Hope for the Hopeless
This is just one of the ways Mike Curtis the founder of Gloucester City Mission alerted people to the plight of the homeless in the city, with the aim of bringing Christ to the marginalised and serving them in practical ways.
The first City Mission was started in Glasgow during the 1820’s by David Naismith, who believed that Christians needed to visibly share their faith through deeds as well as words. Today, the British Association of City Missions is a network of more than twenty such interdenominational missions across the UK and Ireland, helping some of the neediest people in our cities.
Mike began Gloucester City Mission in August 2003, however his connection with street people goes back several years to when he worked as a printer for Zurich Insurance.
“I was doing a lot of overtime and when people came up to me in the street begging I would get cross and tell them to get off their backsides and try to do a day’s work like I had to do.
“One day God challenged me about my attitude, and said ‘Why were you rude to these people?’ Suddenly I saw them from God’s perspective. I realised the beggars on the street were people who were so hurt and damaged there was no way they could do a day’s work. It’s like God took out my heart of stone towards them and gave me a heart of flesh, like he promised in Ezekiel 36:26.”
As a result of this revelation, Mike started to build relationships with street people. Initially, he wrapped up New Testaments in bright paper and handed two or three out at a time along with an encouraging card and a small amount of money. This progressed to going onto the streets armed with a haversack, giving out soup, coffee and rolls as well as tracts, Challenge newspapers and New Testaments.
Then what Mike thought was a job for life ended in redundancy and he had to face the question of “what now?” One day he had an encounter with a Methodist minister.
“We’d never met before, but he said “I really feel I need to pray for you”, recalls Mike. He laid hands on me and suddenly I knew I had to go to Bible College.
Mike applied to Redcliffe College in Gloucester. He had no academic qualifications, other than City and Guilds certificates from his time as a printer. After passing the entrance exam however, he found himself deciding to do the two-year Diploma in Applied Theology, despite having only the equivalent of a year’s salary as redundancy pay. The decision was to prove a turning point for him.
“During an Urban Mission lecture one day I suddenly thought: Gloucester City Mission – why don’t we have one?” he explains.
I wrote to various City Missions and went to visit the one in Birmingham. When I asked them: “Why isn’t there a Gloucester City Mission?” they said: “We think God’s telling you to start it.”
With the support of his wife Beryl, his home church in Gloucester and Redcliffe College, Mike piloted Gloucester City Mission through his second-year placement. Although the homeless problem in the area was quite big, there was a lot going on and the placement gave him the chance to stick his nose into every nook and cranny in Gloucester, and make contacts with local agencies working with the street people.
In the early days, Mike worked from a former gay pub in the docks area that had been converted into a government “one stop shop” providing advice and support to the city’s homeless. In these early days people initially thought Mike was an undercover policeman.
They would tell him: “I’ve never been in prison” or “I’ve never done drugs”. Mike felt he earned their trust and he said they would open up and ask for prayer about pending court cases, or the fact that they were on five bags of heroin a day.
Foundational to his work, however, was the spiritual dimension. He never gave food or drink without giving the Word of God, in the form of tracts, leaflets or Scriptures; but he also never gave out the Word of God without practical help. This might have been a hot drink and pie from his bag, or a full set of nightclothes and toiletries such as those he gave to a tramp admitted to hospital with bowel cancer.
Mike spent quite a lot of time visiting homeless people in hospital, or prison. The average life expectancy on the street is 42 years. Government figures show that they have higher than average risk of suffering from infections such as TB, hepatitis, and septicaemia, poor diet and nutrition, stress, depression, and musculo-skeletal disorders. Around half of single people on the street have a combination of mental and physical health problems.
All kinds of people live on the street, and Mike wept at many of their stories. A large number have suffered emotional, sexual or physical abuse and according to Mike, 80 per cent of people on the street are there through relationship breakdown. One teenager’s parents fought over who wouldn’t have him when they divorced; they each had new partners and no room for him in their lives. There are also professors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen who have turned to alcohol or drugs or suffered a nervous breakdown, often after divorce or family tragedy.
No one however has ever refused prayer. “Street people are very spiritual, in a New Age kind of way,” said Mike. “Some are into Wicca, whilst others embrace a bit of everything, and they think Jesus is a wonderful person. At times I feel like Paul on Mars Hill. You find they are quite ready to talk about spiritual things; whether they accept Jesus as God is another matter.”
Several people made Christian commitments through Mike’s witness, however discipling street people can pose big problems, he explained.
“It is very hard for the church to accept them and for them to accept coming into a middle class church. This is why a lot of City Missions had mission huts, which are supposed to be like halfway houses. Even so there are still difficulties integrating converts from a mission hut into the church.
The drug culture many of these people are in is a culture of its own where things like dates and appointments just don’t figure. You might arrange to meet on a Wednesday, but they don’t turn up and when you see them again they don’t know what day it is. I used to get angry but I had to learn it’s part of their lifestyle.
Some come to church for three months, do Alpha, disappear for several months and then reappear. You just have to go with it, and trust that God will eventually get hold of them. The first person I led to Christ on the street was a guy called Kevin, and I’ve heard he’s now back with his wife and children in Cornwall. But it is a long process; you don’t often get instant conversions or miraculous deliverances.”