‘The roughest time of year for some’

For a homeless person, Christmas is a trial – but charities and churches are helping

This article was first published in The Times on December 19 2014.

Chris Ubsdell (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Chris Ubsdell (Photo: Mark Greaves)

Last December Kerrie was sleeping in a stairwell in south London. She was freezing, with only a coat to keep her warm, until an elderly woman came and placed a quilt on top of her. “I didn’t mean to wake you up,” the woman said. She came back later with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. On Christmas Day she brought a proper meal, with slices of turkey and pigs in blankets and a box of Quality Street.

Christmas is the hardest time of year for a homeless person. If you are lucky, you find yourself a place in a hostel before winter sets in. Failing that, you may be able to find emergency shelter in a church. If you are still sleeping rough on December 23, you can sign up for a bed with Crisis at Christmas, run by the charity Crisis, which operates for eight days over the Christmas period.

Kerrie, who is in her early 30s, was not so fortunate. She says she tried to sign up to Crisis, but her dog, a Staffordshire terrier with a black eye called Nibbles, made it more difficult, as only one out of ten of the Crisis at Christmas centres is open to pets.

For those homeless people who do sign up, though, Crisis at Christmas is a happy break from the grind of street life. It provides food, hot showers, the chance of having a haircut or seeing a doctor or dentist, and even activities such as five-a-side football, art classes and table tennis.

Chris Ubsdell, who stayed with Crisis last year, describes it as like a Butlins holiday camp or a music festival. Having the basics covered means “you don’t have to worry about things for a week”. Simple things like shower gel, a razor and a towel are provided too, he says, adding that for a homeless person a hot shower alone “is like being in Heaven”.

Crisis at Christmas is entirely run by volunteers — this year there will be 9,000 of them working at ten sites across London, and services will be offered in Newcastle and Edinburgh too, but for a shorter period. Siobhan Sheridan has volunteered for the past seven years. She says she could not think of another way to spend Christmas: “It’s a combination of doing something that feels genuinely important and meeting wonderful people.”

The other options if you are homeless are night shelters, where you sleep in a dormitory or communal area, or hostels, which provide more permanent accommodation, usually for a year or two. The largest emergency shelter is run by West London Churches Homeless Concern, which provides 70 beds at different churches each day of the week throughout the winter. This year the shelter has been full, with extra people queueing for admission each night. Judith Roberts, who has volunteered with the charity for the past 13 years, says that the homeless guests are treated the same as “friends coming round for dinner”. She explains that she is driven by the idea that if she were made homeless she would want “to go somewhere people treated you with respect and dignity”.

For shelters and hostels the Christmas period, enshrined as it is as a hallowed time for family, is a huge challenge — and for many homeless people it is merely a reminder of the friends or family they have lost. Chris Deacon, manager of a Thames Reach hostel in Vauxhall, south London, says that the “rollercoaster of emotions” starts as early as November.

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‘The bodies lay on top of one another’

Mark Greaves talks to the Irish Sister who tended to the victims of the Bhopal disaster 30 years ago – at great cost to her own well-being

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on November 21 2014.

The horror began just after midnight on December 3 1984. White vapour streamed into the air at a pesticides factory in the Indian city of Bhopal. The gas formed a dense fog that swept through neighbourhoods nearby. People woke up coughing, vomiting and struggling to breathe. They ran out of their homes trying to escape the air. In the panic children were ripped from their parents’ grasp and some were trampled underfoot. Many simply choked and collapsed. The lucky ones made it to the hospital two miles away.

According to Amnesty International, 7,000 people died that night. The figure doubled in the ensuing weeks and months. Union Carbide, the American company that owned the pesticides plant, had ignored grave warnings about its safety. The disaster had been predicted by a journalist, Raj Keswani, who had written several weeks earlier: “We are all about to be annihilated.”

The morning after the leak, the city woke up to the news of the tragedy, but no one knew how far the gas had spread or how to protect themselves against it. There was confusion about what the gas even was.

