Pam Orchard: Churches & Compassion

"I understand that you have had a difficult life and you want to be around people who see all of you, not just the bits that are broken or have gone wrong." Pam Orchard

As part of the Greenbelt festival and St Martin’s Heart Edge community Pam Orchard, Chief Executive of The Connection, was asked to share her thoughts on churches and compassion. Her presentation, below, explores the question through a letter to ‘a stranger’.

As a person who deliberately places themselves in the room, but at the edge near the door, of church communities, I have been intrigued by the language of the question that has been posed.

It makes me wonder what “the stranger” might think of it. This very concept itself is, I think, in keeping with the spirit of the question. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to provide a response by sharing my thoughts in the form of a letter written to “a stranger” who is actually someone I got to know quite well.

Dear Stranger,

Last week I was asked to speak at an event for 4 – 5 minutes on this:

How might churches become abundant communities of generosity which model co-operation in addressing social justice and local needs, and operate out of vulnerability and a willingness to be transformed by the stranger?

Can you imagine the look on my face when I first read it? I don’t know that I have the answer but I thought of you when I was preparing my response and I wanted to share it with you.

I remember that when you first came into our organisation, you were anxious, very unconfident and we both know fine well that you could do with a shower. You were also kind, reflective and really creative. I really enjoyed finding out about those things. It took me a while to understand more about your family background, your musical ambitions, your long history with heroin and your tendency to hoard a lot of broken electric cookers in your flat.

I understand that you have had a difficult life and you want to be around people who see all of you, not just the bits that are broken or have gone wrong. I also know that you don’t appreciate being patronised, or treated like everything you do and say is in some way an amazing miracle. You just want to be treated like everyone else.

I firmly believe that some of the best support someone can give us is in providing clearly and kindly drawn boundaries about what isn’t OK as well as what is going well. It’s a balance – I really hope you agree. It’s hard to do that whilst showing that you are still absolutely on someone’s side. In fact, I think it’s a real art that I will never completely master although I hope I will continue to work on it.

Some of the best artists in drawing boundaries and being on side are definitely some of the other strangers you and I have met. I have never felt what it feels like to walk away from a family, or be rejected by a parent, or to almost kill myself with drink or drugs. However, I think you have felt those things.

I have always considered myself to be a good team player. I can contribute what I know about evidence, government policy, strategy, funding and running organisations. You, and some of the other strangers we have met along the way, know first-hand about the experience of isolation, despair and homelessness. It is a privilege that you are prepared to share this experience with me and others. Between us, we make a good team. We both know that no-one has the monopoly on perspective.

It gives me a real sense of achievement to see you volunteering in the music group, or helping other clients with art projects. The picture you painted for me still sits in my office, to remind me about what we achieved together. You are not a stranger. You are the quiet, sensitive man who gave me a fantastic picture of the cat we got to stop rats from overtaking the garden. We both really loved that cat.

I hope all is well with you, that you are still painting and that you got rid of those cookers.