In Sydney, there’s a famous place called The Wayside Chapel which assists the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted. Graham Long is the Pastor, and last week he gave a funny and profound radio interview on the occasion of the publication of his memoir.
Graham speaks about the big, urgent issues of our lives, and I want to share some of his humble brilliance, forged from years working at the Chapel, in prisons and boys homes, from reading his beloved philosophers including Martin Buber, and from the death of his son, James, four years ago.
If you want to hear the full interview, there’s a link at the end of the post, as well as a link to his memoir which you can purchase online.
On “damaged” people and angry entitlement
“When you’re a damaged person, and lots of us are, we’re probably all damaged in some way – and you can be ‘rich’ damaged as well as ‘poor’ damaged – you live in a world of ‘stuff’ and your primary concern is ‘How do I get more stuff?’ or ‘How do I get more stuff for the cheapest price?’ or ‘How do I get it for free?’ And it doesn’t matter if you’re rich and chasing your next million, or poor and chasing your next meal, it’s about stuff. And you tend not to relate to human beings, you relate to potential sources of stuff … You can give all the stuff in the world to somebody and there’s no transformation. They’re just getting more stuff. But if you receive a gift it’s different … because you can’t receive a gift unless you can see a giver.”
On treating people as problems
“If you need some kind of help and you go to get it, you’ll be greeted by somebody with a clipboard who needs to work out what kind of problem you are … The problem with that is that people aren’t problems to be solved, they’re people to be met.”
“There are dramatic turnarounds … and it’s not a moment of self-realisation; it’s not a moment of self at all. The moment of turning is when people become conscious they are with, and belong to, others, and they are pulled into a world that’s bigger than themselves and their own needs.”
On being a “tower of weakness”
[Interviewer]: “People would describe you as a tower of strength. You, on the other hand, describe yourself as a tower of weakness.”
[Graham]: “Yep, that’s me! I’m a tower of weakness … all I have is the power of the ‘feather’. What is the power of the feather? It’s the ability to name something for what it really is. People cope with change in different ways. A lot of them become bullies. They say, ‘I’ve lost so much stuff, I deserve more stuff. You’ve got stuff. I need it.’ And there’s all this blustering bullying. And the power of the feather is to know that underneath this bully is a lack; it’s nothing other than a cover for a lack of connection. Many years ago I used to work in a boys’ home and the most common phrase amongst the boys every time there was a disappointment … they’d screw their nose up and say, ‘I don’t care’. Well, it took me a while to know that underneath every one of these ‘I don’t care’s’ is a ‘God, I wish somebody cared.’ So the feather knows … [laughing]“
On being secular vs religious
“We have very odd church services at the Wayside on Sunday mornings … people yell out and want to tell me about their uncle in mid-prayer … people use language you don’t usually hear in a church … People ask me all the time, ‘What part of the Wayside is religious and what part is secular?’ and I say, ‘We’re 100% Christian, 100% secular’.
We’re not interested in producing Christian sausages. Everything we do is based on the radical belief that we only find ourselves when in a state of love and connection with one another, and the Bible’s not about anything else other than that. That’s all Jesus talked about.”
“What we now call post-modernity is a loss of faith in, even, word, even in language, but certainly loss of faith in anything that’s constructed culturally. Buber said all this was based on an individualism that was unhealthy for us.”
On his son, James
[Interviewer]: “I see you’re wearing two watches. Can you tell me the story?”
[Graham, paraphrased]: My son, James, died four and a half years ago. His wife, Sarah, asked me if I wanted any of James’s things, and I didn’t know, I didn’t want anything of his … I wanted him. Well, she offered me his watch and so I started wearing this big, clunky, totally impractical thing on my arm next to my own watch. And at some point in the first year after his death, the watch stopped at one minute to midnight, and since that time I’ve kept it like that, I haven’t put in a new battery. And it’s very helpful for me … it helps me live better.
The biggest thing I understand from James’s death is that we live for five minutes, and this watch reminds me I’ve only got a minute left. So when I’m tempted to eat too much or drink too much or go to another talkfest, I look at the watch and ask myself if that’s how I want to spend my last minute.