At Miriam’s School for the Handicapped, the Sisters of St Joseph of Chambery sealed the doors with mats and placed tubs of water in the children’s rooms. Keeping moisture in the air was believed to help against the gas. This was just hearsay, though – no official advice had been given on the procedures to follow.

The next day the Sisters received a call from the archbishop. He asked if they might be able to go and help at the hospital nearest the disaster. It was “not pleasant”, he warned them. But this did not deter the Sisters, with all four of them volunteering to help.

Sister Christopher Whelan, 81, who grew up in Dublin but has lived in Bhopal since 1952, was one of them. On the way to the hospital the roads “had bodies on them”, Sister Christopher says. “It was an awful sight, something that you don’t forget.” When they arrived at Hamidia hospital the corridors were packed with bodies. Some were “lying on top of one another”. The living and the dead lay next to each other. Sister Christopher recalls that “deaths were taking place constantly”.

The women’s task was to try to bring families together. The victims were in a stupor and blinded by fluid from their eyes. So the Sisters went up to each person, describing the clothes of the people they were lying next to, asking if they knew them. Once families had been grouped together, they were carried out of the hospital into tents provided by the military. The idea was that if they woke up they would be surrounded by family rather than strangers.

The Sisters also tried to clean up. Vomit and faeces had created a “terrible stench”. They cleaned the victims’ bodies, Sister Christopher explains, but had to leave them in soiled clothes because they had no fresh ones to give them.

Some of the children could not be grouped with a family. The Sisters offered to look after them. They were given a corridor in the basement of the hospital and covered the children with blankets – one on top, two underneath – to stave off the winter cold. Two Sisters looked after them during the day. The other two, including Sister Christopher, did the night shift.

One by one the children began to emerge from their stupor. The first girl who did so they bathed and put in new clothes. Afterwards, instead of returning to her own spot, she squeezed in next to a little boy. The Sisters asked if she knew him, and she replied that he was her brother. When they were able to open their eyes, other children went and sat next to their classmates.

Sister Christopher has fond memories of the children. “They created a relationship with us. They came and put their arms around us,” she says.

Meanwhile, parents arrived looking for the children they had lost. “It was heartbreaking,” Sister Christopher recalls. “Some of them would recognise a child and they were so happy. ‘This is my child, Sister!’ They had been looking for them everywhere.” Other parents left to continue their miserable search elsewhere.

After a few weeks, the care of the children was taken over by the state government. The Sisters of St Joseph would never see them again. Sister Christopher remembers that one of their charges had become known as the “miracle baby”. She had apparently survived after her mother collapsed on top of her, pushing her into a gutter free from the gas. Sister Christopher says the newspapers reported that she was now married and had a degree. “She was a beautiful little baby,” she says.

Only two months later did scientists work out why so many had died. The gas had included hydrogen cyanide, which stops the body being able to absorb oxygen. The slowness with which this detail emerged led to suspicions – aired in the New Scientist a year later – that this information had been suppressed by Union Carbide.

For the treatment of victims this information was critical. Doctors had previously focused on alleviating symptoms. But cyanide poisoning can be treated with an antidote directly.

The following year Sister Christopher began to feel the effects of the gas.

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Moribund churches get the HTB treatment

Holy Trinity Brompton, the creator of the Alpha course, is busy ‘planting’ churches all over the UK

This article was first published in the Times on 25 October 2014.

The Rev Tim Matthews at St Swithun's in Bournemouth (Tom Redman Photography)

The Rev Tim Matthews at St Swithun’s in Bournemouth (Tom Redman Photography)

St Swithin’s church in Lincoln is an enormous 19th-century structure built to seat 1,000 people. For the past few years it has survived on a congregation of ten. The Right Rev Christopher Lowson, the Bishop of Lincoln, admits that if the Church of England had been “a more commercially sensitive organisation”, it would have been sold long ago.

On recent Saturdays, however, the church has been abuzz with activity. Fifty or so volunteers have been busy gardening, painting, mopping and clearing out rubbish. Pest control was called in after dead rats and mice were found inside. A new sign has been put up along with a banner advertising the Alpha course.

