TONY, you work alongside some of society’s most vulnerable people: those who are homeless and/or have serious alcohol and drug addictions. How did life start for you?
I was brought up in Beaumont Leys, a rough council estate in Leicester. My mum believed in God but it was my Christian grandma who was the really positive influence on our family. She was in the Salvation Army for 70 years. My dad was strict and never expressed pride in his children. I was bullied as a boy as I was a big lad. The result of all this was I grew up with very little self-esteem and confidence; I thought I wasn’t much good and this made me unsociable.
I moved to Leamington when I was 20 with my girlfriend. We were invited to a Billy Graham crusade and I gave my heart to the Lord. We were married in church but I soon began to get disillusioned with church: surely church life was more than going on Sundays? Then my marriage broke up. I moved to a bedsit, sank into depression and felt a little suicidal. My only friend was the TV.
I found a job in an engineering company in Southam, near Rugby, and began working on a machine with Dave Harrison, a Christian from the Jesus Fellowship. We played chess at lunchtime and Dave invited me to the Christian community house where he lived. The acceptance and love I experienced there changed my heart and I gave my heart back to Jesus.
Tony, how did you first get involved with the Jesus Centre?
I had a job as a coach driver, which meant I worked long hours and missed out on church life. Then I saw a job advertisement for a support worker at Coventry Jesus Centre. Applying for that job was the best thing I ever did. I began to work at the Jesus Centre and my spiritual life came to life. I learned to love people again.
What’s your job role at the Jesus Centre?
I’m employed as a support worker but actually do a bit of everything. I team-lead the Bridge drop-in session once a week: between 50-70 homeless or vulnerably housed people come in every day for shelter, a free breakfast, have a shower if they want and can get clean, dry clothes. I also do any DIY that needs doing around the Centre and run two groups: ‘Your Space’ which provides a safe, dry space two afternoons a week for friendship, games, free drinks and food and ‘Your Fitness’, which runs one afternoon a week in order to help people keep fit by using a range of exercise machines. I also give housing advice and assist people to fill in forms for benefits, etc. We have a furniture store and I help people we work with furnish their homes – especially if they are newly housed. Sometimes someone just needs to talk and I’m there to listen.
Do you ever get frustrated? I mean, your work must be difficult sometimes.
Sometimes I get frustrated when people using the Centre don’t change; they sometimes have great intentions when you talk to them but so often their best intentions get lost in the demands of their chaotic lifestyle. They’re trapped in addictions and some continue to shoplift to pay for their habit.
At times the guys that come into the Bridge or Your Space can be disrespectful and ungrateful but I get on with nearly all of them. It’s very important to show some sort of kindness to them, even if they are difficult. They tell me I’m fair, and I’ve found that one of the secrets of getting alongside them is to speak ‘on a level’ with them and not tell them off from an authoritarian standpoint.
Do you have encouraging times too?
The best times are when we’ve prayed for people at the end of an appointment. On occasions, they’ve broken down in tears and told us they’re feeling changed inside. All the crap you’ve been through for the last few months is worth it. We want to feel we’re doing something – we’re certainly not in it for money or for our own glory!
Finally, do you feel your life experience helps you in your work?
Sometimes, I tell the guys I love them. I try to make them feel valued and greet them by saying, “It’s really nice to see you!” I want them to feel they’ve got a place here at the Jesus Centre. Many of the guys suffer from low self-esteem; that’s often the root of their addictions. Yes, I can certainly understand where they come from.