I guess it’s now the time of year when we’re experiencing both relief and nostalgia as three gruelling terms draw to a close. As we look back, many of us would relish the time we spent chilling in the college quad, the walks in Port Meadow, and of course, the punting. Personally, one way I try to reminisce my time here is by wandering around town, reliving the fond memories each street corner, shop and restaurant bring to mind.
As much as I enjoyed my intermittent walks down memory lane, I realised at some point that they reflected the bubble I had come to live in; nearly all of my memories were made with fellow students. I was reminded that sometimes it’s important to forget about the dreaming spires and remember that this is a living, breathing town. Long after the students go on vacation, Oxford consists of far more than this University – it is home to thousands of households with people doing everyday things like going to work, sending their kids to school – something easily forgotten when we’re caught up with tutorials and exams. And it is also home to the homeless.
This struck me when I went on one of my first few outreaches in Hilary, when we met a friend whose home was outside a coffee shop in town. It was a cold and rainy night – his belongings were soaking wet, no thanks to the rain. We asked if there was any way we could help; he said it would be great if we could make his bed; so we did (with the soaking wet blankets he had left).
That night changed the way I saw the street corner. Over the next few days, whenever I walked past it as I ran my errands, I would remember that it was a street corner someone once called home – even though I haven’t seen him there since. Slowly but surely, as we had more conversations with our friends along the streets week after week, the way I perceived each street corner changed. At least I can now say the walks down memory lane remind me that Oxford is a living, breathing city greater than my student bubble. Here are a few thoughts that continue to shape the way I view homeless outreach, and why I continue to do it.
We are members of this town
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you… - Jeremiah 29:5-7
As students, how can we seek the peace and prosperity of Oxford? There are many other ways we can serve, but I believe that reaching out to our homeless friends is one of the best ways of doing this directly, while remembering that ‘the city’ doesn’t consist of only students and businesses, as we’re so easily tempted to do.
We are members of Christ
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile - Jeremiah 29:5-7
The two words at the end (which I left out earlier) are the punchline. We remember the context in which the chapter was written – God had carried the Israelites from Jerusalem into Babylonian exile. What has this got to do with serving the homeless? Very much, apparently.
Firstly, we are foreigners in this world (1 Peter 2:11) because we are members of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Even though we are foreigners, as the Israelites were in Babylon, we are not called to be detached and give up on our community by giving the excuse that none of this has ‘eternal value’. Far from it! The Lord has called us to be deeply invested in our communities (build, settle down, plant).
More importantly, we know who it is that we are serving. There will be times of disillusionment, when we question the difference we make. However, it is then that we should remember it is not about them or us, or even the community. For it is only the Lord Christ we are serving (Colossians 3:24).
By his grace alone
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me – 1 Corinthians 15:10
Let us remember that everything we have is a gift from above, and even the opportunities we have to reach out to others were prepared in advance by him (Ephesians 2:10). Even as it is the Lord we are serving, the very ability and desire to serve him come by grace and grace alone. For he is not a God served by human hands (Acts 17:25). Rather, everything we have to offer first comes from his own hand.
The past year has been an incredible journey with the Lord. I will remember Oxford as a place where he showed me so much of his grace – and I believe a great portion of it was revealed on its streets.
Jed Andrews | 1st year @ Balliol