Few things in life are better than a really good party. One of Jesus’ favourite ways to describe the kingdom of God was as a royal feast or banquet to which everyone – from the least to the greatest – is invited.
So as we approached 60 years of love and friendship and kindness at Webber Street, we needed little excuse to fling open our doors open to guests and throw a lunchtime party.
People who are living on the street or in hostels get very few party invitations, so this was a special occasion all round.
Some of the guests have decades-long links with Webber Street, from the days of Waterloo’s cardboard city in the 1980s and 1990s. Over a three-course meal served by London City Mission’s leadership team they recall the part that some of the past staff and volunteers have played in their lives.
Others who came are completely new to Webber Street, having been made homeless in the past couple of weeks and grateful to have found a place of kindness and help.
As the room buzzes with good conversation and good food, it’s a reminder that there is more to life than getting by from day-to-day getting enough to eat, clean clothes and finding a place to rest.
As LCM chief executive Graham Miller blows the candles on the cake, the room raises up a spontaneous rendition of ‘happy birthday.’
Since 1962 the Webber Street day centre has had its doors open to people living on the streets in the Waterloo area. From the very beginning, sharing eternal hope in Christ has gone hand-in-hand with practical support for men and women who are homeless. In 1936 a young student at London University – Ernest Walton Lewsey – noticed a pile of rags in a doorway as he walked along the embankment. He was amazed to find a poor woman huddling under the rags to keep warm.
Ernest got her a mug of tea and buns and told her about God’s love for her. “Are you a minister?” she asked. “You’d be a good one!” That was the start of God’s call to Ernest to minister to people who are homeless in London.
He soon gathered a group of Christian friends to serve tea and sandwiches to those living rough on the embankment. Later, they used a van with kitchen facilities and a let-down counter at the side for food, and enquirers could come for counselling. They named themselves the London Embankment Mission.
In his book, Archbishop of the Gutter, Ernest describes them as “lonely folk from broken homes, rebels who’d ‘blotted their copybook’, weak-willed and mentally deficient derelicts who groped their way about the streets, easily led into drunkenness, drug-taking and meths drinking.”
During the war, services were held under the railway arches amid the bombing. Many men were brought out of the depths of destitution to remarkable conversion.
As the mission grew, the London Embankment Mission started to look for a property, and in 1962 acquired a disused men’s mission hall in Webber Street, near the Old Vic theatre. The basement had space for a chapel and cafeteria while upstairs, offices and storeroom were accommodated.
The London Embankment Mission merged with London City Mission in the 1990s. Ernest’s vision to offer practical Christlike care and hope to people who are living on the streets continues to this day.
Robbie and Josef, both regulars at Webber Street today would agree. Robbie has known Webber Street since he came to London in 1985. “All the people here are very, very nice.” he says. “They’ll help you in any way they can, and they never let you down.”
“I love coming to this day centre, it’s a beautiful day centre,” Josef says. “Coming here sets me up for the day and it keeps me going. It’s made me believe in God more and more. The more I come here, the more I believe.”