Thought for the Day - Rhidian Brook
A former cabinet minister once infamously described the homeless as ‘the people you step over when you’re coming out of the opera’ As reprehensible a joke as it is, his words are about to be thrown back at him – or rather sung back – by the kind of people he once stepped over.
This week, Streetwise Opera – a company made up of homeless and ex-homeless players – is set to perform at the Royal Opera House as part of the London 2012 Festival build up to the Olympic Games. And, according to its founder, it’s the first time the homeless have been part of an Olympic Games and not been ‘overlooked, made unwelcome, or moved on.’
The salutary thing about this story is that the people you and I, or even ministers, might be ‘stepping over’ almost certainly aren’t who we think they are. The Streetwise Opera itself includes three ex-servicemen, an architect, two music teachers who, for different reasons, found themselves without a home and on the street.
The idea that the homeless are different to the likes of us is really a failure of imagination. It’s also a very dangerous way of thinking. As the latest National Statistics released in June show: The number of homeless in England has risen by almost a fifth compared with the same period last year. Homelessness isn’t something that happens to other people.
A few years ago, I stepped over someone lying in a stairwell in Piccadilly. I was so full of my own concerns, I didn’t see a person, just an obstacle to get around. After walking about fifty yards I thought what am I doing? I went back and asked him what he needed. It wasn’t a great question. It was -3 degrees. ‘A decent sleeping bag would be a start,’ he said. So I went to Lilywhites and got him a tog factor 12 bag. When I returned we talked and he told me he’d once been a soldier. What he really needed was to work again.
There’s a story in Matthew’s gospel that’s always kept me guessing. It’s both comfort to those in need and a warning to those who think they’ve got it sorted. It’s the one where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats. And it suggests that eternal life isn’t dependent on how religious we are, - but whether we’ve actually fed the one who is hungry, invited the stranger into our house, or clothed the person in need of clothes. Because, He points out, if we are doing it to them, we are doing it to Him.
The next time we pass someone in a stairwell, it’s worth thinking about who we might be stepping over. They may well be homeless. But they might also be an ex soldier, a former teacher, or a future opera singer; but perhaps most crucially of all, they could be you; they could be me; or even God Himself.