Its new vicar is the Rev Jim Prestwood, a former youth worker from north London. He has arrived with a team of 12, mostly volunteers, who uprooted themselves from the south-east to help to bring St Swithin’s back to life. They came after an invitation from the Bishop of Lincoln to Holy Trinity Brompton (“HTB”), the evangelical Anglican church in west London that developed the Alpha course. The stalwart group of ten “kept the church alive”, the bishop says. “Now we have an opportunity for it to have a very exciting use.”

The change in style will be quite radical. Instead of incense and altar servers there will be electric guitars and drums and a video screen. Worship will be switched to the other side of the church, Prestwood explains, so they don’t “start banging into the nice Anglo-Catholic reredos”. Traditional communion services will continue on a Thursday in an attempt to provide “the best of the old and the best of the new”, he says.

HTB has a good track record in reviving churches. Until recently this was seen as purely a London phenomenon. That changed in 2009, when it took over St Peter’s church in Brighton. Since then it has been invited to “plant” churches in Norwich, Bournemouth and Hastings, in addition to Lincoln.

St Peter’s, known as “Brighton’s cathedral”, is the success story that St Swithin’s and others are seeking to replicate. In early 2009 St Peter’s was due to be closed. Half the building had been cordoned off because of a leaking roof and falling plasterwork, and it had a congregation of about 30. Now its Sunday services attract 900 people, mostly in their twenties, thirties and forties (and the roof is fixed too).

The Rev Archie Coates, the vicar of St Peter’s, says the key is to provide more than just services on a Sunday. When he and a team of 30 volunteers first arrived they established an Alpha course, to introduce people to Christianity, and a weekly meal for the homeless. “People don’t want to just come to church — they want to make a difference,” he says.

One significant — and immediate — benefit from HTB’s involvement at St Peter’s was the £50,000 in start-up cash that the west London church brought with it. Many of HTB’s plant churches start off with that amount, though not all. Once the money runs out, the churches are on their own, however. Mark Elsdon-Dew, the communications director for HTB, insists that they are “not HTB churches”. He explains: “Once they say goodbye they are independent — they can do what they like.”

At St Peter’s, Coates says, they had the extra help of good publicity; a petition to keep the church open attracted 6,500 signatures. When it did re-open there was “a huge amount of goodwill”.

The Rev Ian Dyble, vicar at St Thomas’s in Norwich, was not so lucky. After his appointment was announced one member of the congregation burst into tears, he says. Some people, he explains, associated HTB with “white sofas and smoke machines and smoothies” (he is citing an episode of the BBC soap opera Rev in which a church is taken over by trendy evangelicals) and feared that their parish traditions would be smothered. He has tried hard not to do that, he says, and offers two traditional services on a Sunday and a monthly evensong as well as a more contemporary service with guitars. He says it is “important to honour the very faithful people who have served their heart out in this parish for generations”. In just a year and a half a congregation of 30 has grown to 300.

One HTB plant without the constraints of an existing congregation is St Swithun’s in Bournemouth. The church was closed for a year before the Rev Tim Matthews arrived last month. The task for him and his team of 20 volunteers is to reach out to people who do not go to church at all. Matthews was a chartered accountant in the City before changing career, working for several years as a leader at HTB before heading the planting team from the congregation to St Swithun’s.

He says of his new home: “We try to make it look and feel as little like a traditional church as possible.” After the first service everyone went down to the beach for a picnic. He says that people have been surprised: “They often say, ‘this doesn’t feel like church, this is actually somewhere I want to be . . . People bring their friends because they know they are not going to be embarrassed.”

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Welsh martyr who brought the Scriptures to the shores of Korea

This article was first published in the Times on 16 August 2014.


Today Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass in Seoul in memory of Korea’s early Catholic martyrs. He will declare 124 of them to be “Blessed”, the step below sainthood. Many of them were beheaded near by, outside the city’s west gate, during a persecution that lasted from 1791 to 1888. Authorities regarded them as deviants “infected by error”, capable of leading Confucian society to ruin. In all more than 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed.

