The Gospel Of Gary

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The Church has been called ‘the Fifth Gospel’ and sometimes in our services we include an extra Gospel reading – from the Gospel of St Luke’s West Holloway. On Sunday March 3rd we heard a reading from the Gospel of Gary.

‘I work in a supermarket warehouse where I pack food for internet shoppers. I get out of bed about 2.30 am, start my shift at 3.45 and work till 11.30. The warehouse is huge, full of all the domestic goods you can imagine. I wear an AMT on my arm, a machine that tells me what customers have ordered, where to walk to collect it and which conveyor to put it on. If it sends me, say, to Aisle 26 in Zone 4 for the skimmed milk, while I’m there I’ll also collect whatever else the customer has ordered from Zone 4. Then the AMT points me to another aisle for shampoo or mince meat or yoghurt.

If you get through an order quickly, you might have a minute to chat before the managers notice. I work with a very argumentative atheist and a very argumentative Jehovah’s Witness. The atheist is always saying ‘science disproves God’ and the Jehovah’s Witness always disagrees. As I can’t really get away from them I usually end up getting dragged in but I think God made science. What’s the problem? Why can’t God and science co-exist ?

The Jehovah’s Witness says it’s wrong to be gay. The atheist says Church is conformist. I tell them both they should come to St Luke’s where you can be gay and you don’t have to conform. I’m quite happy they know I’m a Christian, I’m not embarrassed about it.

With a proper job, me and Katya can save up for our wedding – now everyone can stop asking us when we’re getting married. We met as students at Chicken Shed Theatre Company and Dave is marrying us at St Luke’s which is good because I first came to church here when I was six weeks old. At St Luke’s there’s ‘Big Gary’, who’s a painter and decorator, and – because people have seen me grow up – there’s me, who people call ‘Little Big Gary’. Although Big Gary’s not much bigger than me now.

Ivy, my great aunt, sits on the front row with her friends Sissy and Doreen. They always sit there. They should have a sign which says ‘Reserved’ on it. Ivy‘s been a regular for more than 10 years but she first started coming with her sister Ethel, my Nan. They came to see me in the Nativity Play when I was six, after mum and I’d started coming regularly.

I loved the Nativity Plays and I was upset when I got too old to be in them. I played the Holy Spirit one year. Another year I was Joseph, another year a Big Issue salesman – I think that was a modern version of the Nativity. One year I remember the Virgin Mary gave birth to a rugby ball. That was the year England won the Rugby World Cup. That was another modern version.

I’m 23 now but Nativity plays, crèche and Sunday School are powerful memories for me. That’s how I got to know Wez and Tom and Ben and Kaveh. Kaveh could be pretty pumped up sometimes. He used to watch a lot of wrestling. Maybe he liked to use us as opponents. He left church for a long time, but I love it that he just turned up again a few years ago, as if he’d never been away, and he’s a changed person. He’s a brilliant musician too, I love it when he sits down at the piano after a service.

It worries me watching my Nan getting so frail. She can’t get to church at all now but Ivy makes sure she’s ok. She forgets a lot. She sometimes calls me Colin, my Dad’s name. Although, funnily enough, one thing she never forgets is to talk about our wedding. We’re a 40-minute drive from Holloway these days and some Sundays I go to see my Nan instead of coming to the service. I come down for coffee at the end.

People think of churches as being against things but what I like about St Luke’s is that there are lots of different kinds of people and we don’t judge them if they’re different in some way. You can come here whatever you believe, we will still accept you. Even if you’re not religious, come and have a coffee anyway. Nothing will be forced down your throat, make up your own mind. Katya brought her mother once and even she liked it.

I had trouble with my speech when I was young but doing drama games helped me and it got me interested in acting. I’m always the shy one. In a conversation I feel like I babble on too much. Sometimes – as myself – I don’t have the words to say but when you’re acting you have lines to learn so you always know what to say. Acting was how I found a more confident version of myself. After Performing Arts I studied Media Performance and I’d like to get into radio or TV. I’m a film buff. Some weeks I go to the cinema seven or eight times. I saw the new James Bond four times in a week. If my writing matures I’d like to be a film critic.

