Darrell Makepeace is sleeping rough. Since the break-up of his marriage to Elona, he has had nowhere to call his home. He has stayed at the shelter for the homeless in Borchester (The Elms) but is reluctant to return there as he has been attacked by some of the other clients. He wants to maintain contact with his children; they are less keen on seeing him. So he has returned to Ambridge and is to be seen sleeping in the bus shelter or slipping in and out of The Bull to use the toilets.
The two people who are most aware (or at least most concerned) about Darrell are Shula and Neil, both pillars of St Stephen’s who are engaged in raising the £30,000 needed to repair the organ. It is Shula who voices the question that many a church member finds herself asking: has the church got its priorities right? Does God want Christians to raise money for musical instruments whilst God’s children have nowhere to sleep at night? Alan sympathises (and shares her concern) but argues that the church cannot simply solve Darrell’s problems; he needs counselling in order to get his life back on track.
Darrell is a casualty of the recession; he has not found it easy to find work on construction sites. But he has also been the author of his own misfortune: in part because he made what would seem to be the right moral decision in refusing to deal corruptly for Matt Crawford and in part because he then returned to crime with the dog-fighting ring. Darrell gives the impression of being a weak character; someone who finds it difficult to say ‘No’ and in recent days to be someone who easily becomes a victim. In common parlance, Darrell is ‘a loser’.
But there’s a startling resonance that Christians can’t escape hearing in the Darrell story. He is, as he keeps reminding us, a man with a trade, a skilled craftsman, a joiner. This carpenter has nowhere to lay his head. We are reminded of the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew in which Christ invites us to see him in the Darrells of this world. The meals that Shula and Neil offer, the concern that they express, and their desire to do more are rooted in this deep Christian understanding. But Darrell is difficult to help.
This storyline invites us to reflect on a complex situation with which churches all over the country (though less in rural than in urban areas) have wrestled for generations: how does the Church serve those in whom we are asked to see Christ given that there are limited resources and that those in need demand to be left to solve their own problems? It is a question that draws on a number of elements:
There are Darrell’s relationships. Neil is a friend who talks about his concern for Darrell more in terms of friendship than of faith. Elona (from whom Darrell has only recently separated) does not appear to know of his predicament. Given his evident inability to take responsibility for himself, who is responsible for Darrell?
There is the nature of 21st-century British society. Darrell’s story is not unique. Unemployment and marriage break-up are two factors that can often lead to poverty. Those who’ve worked with the homeless will know that it’s commonly said that most of us are only two bad decisions away from sleeping on the streets. The safety nets of the benefits’ system don’t always catch those for whom they are intended. What is society’s responsibility to the likes of Darrell?
Shula points us to the Church. Valid though his points are, Alan clearly recognizes that Shula has put her finger on an uncomfortable truth: it is easier for the church to raise £30,000 for an organ which only the much-maligned Valda can play than it is to provide a bed for Darrell. Christians would argue that the church in this instance is not the diocese or St Stephen’s’ PCC; the church is Neil and Shula, the Christians who offer the sandwich or the shepherd’s pie. Yet we are left with Shula’s question: doesn’t the Church want to take responsibility for Darrell?
Finally, there is Darrell’s autonomy. If the Church exists to reflect the love of God, it does so following the pattern of a loving parent who allows God’s children to make their own mistakes. The gospel story is of all-powerful love that became helpless. The listener who feels for Darrell and who shares the frustration of Shula, Neil and Alan is sensing something of the divine pain.