Church lady | Sophia Popham [ANVIL vol 36 issue 1]

By Sophia Popham

She started as a voice on the phone, one of the regular callers, a mild and clearly harmless one. I remembered her because of her fear of storms. I didn’t know the whole story.

One week she phoned, and it wasn’t to cancel the wedding again. He had gone.

She phoned again. She had to leave the house. The council were rubbish. I suggested Citizens Advice. She phoned again one Sunday night. She was frightened, she had no food. A friend who was with me and I took a flask of coffee, some sandwiches, some Mini Cheddars. We had no idea.

She called me church lady. She was Jan. She was battling forces way beyond her. She was about to lose the little she had.

She phoned me because I was church lady. I answered the vicarage phone.

I went with her to the housing office the day she had to leave her house. Two days before, a harassed housing officer explained to me what would happen. It will be awful, she said. I really advise you not to come. Don’t get involved. But I had to go, because I was church lady. I told my Advent group I was out of my depth. A quiet lady at church offered to come too in support. She was church lady, and because she was church lady, I managed to be church lady that day. It was awful. Within a week, Jan was on the streets.

She has nothing, no home, no money, no food, and yet she trusts God. At night she sees angels, and comes to church lady to ask if this is okay. She gives away what she has. We give away what she can accept. We want to keep her safe in our house, but she cannot accept that. If she comes to us she will never have a home. We dream together of the day I will sit on her sofa, in her place, drinking her tea.

I have a voice. My speech is clear. I can read. I can walk from one building to another without pain. I can phone the council and be phoned back. I can go into buildings filled with strangers. They let me in. I hear a calm voice say firmly, “I am the vicar’s wife,” and doors open. I say over and over, but I saw her last house. It had no furniture, but it was so clean. She kept it so clean. I gaze into their eyes and do not allow myself to think of my own home, my own kitchen. I know nothing about clean! But they listen to me, because I am church lady.

When they want to help, listening to church lady gives them a way. When they do not want to, listening to church lady gives them pause.

She cannot face crowds. Only in an empty church can she stand, gaze at the cross, worship. I cannot read what is happening, but I can feel a holy moment. She lies down in the Lady chapel and sleeps.

It snows. For two nights she agrees to sleep in our ginnel, takes my boots, eats in the hall. She will not stay longer. I go to phone for advice and Jan slips off. I follow her tracks until they disappear, run through town in the whirling, wet snow looking for the tracks of her trolley. My feet are cold. I am wet and frightened. I can only go home and wait. For days we are convinced she is dead.

I can meet with the woman who can be her support worker. We can plan together. I have no professional standards stopping me phoning up other agencies asking what has happened. I can be a bridge to find possibilities. We all quietly bend our rules. Jan does not recognise workers and helpers. She recognises only friends.

There is a braver church lady than I am, the friend who was with me that first day. She goes out at night to find her, she teaches me to accept Jan’s choices, she teaches me to turn Jan over to God. But not everyone recognises her as church lady. She would be better at it, but I am called… church lady. I speak to the Mothers’ Union about God using us in the place we find ourselves. I see God doing just that.

I have the keys to a church hall. I make endless tea, and cheese on toast. She insists I eat her chocolate. We laugh, cry, colour in. One day she draws me a picture, of our church building, labelled “my friend Sophie”. I leave her there in the office. It’s against all the rules. When someone protests, I ask them to think of an alternative. It should not be, they mutter. I agree. But we are church ladies. We make tea in church. She meets a few others. They are alright, I say. They are church. Sophie church lady says I can be here, she tells them. They, of all people, know I have no authority. But they are church people, and they accept her.

We work together, cry together, grow together, learn together. He sends her the angels she needs. We cry with delight on the day the council admit they should house her. And one day, finally, I sit on her sofa, in her place, drinking her tea.

I kept in my purse, all the way through, an unused train ticket. I was on my way to visit my mother that morning. I had bought my ticket and was on the platform. And I suddenly knew I had to go back, to find Jan, to spend that day for her. The ticket becomes a symbol that God is in this. Sometimes I get it out to look at it.

And then gradually we begin to refer to the Jan effect – the right person who is there, the one who could possibly help, who unexpectedly answers the phone that day.

Jan becomes the symbol of God’s active presence in the world.

For us, she is church lady.

