Livability: service of celebration to mark the coming together of Grooms and Shaftesbury

22 April 2008 at :00 am

Just after Easter this year one damp Friday morning I visited Nash College in Bromley. I wanted to see for myself something of the achievements and contribution of the two remarkable charities whose coming together as Livability we celebrate today. It was a privileged moment, when I was able to meet some senior staff of Livability and of the college and to engage albeit briefly with some of the students and staff and people giving them active support. I was taken into a large room full of students and their staff and carers assembled for the weekly meeting of the whole College. A DVD, made by some of the students to reflect their experiences that week, was playing on a screen, so the room was somewhat darkened. As my eyes adjusted to the scene, with perhaps 100 people in the room, it took some time to discern whom I was seeing. Who of the people in front of me had learning disabilities? Who were staff and carers? Almost all seemed to share delight in the occasion. All were learning. Almost all seemed to be contributing. All were gaining from each other. My later reflections on the experience, for which I remain grateful, gave me the theme for this address: we are stronger together.

Stronger together. The decision taken by the trustees of John Grooms and of Shaftesbury was that their two charities would be stronger together: stronger in their power to achieve their charitable objects; stronger in making a difference for the people for whom they exist; stronger in influencing society to recognise the true worth of disabled and disadvantaged people; stronger in enabling our society, so readily motivated by the wish for power and for the accumulation of material goods, to see what is of real and lasting value. Today we salute what has been achieved over almost 160 years by the charities founded by John Groom and the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and we celebrate the launch of Livability, praying that it will go from strength to strength, stronger together.

We have just heard Jesus telling his most famous parable, the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. ‘Love thy neighbour’ is the second great commandment. The lawyer to justify himself asks, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ At first sight Jesus seems to be telling a story about charitable action, about doing good. But, if you ask the question who is the ‘I’ in the story, from whose standpoint is the story told, it suddenly looks different. The answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is not the person in need but the person helping. So, who is the ‘I’ in the story? The person in need. The story Jesus tells is not one about a man helping his neighbour in need, but about a man in need being helped by a neighbour. So perhaps a good way of looking at the parable would be to see Jesus as saying, ‘Recognise your need. Allow yourself to be helped.’ The story is not an instruction to help, to serve, but to be helped, to be served.

There is another really important point to the parable, about the Jew who has been robbed being helped by a Samaritan. The Jews and the Samaritans, despite the fact that they were such close neighbours, had a long-standing hatred for each other and fear of each other. So Jesus is saying that you have to allow yourself to be served by someone society regards as having no importance. It is also worth recognising that Jesus does not just talk about Jews and Samaritans and about Jews allowing themselves to be helped by Samaritans. He puts his words into action and breaks the taboo. He asks the Samaritan woman at the well to draw water from the well so that he can drink. She does. Jesus seeks help from a Samaritan and a woman, doubly unthinkable for most Jews.

This leads me to think that society needs to see things through Jesus’ eyes. As I looked into a room full of people at Nash College Bromley that Friday morning, I could have thought how wonderful it was to see disabled and disadvantaged people being helped by the staff and carers. But perhaps if I could have looked with the eyes of Jesus, I would have seen how the staff and carers were being helped by the people with disability and disadvantage. At least I might have seen that each gave to the other, each gained from the other, each added value to the other. Our society cannot afford to waste anyone’s potential, to lose what can be gained from disabled people playing a full part in society. That is why the work going on at Nash College and in so many other places supported by this and other charities, work to enable disabled people to achieve their full potential, is so vitally important. We are stronger together.

There is another area where we are stronger together: statutory authorities and voluntary bodies need to work together for the public good. Government action on its own can too easily lead to all the ills of a welfare society that is confused about its values, that imposes its own one-size-fits-all formulae, that has lost its heart. Voluntary or charitable action on its own can be disorganised and inefficient, can fail to serve the greatest needs and is unlikely to be able to cope with the potential demand for services. Working together, statutory authorities and voluntary bodies can have organisation and heart, scope and values, be a true and loving service.

But there is a long way to go and much to be done if people with a disability are to have equal opportunities with other people. At the present time: four out of every ten disabled 16-24 year olds are living in unsuitable accommodation; proportionately only four disabled 18 year olds enter higher education for every ten non-disabled people; young people with a disability are twice as likely as other young people to have no qualifications at all. Young people with a disability aged 16 or 17 are twice as likely to be unemployed, by age 18 to 19 they are three times as likely and by age 26 four times as likely to be unemployed as people without a disability. And yet, disabled young people hope for the same things as other young people: to travel, get a job, start a family and live independently. They should have a voice, be able to pursue leisure and social activities, be involved as active, valued citizens. Most have little or no choice over where they live, who they live with or how they spend their time. Correcting these disadvantages for people with a disability and giving everyone equal access is not just for their benefit, but for everyone’s benefit, for the good of society. Correcting these disadvantages is a large task. More and more people need to be committed to supporting Livability and charities working in similar fields. More coherent action is needed from the Government to enable disabled people to have equal access.

We talk about people achieving autonomy, being able to live independently. These are worthy aims. None of us likes to be more dependent on other people than we need, especially where the people on whom we depend might turn out not to be so dependable after all. And yet, in truth we should all recognise our interdependence. We can and should be able to depend on other people and they should be able to depend on us in a genuine mutuality of respect. We are stronger together.
As St Paul said to the Colossians and we heard read in the first lesson today, “Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

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