It might be assumed that Britain played little part in this first chapter of Korean Christianity. But among those celebrated as martyrs today is a Non-conformist Welsh minister, Robert Jermain Thomas. Every year hundreds of Koreans travel to Monmouthshire to visit Hanover Chapel in Llanover, near Abergavenny, where Thomas’s father was minister.

Thomas’s story, documented most recently in Stella Price’s book Chosen for Choson (Korea), is not without controversy. His time as a missionary in Asia was brief and was plagued with misfortune. He and his wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai as newlyweds in December 1863. Four months later Caroline died after a miscarriage. Thomas, grief-stricken, moved farther north to Chefoo (now Yantai), where he offered to help two Korean Catholics to smuggle Bibles back to their homeland. He spent two and a half months on the Korean coast, handing out Bibles and trying to learn the language. In a letter to a colleague he admitted that the Koreans were “very hostile to foreigners”, but said that after a chat some of them accepted books on Christianity. “As these books are taken at the risk of decapitation, or at least fines and imprisonment,” he wrote, “it is quite fair to conclude that the possessors wish to read them.”

Once he returned to China the Korean kingdom began to crack down brutally on Catholics. Many thousands were killed. Astonishingly, Thomas went back, agreeing to act as interpreter for an armed English merchant ship, the General Sherman, which sought to open up Korea to trade. It was a misguided mission. The ship, after reaching Korea’s coast, travelled up the river to Pyongyang despite repeated warnings from officials that this was forbidden. At each stop Thomas handed out Bibles and cakes. But relations with Koreans soon soured — the crew took a police chief hostage and demanded rice, gold and silver in exchange for setting him free. A two-day battle ensued in which all those onboard were killed.

It is hard, in this light, to see how Thomas could be cherished by Koreans, but by the 1930s his life was being celebrated. A memorial was put up on Ssuk Island where he was killed, and a church built by the river in his name.

In the decades after his death Korea changed radically. Under pressure from Japan it agreed to foreign trade and in the 1880s signed treaties with Britain and the US. Protestant missionaries poured in, building schools and hospitals. By 1910 144,000 Koreans had become Protestant Christians. Among those early missionaries was an American, the Rev Samuel Moffett. He claimed that eyewitnesses of the General Sherman battle saw “a white man in the smoke on the burning deck shouting ‘Jesus’ and throwing books to the people lining the shore”. Koreans who had accepted books from Thomas or even just picked them up from the shore later converted to Christianity, Moffett claimed. A government official, meanwhile, used one of the Bibles to wallpaper his house, which by the 1900s had become a place of pilgrimage.

Today nearly a third of South Koreans are Christian, of which nine million are Protestant and about five million Catholic. More missionaries from South Korea are sent abroad than in any other country apart from the US. One such missionary is the Rev Daniel Yoo, minister at Hanover Chapel. He says that between 1,500 and 2,000 Koreans visit the Thomas family’s chapel every year.

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Why the Church is growing fast in South Korea

The Confucian kingdom sought to exterminate Catholics in the 19th century but now the whole country admires the Church

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on 8 August 2014.

Korean chaplaincy

Last month it emerged that the South Korean pop star known as Rain had become a Catholic. The 32-year-old hip-wiggler, Asia’s answer to Justin Timberlake, is one of tens of thousands of people being baptised Catholic each year in South Korea. The Church there has been growing rapidly for decades. In the early 1970s the faithful numbered less than a million; now there are over five million, about a tenth of the population.

Pope Francis will be visiting the country for four days next week, and is unlikely to face a hostile press. The Catholic Church has a good image among South Koreans – according to a recent survey it is the most trusted institution in the country.

The Church’s vitality is evident at the Korean chaplaincy in Sutton, south London, where 300 people gather every Sunday. The community saved up over decades to buy its own church rather than borrow diocesan buildings – it is the only expat group in Britain apart from the Poles to have done so. When I visit during the week volunteers are putting out flowers and statues of the Virgin Mary for a Legion of Mary meeting.