Colin, my dad isn’t a churchy person. I’ve always come to church with my mum Carol, although I’ve never asked her about her faith. It’s just what we do. As a kid I wasn’t baptised or christened so before my teens I made the decision to be baptized and confirmed on the same day. Being present at St Luke’s is important for me in feeling closer to God. It might be the bread and wine or a hymn or it might just be talking to people afterwards.

You don’t want to put everything on God because he’s got so much to do but it’s good to know he’s looking out for you, that there’s someone to show us a better way. I believe in a creator who designed us and when things are going bad I look to God for guidance. I see God like an old friend, someone you can turn to for a chat, even though he can’t answer you with words. I feel better for talking to God. It’s like being in a family where you know someone is always looking out for you. You’re in God’s family and God wants the best for you.

I’ve been coming to St Luke’s all my life and now I’m getting married here. It seems right. Maybe if Katya and I have children, they’ll be baptised and confirmed here like me. Maybe they’ll be in the Nativity Play like I was.’

A collection of 12 stories like this from St Luke’s can be found in The Gospel According To Everyone.

The Gospel According To Sam Murphy

It’s been said that ‘The Church is the Fifth Gospel’ and in our services at St Luke’s we sometimes feature an additional Gospel reading – from the Gospel of this Church.

This past Sunday we heard a reading from the Gospel of St Luke’s West Holloway, according to Sam Murphy.

‘I’d say I’ve been part of this church since about 1980, so that would be more than thirty years. I started coming along after I moved to the Clocktower Estate and never really stopped.

It was nearly 20 years before that, in 1962, when I came across to London from Ireland. I grew up in County Carlow but I’d been working as a gardener in Bray and then in Dublin. I was getting about £3 a week. You can get that much for an hour these days. A relative introduced me to this posh Irish man who had a landscape gardening firm in London. I met him on the Friday and I was on the boat on the Monday. The money was better, £9 a week, and better still when I got a job in Regents Park. That was £13 a week and I worked there for four years, looking after the rose gardens.

I’ve always loved the gardening but there was so little money in it and eventually I got some classes to learn to be an electrician and that’s how I ended up working for the Post Office, all over the City of London.

My Gran was a real Bible reader, who prayed a lot, but for me it wasn’t until my twenties that faith came to mean something deeper, when I understood about Jesus dying and about how we’re forgiven.

When I first came to St Luke’s, there was a Deaconess, Patsy, living in the vicarage while Tim, the vicar, lived up near me in the flat above St Francis on North Road. Then there was only a handful of us in services, we used to start the hymns with a tape-recorder.

Tim organized a day to work in the garden and I said that I’d do this area over by the front wall. He looked at me with a smile and said, ‘You can do more if you like!’ I did end up doing more. I’ve been doing it ever since. I just like looking after the gardens, I enjoy it.
To me, being close to nature, can be like being close to God, like in the best gardens you have this serene state, this peaceful state. I remember when I first when to Iona, I heard it described as a thin place, where the distance between earth and heaven is not much. A few times I’ve been in the garden of St Luke’s and felt it is also a thin place.

Sometimes people want to pray in the church: one woman, who couldn’t speak English, would only go as far as the doorway, no further – she just stood there. And I asked God to grant her whatever she was praying for.

We used to have a Bible Study and we had home groups. Why they petered out I don’t know.We used to sit and debate, although that got a bit iffy sometimes if you ask me.

If this church wasn’t here I’d miss it. It’s like someone who’s been married for thirty years, you might have some arguments but if they were gone you’d miss them.

I like being with the earth and watching God send the sun and the rain and then seeing how everything grows. Sometimes I just like to look at the roses and marvel at them.’

The Gospel According to Sam is one of 12 stories collected in The Gospel According to Everyone by Martin Wroe.

The Gospel of Adrian

It’s been said that ‘The Church is the Fifth Gospel’ and in our services we sometimes include an extra Gospel reading – from the Gospel of this Church. On Sunday March 4th we heard The Gospel According To Adrian,  who thought he was going to become a priest. But was wrong.

