug which was on offer at the time.  This was particularly tragic as he had already spent time in prison for manslaughter after he and his first wife injected each other and she died of an overdose.

Not everyone had a shady past or present. 

Paul used to be a wine taster for a high class importer in St James (the area between Piccadilly and the royal palaces).  He travelled all over the world tasting great wines and somehow got bored!  So he became a despatch rider. 

There were Nick and Bronwen, both law graduates who worked in the control room at Addison Lee.  They later married and started their own despatch business.  Their wedding was very stylish and they gave me the unexpected honour of being one of their witnesses after their first choice got lost somewhere between the restaurant the registry office.

And there was Julia who is one of the most creative people I had met.  Designer and musician, she gave us an EP from her band some years later as a wedding present.

All sorts of people, with all kinds of stories, and Friday night was the time when many would end up in the Marquis of Granby in Covent Garden, a few doors up from the office. 

Even that pub told a story of London’s diversity.  There was a coat stand by the bar, and during the day, it was often full of the waterproofs of tourists seeing the sights of London in all weathers.  Then from around 6pm, the waterproofs disappeared and the coat stand filled up with crash helmets from Addison Lee.  Finally, for those still there late into the evening, the crash helmets thinned out and it was filled with the violin and woodwind cases of musicians from the English National Opera, whose stage door was also just round the corner.

Woking for Addison Lee had its moral dilemmas though.  One which I felt in particular, was their marketing policy.  In those days they charged customers more than any other dispatch company on the basis that riders would only ever go ‘one up’.  That meant that riders would only ever have one job on board at a time, picking it up and going straight to the destination before getting other work.  Unfortunately this was not even economical with the truth - it was total bollocks!

As soon as we got busy, it was not unusual to get 3 or 4 jobs at a time, picking up around the West End and dropping in the City.  This caused a problem when customers would ask me straight out, “Is this your only parcel?  Are you going straight there?”  I have never liked lies and yet I found myself having to lie if I wanted to keep my job.  Eventually, I came up with an answer I could cope with.  I would say, “Well that’s what you’re paying for!”  At least that was true, even if it didn’t answer their question.

These were also the days before speed cameras, and London had an unofficial set of speed limits 15 mph above the official ones.  That meant 45mph in a 30; up to 55 in a 40; right up to 85 in a 70.  On a good day, swooping through the traffic was like playing the ultimate arcade video game.  On a bad day you got knocked off your bike – roughly once every 3 months, even for the very best riders.  Over time, experienced riders learned to minimise the damage to body and bike when we got hit, but getting knocked off still hurt.

I once got stopped by a motorcycle cop after a particularly bad gridlock in Trafalgar Square had brought everything to a standstill.  Finally reaching the open road of Whitehall I opened up the throttle out of sheer joy, not realising that a police bike was following me out.  When I reached about 60mph heading for Downing Street, the blue lights came on but even then he just told me not to do it again while slapping my wing mirrors and yelling “Next time use these!” 

Another time, I transported forgotten passports from Kensington to Gatwick in 35 minutes – in the rush hour and in the rain – just in time for a family to catch the weekly flight to one of the smaller African nations.  I’ll leave it to you to do the maths.  Having said that, I then stopped for a coffee before riding back in and found that as the adrenalin subsided, my hands shook so much that I couldn’t hold the cup.  As I sat there, I concluded that this was not something which was important enough to risk my life for.  My guardian angels got paid overtime that day!

On the other hand, I also went places few people have the chance to go.  I have ridden my bike into the central courtyard of Buckingham Palace to make a delivery to HRH The Prince of Wales, and stood in the hallway of 10 Downing Street next to the mantelpiece where foreign dignitaries used to pose for photographs with the Prime Minister.  I delivered parcels in person to rock stars from Status Quo, Pink Floyd and The Cure.  

At the other extreme, I remember taking a thick envelope to a deserted warehouse in Wembley one day.  When I got there, there were two Jags parked outside and inside two hefty looking men in thick overcoats. They opened the envelope without saying a word and counted out a wodge of $100 bills before nodding to someone in the shadows and letting me leave.  I left that drop pretty quickly!

It was also the year of the Great Storm of 1987 that laid waste to millions of trees in London and the Home Counties.  The morning after the storms, I got up and turned on the TV for the weather forecast just like every day.  Instead of Breakfast TV, I saw a dimly lit TV studio on emergency lighting because the power had been cut.  From that moment, I knew that day would be different.

The centre of London looked like a battle field.  Scaffolding had collapsed everywhere, sometimes 15 floors high.  Trees were uprooted and broken glass littered the streets.  I went to a company in a dead-end street in Bloomsbury to pick up an insurance claim.  As I approached the address, I saw the problem.  A 70-foot tree had been uprooted in the square at the open end of the road and had been blown all the way up this cul-de-sac, before embedding itself into the office block at the end.  Another collection had the instruction, ‘you will know when you find it because there is an upside-down car sticking out of the shop window’.  Everyone wanted to get their insurance claims in before the inevitable rush and we were very busy that day.

I continued dispatch riding throughout my time at theological college.  At the end of every term, it paid well to go back to work for a few weeks, pay off any debts and get some money for the term ahead.  In 1991, just before I was ordained, I almost caused a diplomatic incident during the G7 Summit at Lancaster House in central London.  All the riders were battling road closures as foreign heads of governments were transported to and from the conference venue in St James’s.  Every time we found a route blocked off, we would find a way around it, and in doing so I remember coming out of a side street straight into a motorcade of big black Russian limousines.  Before I knew it I was riding alongside a particularly large limo with Russian flags flying from the bonnet and a worried looking grey face staring at me from the back seat.  I sensed I might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so quickly pulled over as a swarm of police outriders converged on me at the side of the road.

Within a year of starting, I was one of the top riders in Addison Lee.  There were two individual bonuses awarded each week; one to the rider who completed most jobs, and the other to the top earner in the fleet.  Amazingly, I won these more than once.  Then each year in Battersea Park, there was the Despatch Rider of the Year competition with several hundred bikers competing.  One of my proudest moments was being part of the 4-rider Addison Lee team which won the competition and I still have the trophy to this day.

I had a wonderful year.  I got to know London like the back of my hand.  Natalie and Anne were the best landladies I could ever wish for, even spending several hours with me in Accident and Emergency on one occasion.  Our friendship deepened further and continues to this day. 

But I also learned a lot about people; diverse, wonderful, fallible and flawed.  I learned how valuable each person is; about how everyone has a story; about our often prejudiced value judgements and how God sees people in a very different way. 

Compared to the intellectual quads of Oxford colleges, or the cloistered environment of the Church, it was life lived in vivid technicolour and taught me so much.

It was a real joy to see some of my despatch riding friends at my ordination in Southwark Cathedral, five years later.  During my time on the bike, I had begun to realise why Jesus spent so much time in parties with 'outcasts and sinners'.   He was constantly criticised for it by respectable people, by religious people, by establishment people.  In many ways he became an outcast with them and was certainly crucified as an outcast in the end.

Yet here was the cutting edge of God's boundless love, both given and received.  Here was the soil of life in all its fullness.  In the nitty-gritty of London's streets I began to see a bigger world.