Sister Maria Yu (pictured), who is based at the parish, hands me a thick sheaf of paper – a print-out of the history of Catholicism in Korea produced by the bishops’ conference. It explains that the Church in Korea was founded by Koreans themselves. Confucian intellectuals became attracted to Catholic ideas in the 18th century; one member of the elite was baptised during a trip to Beijing in 1784 and the faith spread quickly on his return. A priest was sent from China after the community realised it could not nominate its own priests.

For the next century Catholics in Korea faced terrible persecution. The Confucian authorities saw them as a dangerous challenge to the social order – officials in 1801 wrote that if Catholics were not exterminated the land would “fall into ruin and become fit only for savages and wild animals”. In several waves of persecution more than 10,000 of Korea’s faithful were killed. The commitment shown in those early years is remarkable. An official record states: “Though it is normal for human beings to love life and fear death, when [Catholics] are brought to the execution ground they look on it as a comfortable place to lie down and take a rest.”

Over the following decades Catholics were pushed to the margins. They lived together in isolated villages and became potters, a trade at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Most of those killed were Korean, although in 1866 a handful of French priests were executed too.

The persecution stopped in 1885 after a different faction of the Korean elite gained power and opened the country up to the outside world. Yet the Church did not experience its extraordinary growth until almost a century later. According to Korea experts, the widespread respect the Church has gained has much more to do with its actions in the late 20th century than its persecution in the 19th century.

From 1961 to 1987 South Korea was ruled by a dictatorship. During those years the Catholic Church had a central role in the movement calling for democracy. Nuns and priests were on the frontline of protests; a bishop was among those jailed.

At the time the Church was led by Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, a giant on the national stage who was regarded as a moral authority by all sections of society. Donald Baker, a professor of Korean history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, explains that politicians seeking to be elected as president would meet him before announcing their candidacy. At his funeral in 2009, Prof Baker says, the country’s most prominent Buddhist leader bowed before his coffin.

Prof Baker, in his essay “From Pottery to Politics”, notes that from the 1960s the Catholic Church also began founding colleges, universities and hospitals. He argues that the era marked a turning away from a “ghetto mentality” caused by persecution to an “awakening of Catholic social conscience”. In this the Church was actually following the example of Protestant missionaries who had set up hundreds of schools and hospitals in the late 19th century. It was through these institutions that Protestantism, and later Catholicism, became associated with modernity. In South Korea in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, says Prof Baker, “to be Christian was to be modern”.

Prof Baker, a Catholic and the leading authority on Catholicism in Korea, lives for part of the year in the South Korean city of Gwangju. There, he says, “people brag about being Catholic”. Joining the Church “marks you as serious”, he says. Catholics, in contrast to the born-again Protestants, are associated with “emotional reserve”.

He also explains that there is a strong sense of community. People come early to Mass to sing hymns and stay for lunch for two or three hours afterwards. His parish is split into small neighbourhood groups that meet regularly and look after each other.

This sense of community is apparent in Sutton. The priest, Fr John Kwon (pictured), who only arrived in November, is visiting the homes of all his parishioners – photographs of him with different families cover the doors of the church. When I visit I am treated to a banquet of squid, pancake, spiced cabbage and all kinds of meats.

Albert Chun, the parish secretary (pictured right), explains that going to Mass involves more than “just saying hello”. “We hug together and have personal relationships and take part in small group activities,” he says.

Fifty parishioners are members of the Legion of Mary, who meet in groups of 10 throughout the week. Mr Chun says the popularity of the lay group, founded in Ireland in 1921, reflects the deep respect mothers have in Korean society. Members meet in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, pray the rosary and are heavily involved in volunteer work.

Not all Korean Catholics, however, are confident about the future direction of their Church. Fr Denis Kim SJ, a member of the social science faculty at the Gregorian University in Rome, says only a third of Catholics now go to Mass. He also notes that the average age of congregations is rising. “The red light is blinking,” he says. His hope, he explains, is that the visit of Pope Francis inspires younger Catholics and “gives a sense of direction” to Church leaders”.