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franciscan - May 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

The Witness of Life

an interview with Father John Kitchen

John Kitchen, a member of the Holy Ghost Fathers for over thirty years, works with an organisation for homeless people with drinking problems, in South London. Sister Rose CSF went to talk to him about his life and work.

Can you tell me something about your family and religious background?
I come from a very Catholic family in Lancashire. My mum and dad were very close to the church, daily churchgoers whenever they could, and they brought us up like that. As a child I found it a bit of a drag in some ways, but it had a meaning as well. Mum used to pray that one of us would be a priest; when a vocations director came around I visited a junior seminary to see what it was like. I liked it and thought Iíd give it a go Ė I went there when I was thirteen and stayed six years. Then I went straight from there to the noviciate. That was 1966, just at the end of the Second Vatican Council, and I was twenty.

What was the main work of the congregation when you joined?
It had a missionary slant to it: we all thought we would be going out to foreign missions and it was only later that the idea of missions being non-geographical but more situational became common. That mission is wherever there is need, and that basically the Christian message is to love people wherever and whoever they are. As a religious congregation we were dedicated to the poorest and most abandoned. That always stuck in my mind as being the main centre and I felt my vocation to be towards the poor and the needy rather than to another country Ė that it didnít matter whether it was in this country or abroad.

After the noviciate what did you do?
At first I studied philosophy and theology; then I went to Sierra Leone but had to come back because of hepatitis. I was made director of the junior seminary but there were very few people coming in; it was seen as no longer the way to do things. So after four years I volunteered to go to Pakistan, where they wanted to open a new mission place. I went there in 1977, stayed ten years, and loved every minute of my time.

How did you get started doing mission in this country?
I was asked to come back from Pakistan to be the director of our seminary in London; but numbers were falling there too, and we decided it would be better for the students to go to other seminaries where there were bigger communities. As we were making these arrangements I got more and more involved with homeless people in Hendon, to the extent that we had taken a couple of men into our community. They seemed to thrive; stopped drinking, became part of us, having their meals with us, relaxing with us, helping around the house. I got the idea that maybe this was a way that people on the streets could be helped Ė alcoholics, drug addicts Ė that if they had a supportive community around them that could be a basis on which to gain sobriety. So rather than go back out to the missions somewhere I asked if I could continue this work and see what happened.

How did your congregation react?
They didnít react favourably, there was a lot of opposition from the men in the mission fields. Especially from those in Nigeria who felt that the needs there were greater and they were in need of more people from the congregation to fulfil the commitments they already had there. We had been there for forty to fifty years.

Was it hard for you to resist that?
It wasnít hard for me personally to resist it, but it was hard for me to field the opposition. I believed in what I was doing. It was the poorest and most abandoned I was working with in our society.
Yes, how much poorer can you get than living in a doorway and killing yourself with drink!
Compared with what I saw in Sierra Leone and Pakistan Ė the poverty I saw in the homeless here was devastating and far more searing than the poverty I saw there. In those countries the poor form a community together and there is a love and concern for each other; they have family and friends around them, all in poverty together. What strikes me most with the homeless here is the lovelessness, the complete lack of love for people on the streets. It is total lovelessness, devastation, emptiness and despair and I saw a deeper poverty here than I have ever seen before.

How has your work with the homeless evolved?
We started simply with an open house, with a soup kitchen feeding sometimes eighty and a hundred people a day, and a few people living with us in the community. But we realised it was hard mixing those living with us who were not drinking, and those coming to the soup kitchen who still were. We began to have daily meetings of the resident community, to help them express their pain and anger and frustration; and then the local parish took on the soup kitchen in alternative premises and we were able to concentrate on the resident community. It was then that we began therapy and counselling and employed people to do that Ė to give as much support as possible to those trying to keep off drink. When we started we had nothing; we were given a derelict house, and the idea was that the men would all work together for the community. There were no chiefs and no indians, we were not the helpers and the helped Ė we were all in need of one thing or another and needed to be supportive of each other.

How do you see the work you do now as witnessing to Christ?
Christ reached out to the loveless. Love is what we need, love is the meaning of it all and basically what Christ came to teach was what love is and how to love. I see everything we do here as that. I strive to do that myself. If I didnít love what I am doing and love the people, I wouldnít want to stay. Itís very much my way of trying to express my love for the people who are most needy, and from that point of view I think I am true to the congregation I belong to. I donít just do it as a job but as a total commitment to have respect and reverence and acceptance to those who come. That is what we are about. From that point of view, I think it is essentially gospel and essentially Christian. We donít preach it, or put it out on loud speakers, we do it by the way we live and hopefully it comes across.

How do your congregation feel now about what you do?
Itís been a few years now and they have seen that this has caught on, the work is prospering. We now have several houses and a lot of people are being helped. The congregation is now appreciating what I am doing. Certainly I get letters of encouragement from them. I just had a card from one of our priests in South Africa and he said that he thought what I was doing was the most true to the charism of the congregation of all the work that we do. Things like that are very encouraging. I know also that Iím asked to tell people at congregation meetings about the work; and three or four other members of the congregation also work with me here.

Is there anything else you would like to say?
Several aspects of the way the work has developed. At first in our congregation, whatever work we took on, we took it on as our work, a work of the Holy Ghost Fathers. Here the work developed and became an independent charity and I simply work for the charity. If I were to leave, it would still go on. Another aspect Ė Christianity reaches out to and accepts everyone. In a parish you become concerned with the growth of that parish. We are reaching out beyond any parish and we have been able to join with other people of different persuasions and faiths because they see the need. Everybody comes together and gives what they can to this work. Since I started this work it has been a privilege to come in contact, for instance, with Anglicans Ė I didnít know any Anglican priests and sisters Ė and Methodists. I used to be in a completely male environment and now I work with a very mixed bunch of people; many women; old and young; people from other cultures and backgrounds. There are no barriers, no differences. We are a microcosm of the world, brought together by the work, appreciating each otherís gifts, talents and goodness. It is a really deeply Christian community. If Iím not looking at it too idealistically, it is a model of what the Church should be. But I get annoyed when I see missionary magazines and they have pictures of Father Somebody, with the helpers and workers going about their business. Itís like they are the centre of the picture rather than the people whom weíre there to serve. They come first. They are what give meaning to it all. They are the ones who should be in focus. We should be drawing attention to their needs, rather than our own achievements.

What is at the heart of all this work for you?
All I have said so far is somehow subjective to myself, but it only has meaning in the light of the suffering we find. We do it to address that need. The pain of the world is brought together maybe in the poor and the homeless Ė people who are ready to kill themselves. They come in and somehow itís the pain which draws all this together and makes meaningful what I have said before. Itís that pain which is the most important thing Ė to take away that pain. That is what Christ is about and what we have to be about. To see things in a wider context, that the world is worth more than this, that human beings are worth more than all this suffering and mess that we make, and it is for us to change things Ė us, people who see in Christ an answer to it all. We have to make the world a better place. We must try to eradicate suffering and pain and give people a chance to realise their full potential as human beings Ė people with a dignity and a destiny, people who are children of God and all that that means in its fullness. Anything which takes this away is something to be eradicated. §


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