Throughout my ministry I’ve often listened to people who feel victim to forces beyond their control. Whether it’s illness or poverty, injustice or relationships, people can find themselves at the end of their tether. I’m quite sure that pastoral care and careful listening are helpful in such situations. However, sometimes those who listen to these experiences decide to do more. To do something that will alter the circumstances giving rise to fear is a rare and admirable action. Thankfully, there are some outstanding examples where this has happened and today – MHA Sunday – churches celebrate the continuing work founded by the efforts of one Methodist minister. They celebrate – but also look to continue the work of innovation in the way we enable people to live later life well.
It seems remarkable that the Rev’d Walter Hall had the vision and tenacity to instigate the creation of MHA during a world war. Surely this was something that gave ample grounds for delaying (or even shelving) the proposal? Yet Walter persisted; evangelised others to the cause; and had the wit to secure for the Methodist Conference the promise of a substantial donation if a charity was created. Now, 78 years later, ‘Methodist Homes’ operates over 160 residential sites as well as a range of services to help people live later life well in the community.
The initial aim of MHA was to alleviate the fears Walter heard during his pastoral visits to ageing members of church. He heard too many stories of anxious people concerned that they were ‘one piece of bad luck away from the workhouse’. This was a fear which wasn’t dispelled by the creation of the welfare state, as residential care remains a sector occupied by a mix of charitable; not-for-profit; and fully commercial providers. In particular, MHA set out with the intention to make living in a retirement community a more dignified and positive experience. As people began to have longer lives the need for this kind of service is as pressing today as it has ever been.
In many churches today a passage of Mark’s Gospel has been read, in which Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. Small in itself, it grows to offer birds somewhere to perch. It is an enduring image of modest faith, and small deeds, growing far beyond the expectations felt at the start. Like The Samaritans and many other charities, the drive to achieve change for the better grew out of poignant experiences in the community. At their best, churches have the kind of cross-cutting connections that enable a particular kind of insight. The capacity to mind about the whole operation of a society, and perceive the often unseen gaps and needs. In some cases that ability to hear and understand can be changed into potent and transformative action.
When I look at Walter’s portrait in MHA’s central offices I often wonder what he would make of the charity today. The largest UK charity providing residential care for older people. Not only that, but a charity that continues to campaign to #fixcareforall. Surely, two years after the Prime Minister of the UK made a commitment to fix social care, it’s time he followed Walter’s example and turned words into deeds?
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.1 John 4:10 NRSV
Fear still exists for many people as they age. Walter’s story is an inspiring example of the small steps that stem from the command to love our neighbours. Sometimes the start of projects may feel like planting the smallest of seeds – yet we never know how that tiny foundation might grow. Thankfully, we continue to see work begun that seeks to transform our communities for the better. We cherish and develop the works of compassion already began and look for those situations which still cry out for justice. At the end of the day, it is only when we care and support everyone around us that we will see a society which values each and every person. A society of which we are all proud to be a part.