The Bristol Benevolent Institution

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Bristol Benevolent Institution Sermon 2012 Thanksgiving


If you go to the history books you will pretty quickly discover that the Bristol Benevolent Institution was founded nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, in 1869. What the books tell you is that the BBI was created to assist those Bristolians who had been self-employed in the city, but had fallen on hard times. In its first year six people were helped and the average grant was £22. Now, that all sounds rather genteel and quite polite: kind people doing kind things in a quiet, polite sort of way. Actually it is a bit more complicated than that; let me take you back, for a moment, to Bristol in the 1860s.
The 1860s were heady days in Bristol, Brunel’s suspension bridge had just been completed (there had been horrible years when the engineers had abandoned the bridge for lack of funds and you could see just the stumps of the two towers sticking up, either side of the gorge, but in the 1860s things got done). The railway to London had been running for twenty years and, from 1867, you could get as far as Penzance. Business was bustling, the city was growing fast, and growing rich. Houses were being built up in Clifton and great warehouses were going up round the docks. Between 1830 and 1880 the population of Bristol doubled in size. These were the days when the British Empire expanded apparently month by month our troops were in Basutoland and Abyssinia, Gladstone was Prime Minister and the British held their heads high. But, there was a seamy side to all that success, a hideous, abiding, sickening poverty, a deep injustice. In the 1860s Bristol needed ragged school for children living rough round the docks. George Muller was overwhelmed with demand for his orphanages. Housing conditions for the poor were appalling, cholera was a real risk, and when wages stopped there were no benefits for the sick and the old. Again and again men and women fell into debt, debt from which there was no escape, debt which could lead to prison for years and years. This was not genteel at all, not polite, not kind. Bristol’s debtors’ prisons were notorious, terrible places and it is only in 1869 that it became illegal to put someone in them indefinitely. That phrase: ‘falling on hard times’ was full of terror.
So the 1860s were years of commerce and reform, there was anger about the condition of the poor and about injustice. William Booth was founding what became the Salvation Army, women were being educated at University this was the year Girton College was founded, public hangings ended in 1869 and the Trades Union Movement was founded as the employed began to take note of their circumstances. Your BBI is part of that, you should be proud of that. Your founders were pioneers, men and women with a bit of fire in their hearts, a passion to care for those in need, a conviction that the city and the system was not fair, they wanted to change that. Those grants I talked about, were bigger than you might think, £22 was a lot of money – it would take six months for a labourer to earn that much.
So, the BBI has an edge to it, it has done great work, life changing work, it is not just a charity it is a different way of looking at the city, it is hope for those who had none, justice for those who were in a kind of slavery. It is light in the darkness. It is not kindness we are celebrating, kindness can often be a random act, the gift of a few pounds, a drop in the ocean, a moment’s help. The BBI is charity as we used to understand it, charity that lifts people up and changes things for good. We are kind to people we want to help for a time, charity helps for good and all, in charity we live together, we become neighbours we live in a community.
And that has been the great thing, it seems to me, about BBI. Your determination to have visitors, your conviction that we do not give anonymously, but that we meet one another is crucial, it changes things. I can drop some coins in a tin and feel a bit better, feel that I have helped, but looking someone in the eye, understanding what they need and why they need it, feeling the distress, making a relationship, that is a different business altogether, so three cheers for the BBI and the remarkable people who do this visiting. I know that this year there are powerful memories of Hanne Shorland, a visitor for the BBI for 26 years who died not so very long ago. And what people say about her is not that she was kind or sympathetic (though she was both), but that she became a friend. She made a difference because she made friendships. That is a truly significant thing to do.
And just as a reminder of how important this work is let‘s turn, very briefly, to that story we heard from the gospels a moment ago. It began
'Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came [to Jesus]'
Notice, this man Jairus was important; he was a leader of the synagogue. I think that makes him Dean and believe me Deans take themselves seriously. So, he marches up to Jesus and asks Jesus to come to his house. He does that because his daughter is critically ill and he is desperate. He was confident, pressing and very anxious and Jesus went. So it all starts a bit formally and in stress and anxiety. But on the way to Jairus’ house someone else interferes, a poor woman, a sick woman. Actually, in Jewish terms she is unclean, an outcast, she is not supposed to come near, she is certainly not supposed to touch, but she does. And for both of these people, for the grand religious leader with his airs and graces, and for the poor, frightened badly-behaved woman in the crowd, Jesus has time and conversation. It is the point I was making about your visitors and your work, it is not just the actions that matter, it is the attitude, it is the business of going to someone’s home, it is the business of talking, listening, and understanding. Jesus does not just perform a miracle; that is a great trick, but that is all that it is, a trick. Jesus builds relationships, makes communities.
It is the end of this story that is so startling. By the time Jesus reaches Jairus’ house the little girl has died and we are in the midst of tragedy. Visiting the house Jesus restores the girl to life. It is a staggering, breath-taking thing to do. And what does Jesus do next? He has raised the dead, Easter has come crashing in and in heaven the angels rejoice, but he gives the simplest command, he directed them to give her something to eat. In the midst of all that drama and excitement Jesus gives the child back to her family and back to the familiar domestic routines. Just like the woman he called Daughter; Jesus restores relationship and tells them to live their lives together. It is not the miracle we should see, but the community, the challenge and excitement of living together in love.
It is a privilege to celebrate the life and work of BBI with you because in your origins, in that passion for justice and change and in the work you do know, in visiting and in relationship you do something unusual and very, very important. You look to the day when this city and it is people will share a common life, will feel and believe that they belong together in the city as men, women and children who can look each other in the eye and talk. You do not just believe in kindness, you believe in friendship. It is not something quiet and polite we are celebrating, but something much more radical and unsettling. We are here today to give thanks for the work of a group of trustees and their supporters who have a vision of a different, better city where we will live in community and real charity. May God bless them and the work that lies ahead, for it is his work and it is precious in his eyes.

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