I write this a few days after the terrorist atrocity in Brussels, and police are looking for the man wearing a black hat who was seen with two of the bombers. The black hat makes my mind recall a story told by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The young Tutu was walking with his mother down a street in the poverty and squalor of the black township in which he was brought up when a white man dressed in a long white cassock and wearing a black hat, approached them. As he passed by, the stranger raised his hat to Tutu’s mother. The fact that a white man in South Africa at that time should so acknowledge a black woman made a profound and indeed life-changing impression on young Desmond. It was a symbolic action which shaped his attitude to relationships between black and white people for ever. That man was the late Trevor Huddleston.
The contrast is stark. One black hat represents a man who wants to drive people apart, to kill and maim, to set people against each other. That is the work of the Devil, the diabolical, the crowbar that separates and destroys relationships. The other black hat is worn by a man who sought to bring people together, to bring life and healing to a country torn apart by apartheid. That is the work of God, the symbolical, who brings wholeness and salvation to people.
It’s a powerful story for me, especially because it’s true and still bears fruit today in South Africa and throughout the world. The simple raising of a black hat.
Amid the devastation caused by the bombs at Brussels Airport, Chaplains sought to comfort victims, travellers and staff. Their stories are told in The Tablet 2nd April 2016.
One of our Christian leaders, Pope Francis, has called for this year to be a ‘Jubilee Year of Mercy’. He says “The call of Jesus pushes each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart… and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one.”
That is, fundamentally, the work of NIM, primarily through our Chaplains who are called symbolically to raise their hat in a gesture of welcome, love and mercy. This is the big missionary question that every Christian must ask: How do we communicate the gospel, the love and mercy of God, which welcomes all and excludes no-one? When our Chaplains walk through the malls of the MetroCentre, dodge the trolleys at Asda, move among the travellers and staff in Newcastle Airport, negotiate the desks at the Ministry of Work and Pensions, or at Gentoo, brave the stresses at Fire and Rescue, how do they answer that Big Question? It is all in the Annual Report which I heartily commend to you. Our Chaplains perform a living liturgy in workplaces. Liturgy means, literally, “The work of the people”. Where they walk, God is glorified. Laborare est orare. To work is to pray.
On behalf of NIM’s sponsors and trustees, I would like to pay tribute to our Chaplains who minister “out in the open” and make God’s mercy known among the crowds.
This is what NIM Chaplains offer the Church in the North East – street credibility. I want to share with you something I read in The Tablet last week by Fr Tom Grufferty of Dorset:
“When you take account of the public life of Jesus, most of it took place out in the open, and only a fraction of his ministry took place in the Temple or synagogue. The entire Passion Narrative takes place outside. I maintain that we have lost that important and crucial aspect of the life of Jesus in our time. If we are alert to meeting Jesus in the great world outside our churches, we will find him in the most unexpected people and places. The Incarnation means he is taking part in everything. Jesus is in the street far, far more than we think.”
I remember a sermon preached at St Andrew’s in Corbridge. It ended: “The question is: how do we give people the good news that God loves them with an everlasting love? Some things matter, but some things really matter. But what have we made of religion? Really, it’s that simple.”
It’s not complicated. The gospel is simple. Because it’s God who does it, promises it, fulfils it. Our gift and task is to believe it. Christians do not have a product to sell. They are the product and show by their choices and actions, like raising a black hat, what the gospel message is all about. My own hero, Vincent de Paul, put it this way: “If God is at the centre of your life, no words will be needed. Your mere presence will touch their hearts.”
It has been an eventful year and I am especially pleased that NIM, always looking outwards, partnered Newcastle City Centre Chaplaincy (itself celebrating 40 years of ministry in 2016) and the North East Regional Faiths Network in organising three conversational seminars. These brought together a wide range of people to explore how we work together in the North East to find new ways of living, working and flourishing. The first was on ‘Humanising Work’; the second, ‘Social Renewal and Economic Development’; and the third, ‘Rethinking Benefits, Rethinking Rights’.
I pay tribute to NIM’s Management Committee, and especially Fiona Usher our Chaplain Co-ordinator, Terri Leach our Hon Secretary and Mark Curry our Hon Treasurer, and of course all our Team Leaders and support groups, who do tremendous work behind the scenes, for their dedication and energy in the service of the Chaplains. New members were welcomed onto NIM’s Management Committee. Three Chaplains – Christian Wienkamp, the new Chaplain at Newcastle Airport; Myrna Rutter, a member of the Metrocentre team and Terry McGann, who serves Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service. Newcastle Diocese has appointed a new lay representative, Canon Roger Styring. The Committee has been exemplary in following the 3 iron rules for effective management: clear lines of accountability, clear focus and clear remit. As a result, NIM continues to thrive and serve the Church in the North East and we enter the next year with confidence, expectation and hope.
Glory to God in the highest and peace to you and yours.
Paul Southgate, Chair.
19th April 2016