When I wrote this, I was reflecting two years on, on an experience that at the time was focused on Jan and her story. In desperate times when she first became homeless she struggled to remember names, and gave us labels – mine was “church lady”. Only much later am I able to reflect on that label she gave me, on why it made me uncomfortable, and on the others in the story who, while perhaps being better able to remember my name, had responded to the label. Including myself: being church lady drove me to do things I hadn’t attempted before.

But who is church lady? We all had a different idea. I became church lady because I lived in the vicarage. I was uncomfortable with the label, so aware both that a vicar’s wife does not have any actual authority to speak in the name of the institution, and of my inadequacy and how much I didn’t know how to help in this specific situation. But quite early on there was a moment when I realised that what was needed that day was someone to carry a letter between two professionals, someone whom Jan trusted. Without that, the professionals could not do their job that day. That simple thing got help moving again.

When I introduce myself as “the vicar’s wife” it is usually to help someone else to place me, as I am not so instantly recognisable as my husband! But I also use it on the phone; “I’m his wife; is it anything I can help you with?” nearly always leads the person to try me. I am aware that the label can be enabling, and this was one of the occasions when I have used it as an accreditation. For Jan, the label carried comfort – her own experiences gave the church label the power to allow me to give her comfort and reassurance. I have no idea who, but some church people in the possibly long past must take credit for that. So she could come to me for reassurance about her practical and spiritual experiences.

Jan isn’t able to be with large crowds of people, so isn’t a church member in the conventional sense. But I had a strong sense of her trust in God and bravery beyond my own. We prayed for each other (and still do). She trusted me because “Church people don’t tell lies” (and I had to live up to that, however uncomfortable the truth).

Other people had ideas of who church lady was, and those ideas gave Jan a voice, a bridge to the help she needed, hope. The bridge was two-way. Back across the bridge came echoes from another world, glimpses of a simpler faith, a trust. A new understanding of how structures can be evil, and people can be trapped within them. Laughter, friendship, learning about who God is and what God can do.

People wanted to help, but were limited by their own boxed-in thinking and could ask us as church to do things that their systems assumed Jan would be able to do for herself, but she could not. They trusted us to do things that were right, but outside their criteria. They trusted that we would not get into trouble for doing the right thing outside the box, when they were afraid that they would. I realised that other people trusted me, however frustrated by my inexperience. There was a sense that it was natural that the church should be in that desperate place with her. In some situations I felt that I was given a value, I was listened to sometimes when Jan wasn’t, even when we were saying the same thing. Where class and education sit in this I don’t know, but there were people who seemed to respond to me more than my more experienced churchgoing friend. I am sure that perceptions of the vicar’ s wife led to my being seen as an authority on clean houses. I spoke the truth in that situation, but still feel bad about playing up to that false perception in order to convey that truth.

But being church lady meant I had a church, church people behind me and with me. I was never trying to do this on my own. Church prayed, church supported, church people who knew full well I had no authority gave space and resources in the way Jan needed and on her terms. I have played in the piece on the stereotype of church ladies as women who make tea in church, but that building, that tea stash, and those equally frail and broken men and women were the resources that made it possible for Jan’s church lady to play the small part I did in the miracle. In 10 years of ministry in that place, men and women making tea were at the heart of God’s mission in a profound way. Perhaps sometimes we lack the confidence to claim that label: to say here and now, in this moment, I am the church?

So what is church? I think maybe Jan taught me to see clearly that it is people depending on God. She said we were angels; maybe church is messengers from God. Maybe we are people sent to be messengers of hope, people who pray, sent with good news to help people, to fight wrong. I didn’t solve Jan’s problems; no one person did. The idea that one heroic person comes and solves problems is seductive, but not how it works. Often and often I felt out of my depth; I know this was also true of others involved. Professionals trapped as much as, though in less danger than, Jan. Paid clergy learning from Jan about God and trust. Jan wanted her church friends to be strong for her, and we couldn’t always be, yet at times she was strong for us.

Jan has a way of seeing people as people, whatever role they are in when she meets them, which people can find wonderful or threatening. That seems to me to reflect Jesus, and what the church should be. But at the heart of this experience, and the thing I think that prompted this reflection, is that more and more I see, in Jan, church lady as the one who trusts God when everything else is gone.

I do not know if I can be that lady. But I discovered that there is never just one church lady. In need and weakness we hold each other up, and together we see the many small miracles, the big miracle. Together maybe we can begin to be church.

Sophia Popham is a student on the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course; a daughter, wife, mother, home educator, experimenter and vicar’s wife currently in the diocese of Oxford. A Yorkshire lass in exile.

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