Police officers and traffic wardens go to work every day knowing they may face personal danger, but accept that it’s part of their job. Missionaries and volunteers at the Waterloo Centre also know they are at risk, but their love and concern for the helpless and hopeless keep them going.
Will Thorburn manages the centre and a team of dedicated staff. To the team, those who come to the centre (99% are men) are individuals – not just a ‘homeless’ stream passing through the doors.
They will die young
To work at Waterloo you must be ready to deal with whatever the day throws at you. The men are quite respectful towards the women who work at the centre, and often find it easier to open up to them about emotional issues than to another man.
There is a strong camaraderie among the staff and volunteers, because laughter and friendship are important to combat the darkness of human squalor seen every day. The reality is that many who come to the centre die young, and the missionaries are often the only mourners at the funeral.
Will prays every day to be filled afresh with love, compassion and zeal. In this ministry it is easy to become hardened by daily exposure to indignity, ingratitude and crudity.
But just as God sees repentant sinners through the merits of Jesus, so Will and his team treat the clients with the love and mercy they themselves have received from the Lord.
A common loneliness
The centre caters for a wide range of people – with little in common but their loneliness. In a big city people are left on their own. Company is hard to come by and many find solace in drink.
‘Friends are found easily while there is a full bottle,’ says Will, ‘but when it empties they just become acquaintances again. Here, we seek to offer more than just food, clothing and showers. Medical care, drugs and alcohol-counsel, housing and benefits advice, computer courses, and a Christianity Explored group – all are offered freely’.
To the staff, those who use the centre are like sheep without a shepherd. They urge them to ‘Come and see’ the love of Jesus Christ for needy sinners.
There had been a fight during breakfast. Aaron, impatient to use the bathroom, began beating Ben who had kept him waiting. Staff immediately separated the two men but this is a common occurrence.
The slightest thing can spark off a violent incident. The catalyst can be someone wanting an extra sausage or coming to the centre drunk. A ‘sharps’ box houses the needles and syringes found on drug addicts – and is emptied by staff wearing chain-mail gloves to avoid accidental exposure to Hepatitis or HIV.
Some clients are too drunk or mentally ill to look after themselves, so the team have to wash them and clean up their mess. Not a nice job, but it goes hand-in-hand with a ministry of compassion.
Some of the men are sex offenders or murderers. On a human level it is difficult to interact with them, but staff remember that to God all hearts are sinful and no one should judge another.
Will tells us: ‘Andy is in his late 40s, a long-term rough sleeper and chronic alcoholic. He is an intelligent and articulate man who through difficulties in his home life started to drink and lost everything.
‘He likes to come to talk and share what’s on his heart. He sometimes plays his guitar and sings – he’s quite good. He was recently arrested and asked me to give him a character reference, which I did.
‘This helped him get off with a fine. He was really grateful that I had got involved – it made him realise that we do more than preach here; we actually help people! Andy still has a lot of problems but he knows he can come here and be treated as a human being – someone made in the image of a wonderful Creator God’.
Will leaves us with the story of Rick, an Irishman who attends the centre. ‘He comes for the fried bread but doesn’t like the Christian message. I’ve got to know him over recent months.
‘One day, as we were chatting, he told me that he was up on charges of theft and would probably be sent down this time. I told him I would visit. He was taken aback at this and I don’t think he really believed me.
‘Sure enough he got a prison sentence and phoned me to ask if I would visit him. I had to go through the whole system, which included an hour just waiting to get in.
When I finally got to see him he was so pleased to have a visitor, because none of his friends had bothered to come. He was really touched and thinks differently of Christians now’.