‘When I was young I was sure I was going to be a priest. In fact in my teenage years I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful to do with my life.

That might seem a little odd when you learn I’m from a poor, working class family in Newcastle. My mates only ever thought of football. My brother, for example, he was one of the lads but I was never one of the lads. I was an avid reader and our school had a fantastic library which I just read my way through. I especially loved poetry and my favourite Aunt, Nellie, introduced me to opera and classical music. A family friend even took me to the ballet.

I knew there was something different about me to everyone else in the family. I had this feeling that I would have to get out and get away.

With my mother being a devout Catholic, I also really loved church and the drama of serving as an altar boy. Someone mentioned I might like to visit this Catholic Fayre in Newcastle where all the monasteries and religious orders were getting together. That’s where I came across the Passionists, who had this wonderful junior seminary, Blythe Hall, 120 miles away in Ormskirk. The photographs of this beautiful C16th mansion in its own grounds, were so unbelievable compared to where we lived that it seemed almost too good to be true that a boy could go there and be trained as a priest.

My mother was over the moon when I passed the exams. I was her favourite and there was nothing she could want more than for me to become a priest. My dad was less keen. He’d always been suspicious of me. Why was I always in a book? Why did I want to go to the ballet ? Given this was the 1950’s and I was so fond of the arts, I think he’d earmarked me as a homosexual. What else would you think in those days ? I’m sure he was glad to see the back of me.

For six wonderful years I was taught by these bright, university-educated Passionists. I was the sacristan, I did all the flowers, I was in the choir, I loved the gardening, the football, the cricket. I loved the books and I loved all the other boys. Pete Postlethwaite was one of my friends, plucked, like me, from working class obscurity. The two of us were in all the plays together. The heroic Father Aidan, our English Master, used to write a brilliant Christmas pantomime and one year we were the ugly sisters. In fact I think I played women the entire time I was there.

I was very devout. I was in church every morning and I loved Holy Week because there were so many services. We all knew we were going to be priests and I saw a fantastic life ahead of me full of gardening and reading in the week with a bit of singing and doing communion on Sundays. Perhaps some stamp-collecting on the side. That’s how I thought of it.

But as I got older, a problem emerged. Girls. They started to look more and more attractive and I began to doubt that I could live a celibate life. It was after leaving Blythe Hall, on the night before I was due to start seminary and train as a priest, that everything changed. I was staying in a Worcestershire village with Auntie Nell. I was serving in the village petrol station that they ran as the late summer sun was falling over the hills, when walking down the road towards me came the most extraordinary vision. Jenny Proctor was a peroxide blonde in a polka dot dress and petticoat. Without thinking twice I abandoned the petrol pump and walked with her, right up to the top of Snows Hill where the view took in seventeen counties. We lay down, side by side, on the grass and talked all evening until the stars were twinkling in the dark sky above us.

I never laid a hand on her but when I got back to Nell’s I knew I wasn’t going to seminary the next day. I knew I wasn’t going to be a priest. Nell insisted I rang my mother who told me not to bother coming home again.

But discovering the priesthood wasn’t for me started me on the path to discovering what was. I had a job with Dunlop and when I was transferred south I got in to AmDram and then, another lucky break, a part in Treasure Island at Birmingham Rep, while I was in my first year at Drama School. After that you couldn’t stop me. I learned everything I could about theatre and I could do a lot of things quite well: I could sing, I could dance, I could act. I could do Shakespeare or comedy. Before I’d stopped to catch my breath I was in London, it was the swinging 60’s and I was starring in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at The Ambassadors in the West End.

Being an actor and then director in London in the sixties and seventies wasn’t really compatible with churchgoing. I fell by the wayside as the Catholics would say. I didn’t go to confession because the priest would tell me to stop doing so much partying… but I couldn’t. I stopped going to church instead. Not that I was closed down spiritually, not even in my wildest days. I was active in politics, in demos, campaigning – maybe social justice was how my faith was expressed then. The trouble with being a Catholic is that you can stop going to Church, but you can never really stop being Catholic. Sometimes I’d just drop into a church and sit there. I was always so moved by these places.

