The Aylesbury Quaker Meeting‘s Friendship in Action project launched on the evening of 21st January 2019 in the Town Centre (not in our own Meeting House at the moment, for logistical reasons). Two of us initiated and organised the project, with huge amounts of support and encouragement from many others in the Meeting, without whom the project could not have begun. The initial idea came during a pre-Christmas celebration, when we discovered a shared vision and energy to provide practical and immediate support for the increasing number of rough sleepers in our town. We brought this to the Meeting, who rightly pointed out that it would have been preferable to have planned this to the Meeting much earlier in the season. Unfortunately, the Spirit of God does not always work to our time scales – or perhaps we were just slow picking up the cues.
Not to be deterred, the Meeting met with a clear sense that this was a positive and appropriate way to demonstrate our core values of equality and justice. Everyone rallied round and after a frenetic time getting all the legal and practical requirements in order – and less than one month from that initial spark of divine inspiration – the Meeting reached a final decision. And the following week we were open for guests. Wow!
The aim of the project is simple: to offer, once a week, a free two-course hot meal in a warm, safe and friendly environment for Aylesbury’s rough sleepers, and for anyone else who wishes to avail themselves of the opportunity. It follows the general pattern of a similar project run by St Joseph’s Catholic Church who provide meals on a Wednesday, whilst we do ours on a Monday. St Joseph’s advised, encouraged, supported and advertised our project to their own guests. They were generous in sharing their experiences and insights and have been in touch a few times already just to ask how it is all going.
We also consulted with Aylesbury Homeless Action Group (AHAG) who were similarly overwhelmingly supportive, and continue to be so week in week out, with loads of practical advice and suggestions based on years of experience. We are very grateful that AHAG trained the stewarding team the week before we opened and also helped us write a comprehensive Volunteer Handbook for stewards.
Our first session was inevitably stressful, as we applied our intentions and training to the reality of the situation before us – where to put things, where they were stored, who should do what, and when, etc. – but our guests didn’t appear to notice. The second week was much more enjoyable and relaxing for the team! We had ten guests in the first week, and fifteen in the second week.
We now have a weekly rota of volunteer cooks to produce the meals, and a similar rota of volunteer stewards to provide the security, hospitality and catering services needed on the night. Every Friend and volunteer is able to contribute in some way: donating, promoting, organising, praying, cooking, stewarding…. In the long term I would like to see us reflecting on how we can enable guests to contribute in some way too, if they wish, but that’s the future!
Our guests are generally open and friendly, especially when they warm up and relax a bit, there are some colourful characters amongst them, some ‘interesting’ stories to listen to, and everyone has appeared appreciative and grateful so far. The nutritious hot food and “serve yourself” hot drinks table have been much appreciated.
We have found that our guests don’t like to hang around for long, though they stayed longer the second week compared to the first, so it may be a matter of building trust. The offer of staying to watch a DVD, has not been of interest to guests thus far. As one guest said, (I paraphrase!): if I watch I will relax and fall asleep and then I will have to be woken up and go out in the cold and it will be awful.
This pilot stage of Friendship in Action (FIA) will last until the beginning of April; decisions will then be made about the next stage of the project. How things will change and develop we do not know as yet. We will adapt to the needs of our guests, of course, and continue to listen and learn from them how we can best meet their needs.
As I draw to a close it is worth mentioning though how many of our needs have also been met in the process! I think it would be a hard call to say who gains most – the guests or the volunteers – here are just a few of the ways we have benefitted from FIA:
- We have developed a new respect for all the work that goes on in Aylesbury to help homeless people and for all the kind people “out there” already
- We are building a deeper sense of community within our Meeting as we work together serving the needs of others
- We have been able to invite non-Quaker volunteers in to work with us and their understanding of what Aylesbury Quakers are about is enriched
- We enjoy the camaraderie of working alongside other faith communities in the town and building good working relationships with them
- We feel freer in our relationships with others as some of our inter-personal barriers based on fear of certain types of people have been broken down by overwhelmingly positive experiences (without being naïve!)
- We are humbled to realise that, though as volunteers we may be more privileged than guests in terms of our home situation, our guests have insights and qualities that we can learn from
I end, as a Christian Quaker, with a quote from St Paul that comes to my mind when I think of FIA and sums of much of what I believe the project is about: “God’s kingdom isn’t about eating and drinking. It is about pleasing God, about living in peace, and about true happiness. All this comes from the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17 CEV). God’s kingdom may not be about eating and drinking, but I cannot live in peace and be truly happy unless I know I have done what I can to ensure my neighbours can eat and drink, and I am thankful that we in Aylesbury Meeting felt the Holy Spirit nudging – and actually did something about it!
Please do contact Aylesbury Meeting if you would like to know more about Friendship in Action.