When I thought about writing a blog in quarantine, my plan was to document the work of St Aidan’s Kitchen, the (more than) Soup Kitchen that was set up in August 2017 in my church in Hartlepool. I had been meaning to write some of the stories for a long time but hadn’t got around to it. I had ideas to write a book, ‘Tales from St Aidan’s Kitchen’, and thought a blog might be a good start but each day, when I’ve sat down to write, the things that have come to me have rarely been about that place or time and those stories just didn’t come. Until today.
Back in 2013 I was working in India with women and girls who had been trafficked and enslaved in the sex industry. I had no idea what I was doing but I couldn’t think of anything more important in the world than trying to end slavery, so off I went. While I was there, I met the most amazing and beautiful, strong, and broken women and girls. Everywhere I went I kept hearing this echo from God, ‘when you tell these people’s stories, make sure their names are safe in your mouth’. Over and over God said it, and I didn’t know what it meant, but I am reminded of that now, as I begin to share the stories of some of my friends from St Aidan’s Kitchen. And I entrust their stories to you and ask that their names* would be safe in your mouth too if you share them.
So, I can only ever begin with Samantha.
Samantha first came to The Kitchen in October 2017. She was cold and dirty, shivering in the pew, and had been sleeping on a car park for the last few nights. She had walked to Hartlepool from Middlesbrough and worn her shoes through. She was escaping a violent relationship and was sporting a real shiner of a black eye; a group of men she didn’t know had attacked her the night before with a vodka bottle and told her that her boyfriend knew where she was and was coming to find her. She was terrified and kept one eye on the door the whole time.
Samantha was wearing every item of clothing she had, and she carried her whole life in one carrier bag, including every single certificate she had ever been awarded. We gave her a bag of food, a bowl of warm soapy water, a clean towel and a hug and she shook as she cried. She told me she had been using the public toilets at the train station to wash her face and had been washing her feet in the marina. In the Northeast of England, in October. She taught me that giving homeless people baked beans was a rubbish idea – not because she couldn’t heat them (she didn’t care about that), but because she didn’t next know when she would find a clean toilet and didn’t want to be caught short… She taught me things every time I saw her.
By the end of that morning, we’d found her a place in a hostel and within a fortnight she had a home that we furnished for her. Sam was kind and generous and beaming with gratitude. She was encountering grace and unconditional acceptance, and for a couple of months she really flourished. In the December, I baptised her and the next day she was confirmed by the bishop. She knew the love and acceptance of God, and the welcome of the church. Together, we loved Sam well, and she grew as a result – not physically, of course; she remained just a tiny dot, a little over 5 foot and probably 7 stone, wet through.
My interactions with her made me, I hope, a better priest and a more loving person. She took our time and our attention. She would call late at night, anxious and upset, and would stay on the phone until her battery died. She was at everything that happened at church. She joined in with all the liturgy and hymn singing (whether she knew it or not!) – loudly – not always at the right times, and she found her way into the hearts of many of us. It was easy to love Samantha. Actually, not easy. It wasn’t easy, it was bloody hard work, but it was simple, and it was costly – in time and money and many other ways.
Samantha wasn’t a drug addict, although many would’ve thought she was. She was a drinker, and her alcohol addiction had cost her her children, previous homes and relationships, jobs, friends. It had cost her everything, several times over, but she was doing well with us. She wasn’t drinking, she had new friends and a support network, and she was truly flourishing, in body, mind and spirit.
And then, the day before Christmas Eve, Samantha disappeared. She simply vanished, and 6 weeks later she was dead. The police told me she had died of a heroin overdose, which I just couldn’t believe. Had I been so dumb as to take her at her word when she told me how much she hated drugs and would never touch them (God knows I had no idea when others at the Kitchen were lying to me, not for a long time!!)?? Was I that stupid? That bloody naïve?
When we went into her house, everything we had given to her had been sold or stolen. It was a ransacked mess. And it was hard to not feel like she’d taken our love and our kindness and traded it in for addiction. It was hard to not feel like the love she had experienced in our church family had been thrown away; that she’d swapped all that love for chaos and drugs.
Over the next few painful months, the truth began to unfold. Samantha’s violent boyfriend had indeed found her, just as he had promised. He had somehow won her back, moved into her house, and she had begun drinking again. He was (maybe still is) a drug user and regularly injected smack. This man had encouraged Samantha to try heroin. In court he told the judge that she wasn’t keen but eventually gave in, and he injected Sam with his own dose – the dose of a seasoned drug user who is 6ft+ and 16 stone – and Samantha died straight away, on the very first time**.
Her body was wrecked, and the funeral was delayed and delayed while autopsies and police investigations and court procedures happened. Eventually, three months later, I got to lay Sam to rest, while her mum (who had loved her forever but not seen her in years) and son (who she said had been murdered) looked on – one screaming the most guttural cries I’ve ever heard, and the other pale faced and wide-eyed, white with shock.
I went and anointed Sam just before her funeral and I was angry. I was angry with her and angry with God; I was angry with her boyfriend and at the system and at myself for not having saved her. But I was also so thankful to Sam. She taught me about the vulnerability of relationships, and what it means to truly love fiercely, without boundaries and restrictions. That love, my love, and the love of all those who encountered Sam, had been taken, enjoyed; it had really nourished her and done all kinds of healing, but it had ended up sold and discarded. And that is a risk we take. Every. Single. Time.
Loving fiercely is costly. It is uncomfortable, challenging, dangerous even, but it is holy. And isn’t that our quest? Don’t we aim for holiness?
If extravagant love could have saved Sam, I expect she would be changing the world right now. She lit up at the mention of Jesus and children and whenever she was cleaning! And she made some truly horrendous choices in her life that cost her it all in the end. But I feel privileged to have known her, even for such a short time. I feel changed and moulded and reshaped by every single one of my encounters with Samantha and I will never, not ever, regret what we did for her and what we gave her, and I would do it all over again, and again, and again (indeed, I have). Because that is the love of Christ, and that is what we are called to.
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ Matt 25:40
* Many of the names will be changed, some will be theirs.
** incidentally, he was found guilty of Samantha’s death and was sentenced to only 20 months in prison. Twenty months…