By my mid-forties I was having a ball, living in my Highgate flat, earning good money, directing documentaries and commercials. There were any number of girlfriends but never that special person. I was sometimes a little sad thinking I’d never met the one special person, that the time for having a family had passed. But then I had to pitch a script to this very attractive, high-powered, woman running her own company. She was quite different to the other women I’d been drawn to – not least because she wouldn’t let me get my own way. Twenty five years later I still can’t get my own way with Bridg and I wouldn’t have it any other way. She changed my life again and gave me two wonderful children, the family I never thought I’d have.

The strange thing is that for nine years we lived three minutes from St Luke’s without ever going in but when Ellie and Luke came along there was a school we wanted which insisted on a religious connection. They didn’t care what kind so we thought maybe even that church up the road might do. Malcolm Doney was preaching on our first morning and I remember after the Bible reading he said, ‘Well that doesn’t make any sense does it?’ That was it for me. This was my kind of church, where people can admit that sometimes even the Bible seems odd. The people were so friendly too. We never left. That was ten years ago.

Finding St Luke’s was like coming home, like completing an arc in my life, coming back to Church after all that time. But this time I’d found a community where I could be more honest about faith, where religion wasn’t about guilt but more about supporting each other, not about heavy doctrines but about friendship. I’d always loved the singing and drama of church but less so the catechism but here you don’t have to worry if you have all the right beliefs. It’s helped me find faith in a new way and it’s hard to imagine how that might have happened anywhere else.

People always tell me I’ve been lucky in my life, that I’ve had a lot of really good breaks and it’s true but I’d rather use the word blessing. Even though I wasn’t cut out for the priesthood, I’ve always felt someone was clearing a path for me through life, I’ve always felt blessed, that maybe God has travelled with me, even when I wasn’t aware of it.’

More like this in The Gospel According to Everyone.

The Gospel Of James

It’s been said that ‘The Church is the Fifth Gospel’ and in our services we sometimes include an extra Gospel reading – from the Gospel of this Church.  On Sunday Feb 4th we heard The Gospel According To James, who’s been sleeping in St Luke’s on Saturdays this Winter, thanks to the Islington Churches Night Shelter Project.

‘It can be deadly living rough. You’re not safe anywhere. Anyone can come and kick you or stab you. People can be on drink or drugs, they can be out of control. No-one is safe. That’s my opinion.

The Churches Nightshelter is very helpful, in fact churches are generally good if you’re homeless. If I wasn’t in the Shelter tonight I’d probably be sleeping out in some church grounds or somewhere where it’s a bit warm, an underground car park or a squat in a house if I could get into one.

It’s hard sleeping out, the winter cold is the worst of it. Even in my sleeping bag I might sleep four hours at the most. Worst of all is getting your head down in a nice sleep, then being woken up by the police and told to move on.

I look back on me life sometimes and think it went wrong somewhere. If I could turn the clock back, I wouldn’t be in the situation I am. I’m from the North East originally, born in Bishop Auckland. I didn’t know me mam really, she died young. She was 34. I was 7, me brother 10. Me dad raised us, he was a miner and a gravedigger but he gave up work to look after us.

At school I was good at athletics, beating boys who were older than me. I was a medium-distance runner, 10,000 metres, 15,000 metres but I couldn’t get into PE college because I didn’t pass me history. I wrote a letter off to Dennis Smith Stables in Bishop Auckland to try and become a jockey and I was apprenticed for two years. I’d be getting up at five, mucking the stables out, getting ready for riding out, going to race meetings. It was hard work for £19 a week. I gave me Dad £9 or £10 and spent a lot of what was left on alcohol. You could get four pints for a pound in those days.

I didn’t make the grade as a jockey and I came to London looking for work. Me first job was in a Gentlemans Club, Boodles, on St James’ Street, near the Ritz, it’s still there today.
The chef said, ‘You’re a pretty good worker there James.’
‘I said, ‘I try me hardest chef.’
He offered me a job and I was there about five years: kitchen porter, helping the chefs prepare the food, doing the wash-up, mopping the floor, stock-taking. It was hard work, nine in the morning till nine at night, so no socialising till the weekend but I loved it. I was taking home £200 a week, living in a hostel in Dean Street.

