Eleanor Jane Mair, our daughter, died on the 21st April in Ninewells Hospital, as result of trauma caused by alcoholism. She was a beloved and loving person, who cared for everyone except herself, bringing joy through what she was but also sorrow through what she was doing to herself. She is with God.)
M: What about your job with the housing association? I remember you talking about it….
E: My job with The Housing Association was crucial to my view of human beings. At that time it had a half-way house for adults with learning difficulties who might ultimately get their own flats. Meantime they enjoyed 24hr care from carers of which I was one. I’d had some experience at Church residential homes, but this was different owing to the severe mental impairment of the residents. In addition to occasionally difficult behaviours, powerful experiences of anger, joy, sorrow or even laughter could trigger incontinence, which we had to be ready to deal with.
The officer-in-charge, Stella, encouraged us not be embarrassed or squeamish about this duty. “If your dog shits itself, you may be annoyed, but you’re not embarrassed, unless it’s on your neighbour’s lawn or carpet! You clear up the mess and you clean up the dog. And if you’re offended by my comparison, realise that I’m asking you why a person should be treated worse than a dog. All of us have systems of control that can break down. All of us have bums that have been wiped.”
Some of the residents had experienced physical and psychological abuse, leaving them scarred and fearful. Their stories could move me to tears of sympathy and rage. Their sly humour could have me rolling about in laughter. From the perspective of people who are “at the bottom of the heap” the heap does not exist, it’s a delusion of those who like to think they’re at the top. In fact there are only decent people and pricks.
It was this experience of caring led me to think of the ministry of the church. Some of my knowledge of church was gained in comfortable settings where the humanity of Jesus’ message was absent. Now I could appreciate the kind of choice he was asking people to make. I had already chosen animals as the point of reference of my living, now I could add, “needy people” conscious that in fact that meant everybody, some of whom, out of wealth, arrogance, selfishness or fear, were either not conscious of their need, or unwilling to admit it.
I began to read theology and stumbled across Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, whose understanding of people with learning difficulties, and whose solidarity with them, became central to his radical teaching of Christian faith. The recent discovery that Vanier had also abused several women sexually, using his saintly reputation to get his leg over, only increased my suspicion of those who don’t admit their own needs.
I thought my faith might be different from yours, but similar enough for you to approve it.
I learned from it.