A message from the Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, for Christmas Day.
“One homeless child at Christmas is a tragedy. 80,000 of them is a disgrace.”
Unfortunately we live in a world where people suffer from what has been called “compassion fatigue”. Unlike previous generations we are bombarded with information and images about all the suffering in our world and we become sufficiently used to it that its impact is dulled. The Christmas campaign that broke through that for me was the campaign by Shelter, the homelessness charity. I saw the advert on the train - one homeless child at Christmas a tragedy, 80,000 a disgrace.
The internet makes it so easy to find out more. I was puzzled by the 80,000. Clearly too small a figure to be a world-wide statistic, but surely too great to be the UK alone, I thought. But, no, 80,000 is the figure for Britain and last year it was 75,000, so the situation is deteriorating. “Homeless” in this context doesn’t often mean no roof over their head, but it does more often than not mean emergency housing in Bed and Breakfasts - no place one can call home and sometimes nowhere to stay during the day. Shelter tells how almost half of the families they interviewed reported children witnessing disturbing incidents, including open drug use and threats of violence. The majority of families interviewed said they felt unsafe in their emergency accommodation.
The Christmas story that we retell each year is, of course, about a homeless family. Again they did have a roof over their head, but not their own home. Instead it was a stable with straw in a manger for a bed. Homelessness lies at the heart of the story and, for all that great artists and Christmas cards can make the stable look very appealing, it was in reality a wretched place for a child to be, let alone a place for a mother to bring her child to birth.
Of course the story did not stop at the stable scene. Later comes the massacre of the innocent children by the tyrant King Herod, from which Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape only by a flight into Egypt. The homeless family become the refugees in a foreign land. 80,000 homeless children in Britain is indeed a disgrace, but the hundreds of thousands of refugee children, fleeing from Syria and other countries into neighbouring lands is more disgraceful still. Spare a thought, offer a prayer, for them, and do more if you can.
There is one sense in which the Shelter campaign could be said to have got it wrong. The point of the Christmas story is that, in one unique case, one homeless child at Christmas was not a tragedy. It was a revelation of the love of God and the beginning of a life that brought rescue to a broken world. The homeless child in the stable was Jesus, God’s own Son, and he chose to be born in the stable to illustrate his identification with the poor and the marginalised. That one homeless child at Christmas was not a tragedy. It was, is, good tidings of comfort and joy. But it challenges us to work, with the God who loves the world so much that he sent Jesus, to reduce that figure of 80,000 and, if necessary, to open our borders more readily to refugees. There need to be tidings of comfort and joy for them too."
Read the Bishop's sermon in full from 12 noon tomorrow.