The eighties was brilliant, I’d turn back the clock to them anytime.
Later I was a security guard in Fitzroy Square, then at Liverpool Street Station. But, as I say, the alcohol got to us. Vodka, Southern Comfort, vodka, lager as well, strong lager. I don’t know how much I drank, too much. It was getting out of control. After work I would head to an off-license for some cans and go back to the hostel. I started missing shifts at the security place, they started getting cross. I lost the job.

In 1992 I was diagnosed with epilepsy and I’ve not been able to work since. I had a flat in Waterloo, but it was on the ninth floor so when the lifts weren’t working it was a bit hectic. I couldn’t manage the climb and I left.

I lived with a girlfriend for some years but when we split up she kicked me out. I’ve been sofa-surfing ever since.

Then something happened.

It was about eight year ago.

I was feeling really hopeless one night, really down, I felt like I was going to kill meself, felt really washed up, thought it was time to go… but something happened which has changed me life.

I was actually drunk, out of me head. It was somewhere in Camden, a car park – to this day I’m not sure where – and I just went on me hands and knees and asked God for help.

I said, ‘Please help me, I need help desperately, get me out of this mess I’m in. Please.’

There was no booming voices, no opening of the heavens, no choirs of angels but something happened to me. I had a feeling, something inside me was trying to get out and tell me something.

It was like me soul was trying to get out and say, ‘You’re a naughty boy James – help yourself ‘cus people will not help you, you’ve got to help yourself.’

I believe that was God.

That experience made me really believe I was going to change me life around and it has changed me life.

I’ve not done drugs or had a drink since, I’m teetotal now.

The paranoia, the drugs and beer that was poison to my body have all gone.

I used to have rages, shouting, punching the wall, whatever, I stopped all that.

I’ll never forget that night. I went home, got the Bible out and read Psalm 13.

‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long…. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.’

I prayed for help in that car park that night and I got help. It has given me strength and a sense of purpose.

I’ve made some good friends on the Churches Nightshelter. We’re all in the same boat, everyone has a problem but everyone has a different problem. I’m 51 now so I’ve a lot more experience of being homeless than others living rough and I say to people, ‘You have to help yourself, no one else can.’

I do wonder why I’m still living rough, living in hostels, on the streets. It’s because of relationship breakdown isn’t it? And finance and drink. There’s a few things…

I’m still asking for help, I’m still homeless. Sometimes it’s tiring, exhausting, and sometimes I get cross with God, I say: ‘It hasn’t gone my way today, why don’t you help me?’

But I believe I will get my own place and start again. That slowly my life is getting back on track, and things are changing for the better. I read my Bible and say my prayers and I feel as though God is helping me, that it’s like he’s speaking to me and he’s got a twinkle in his little eye…’

More like this in The Gospel According to Everyone.

The Gospel According To Everyone

How come in Church we only ever hear the gospels of four men in Palestine 2,000 years ago? What if we heard a reading from a Fifth Gospel, from the stories of the people sitting next to us? The woman who gave up her child for adoption. The gardener who notices God in the roses. The gay man shunned by his children. The atheist who found he’d become a believer. What if we heard from The Gospel According To Everyone?

Every few weeks at St Luke’s one of the readings in our morning service is from the Gospel of our own community and  twelve of these stories have now been published in a small collection, The Gospel According To Everyone.  With layout and design by Rob Pepper, accompanying each story in the book (and e-book)  is a portrait by the artist Meg Wroe. If you’re at St Luke’s in the next few weeks you can buy a copy after a service (£5) but if you’re not you can buy The Gospel According To Everyone online at Lulu.com or in the iBook Store.

Short stories of faith and doubt, of love and longing, if you’ve ever been part of  St Luke’s, West Holloway in north London you might recognise these people … and if you haven’t you may recognise them anyway.