After hearing all about the work of Faith in Later Life and their outreach into the communities of engaged but older parishioners that are all around us, I got to thinking about the chap I sit next to every week at church, James.
We have sat next to each other most Sundays now for a couple of years, ever since I started reading in church, and needed to be near the front. We pass pleasantries each week – I entertain him with tales of what the family has been up to, we share stories of foreign travel, me for work, him past holidays, and on the occasion that I have family with me, they join in the general conversation.
I thought about my elderly mother and parents-in-law, about how they had all of their children living near to them, or near enough to regularly socialise. About how we got together as families to share time together. I thought about how often James would mention that his beloved wife died more than 30 years ago. How they hadn’t been lucky enough to have had children. How he had only one sibling left (he was the youngest) and they only managed to talk on the phone nowadays. He lived in a flat in an assisted living complex – he had a red button that could summon assistance, if he needed it, but otherwise he could live quite independently in his own little apartment. How he tried to go out shopping every day so that he kept up and about.
And the next Sunday that I saw James I asked him if he’d like to come to Sunday lunch with us the following week. He was taken aback – he later told me that he was embarrassed as he felt quite emotional at having been invited, for no particular reason than we would like him to share a meal with us. He blustered that he wouldn’t want to interfere or take up any of our time. But, he said yes. I asked him what kind of things he liked and didn’t, and we agreed that a traditional Sunday roast would be ideal for him. The following Sunday, he was waiting for me as soon as I got into church. He checked that he was still welcome, and when I insisted that he was, we arranged a time for me to pick him up.
My family (husband and teenage children) had taken surprisingly little persuasion to come around to the idea of the invitation (as I had asked him before mentioning it to anyone), and when they welcomed him into the house, everyone was so warm and inviting that it seemed entirely natural that he should be with us. We got an awful lot from having James to lunch that day, we shared fellowship with him, the children engaged with him in conversation in ways that were surprising and pleasing to me, we shared stories of his earlier life and heard about the different places he had lived and visited, and generally became friends rather than acquaintances.
As he left, he was warmly invited back, and we all agreed to make it a regular occurrence rather than a one-off.
The following week, as I entered church I was stopped by three separate people who he had told about his visit, to say that he had been buzzing since he arrived that morning. When I sat down and said hello he told me that he had had a wonderful time and if he were to be lucky enough to be invited again, there would be no hesitation on his part, as he would love to come.
And we didn’t do anything special that day – we didn’t use the fancy crockery, I hadn’t cooked anything out of the ordinary, no airs and graces were put on. All we had done was to invite a near stranger into our home, who didn’t get to visit many other homes, and to make him feel welcome and part of our family.
I still feel warm inside thinking about how easy it was to make that move and how enriched we felt as a family group with him there, and I look forward to next month when he’ll come again.
Alexandra McDonald is the Commercial Director for SPCK Publishing & Inter-Varsity Press. SPCK are publishing Faith in Later Life’s first book, ‘Finishing Well’ by Revd Ian Knox, due for publication in June 2020.