By Isaac Withers
Day 4 of The Mercy Tour and I was flagging. It turns out that man was not made to travel every day. Add to this, what I like to call World Youth Day flu (much like freshers flu, lots of sweaty young people in the same place: a serious bug’s dream scenario). Suffice to say I was not feeling at my best.
The way we’re aiming to spend our days, is to turn up, set up in the new church, do some street mission, spreading the news about the night and talking with people, and then praising in the evening. However, this day, I was really not feeling the street.
The days before I’d prayed for energy and it had worked. This day, I just felt bad. I managed an hour on the street with my friend Maria, and had some good conversations, but then we just had to wander, and we ended up in Chichester Cathedral. And there, I sat, and felt exhausted, but also felt a genuine kinda shame that I had bailed on street mission. And so I then felt rubbish on two fronts. After a bit of prayer, we left again, and headed for St. Richard’s, where we were holding the reconciliation evening. Maria said that maybe God would still send someone our way on the way back, but, tbh, I really doubted and didn’t really want that to happen. Frankly, I wasn’t feeling up to hospitality.
As we approached, Therese from the team had made a sign to put outside the church, and left it with me and Maria. As we stood with it, I became really aware there was a guy behind us. Then I became aware that we were definitely going to have to talk to this guy. Great.
And so Maria started talking to him, told him about the night, 7-9, prayer, chill, music, everyone’s welcome ect. At that point, most people usually nod, say thanks, and head. But this guy kept the conversation going. Let’s say he was called Dan. He said he was 56, he’d gone to mass all his life, but he had fallen out with some people at the parish, and for that reason he felt he couldn’t come that night. Yep, this had been his church. Which meant he was Catholic. So we asked if we could pray with him. We prayed over the destructive power of grudges, how we let human things take God out of our life. Then, we invited him again, shook his hand, and we went into the church. Honestly, I didn’t expect to see Dan again.
As we had dinner, Maria and I reflected. We talked about how we almost project onto everyone, an assumed aggression towards faith, or a disinterest in it. We never expected someone we would bump into out there, to be Catholic too, especially from that very parish.
I realised that my heart was preconditioned to expect little. I had a block, it was like the opposite of World Youth Day, where you know everyone is with you, and so you feel totally open. At home, I was assuming that no one would have a history with the church.
Anyway, fast forward to the night. A packed church and a congregation who were clearly expectant. At one point, from where I was at the front, I looked across to the prayer ministry and saw Dan. I looked over ten minutes later, and he was still there. Later again, and the woman with him had stopped praying with him, and he was just sat listening to the praise.
When the team re-grouped at the end of the night, we were all on a high, and a friend told me that she had spoken to Dan outside. He had turned up, and told her everything he had told me, how he felt he couldn’t come in, how he had problems with the parish. She told him that that was fine, and that he could see Jesus from there, through the open door, a clear view to the Blessed Sacrament. A while later, he went in.
Then Maria told me that she had seen him in the praise later, during a song that had the lyrics, ‘spirit break out, break our walls down’.
We moved on to the next town, and I’m not sure where Dan’s going to end up, but I was made acutely aware of two things through this.
1) God can work with my worst mood and greatest tiredness. He could use a blunt tool, and man was I being a bit of a blunt tool that day.
2) The people walking our streets aren’t completely distant from the faith. They’re lapsed or frustrated or no one’s ever invited them, but the vast majority aren’t aggressive towards faith.
The real surprise of the trip so far has been meeting Catholics on the streets. And not just Catholics, people with links to the parishes we’d be at that night. Not the point of street mission, but it’s been amazing anyway. In Shoreham, a guy who thought what we were doing was ‘a bit Mormon’ who went to the parish we were in that night. In Chichester, another guy who had had his son baptised there and when we said we’d pray for him, said ‘it’s been ages since anyone did that’. In Bath, one of us got talking to two young guys, one of which became super awkward, because his dad was the organist, at the church we were at that night. The organist.
When you look at an average UK street, the last thing you think you are seeing is Catholics, let alone parishioners. But a fair chunk of the people we’ve been speaking to have had histories with these churches, and it’s been such a beautiful surprise.
An us against the world mentality can really drive your faith into retreat, draw you into yourself. But it’s just not the reality, it isn’t a versus, or a competition for the beliefs of the world and the mainstream, it’s just the children of God out there. In the clubs at university, on the streets of my home town, in those who have fallen away from parishes, children of God. There are so many who have had experiences of church and who just need an invite, someone to say, ‘hey, are you free tonight? We’re opening up that church, and it’s beautiful in there.'