One thing every Methodist Minister does prior to being ordained is publicly bear witness to what exactly led them to that place. I gave my testimony on Tuesday 19th May in Cardiff, where I currently serve the people of Wales. Below is what I shared with the congregation in a special service, but I must say that I would not have a testimony to give if it were not for some very beautiful (and I use that word deliberately) friends, and colleagues in the Ministry who have helped me, challenged me, loved me, and prayed for me along the way – if it’s any small gift, I suppose I dedicate this to them…Melissa (and the entire Otu family!), James, Reema, Doug, Kamari, Mark, Susan, John, Jennifer, Duncan, Heather, Dave, Lucille, Kip, Sister Jane, Mervyn, Leslie, and Steve. x
I’ve had to contend long and hard with what exactly to share tonight – I’ve only ever been to one testimony service before, and I’m aware that my confessor is in the congregation, so I guess I’d better be as honest as I can be!
I want to mentally take you, to a maternity ward in London, It’s the 8th October 1991 in Central Middlesex Hospital – I’ve just been born, and straight away once the nurses had detached me from my mother, I was thrust straight into the arms of my Nan…and for some reason she decided to immediately hold me up to the sky and say: ‘Lord, take complete control of this child’s life…’
I never know whether or not to thank her for that moment, because it seems as though God may have been listening. And there are days, if I am honest, when I feel as though I’d like Him to take more control, and days when I just wish He wouldn’t take so much control…but to understand this moment is to understand something fundamental to who and what I am, because no matter how much I talk about my calling, I am still unable to trace its origin except to say that God did hear my Nan’s offering, and planted in my heart at that moment the vocation to become a Presbyter in His Church.
It’s written that ‘many are called and few are chosen’, but I tend to think that many are called and a few of us are dumb enough to say ‘yes!’.
For me, everything that has happened until this moment has acted as a confirmation of a deep knowing that I have always had within myself, that not God alone, but all of creation has called me to priestly life. And people say “Oh isn’t that wonderful, and magical, and so special” well perhaps, but the burden of responsibility when as a very young boy you know what is clearly God’s will for your existence, is serious stuff – I sympathize with Prince Harry….because you can’t live your life as though it wasn’t what it is. I can’t play this life thing any other way, because my calling to me is clear as day. That’s not to say that I haven’t often wanted to do other things with my life, but I simply couldn’t.
Those of you who are members of this Church, or Rumney or Caerphilly will have heard me talk about my childhood before, and if anyone wants to hear the whole story, you can take me out to coffee one day! To start off, it would be fair to say that I never really had a childhood…that’s not to say that I didn’t have time to be a child, or that I didn’t have the things other children had, but in the sense that my dream world, which I think is an important part of being a child, my dreamworld was always regularly and constantly broken into by the harsh realities of life.
Neither of my parents are practicing Christians. I wasn’t raised by either of my parents – my mother has very severe bipolar disorder, and my father though he was around for much of my sister’s childhood, wasn’t really on the scene by the time I was born. And for many reasons, but mainly because he was violent towards my mother I couldn’t really respect him at all, and we don’t speak now because he doesn’t think the ministry is a proper career and I told him where to go quite a few years ago basically – I tend to hold the view that just because I forgive you for being a crap parent doesn’t mean I have to ever speak to you again.
By the time I was five, my sister who is seven years older than me had already left home to live with my grandparents, because of how things were at home. No one ever sat me down and properly explained why it was that my Mum behaved the way she did, and as a child having your own mother say things no parent should ever say to a child, I feel it would have helped.
Mum’s mood would change constantly, she would sleep all day, she wouldn’t do any shopping, I would miss school, she would lose her temper – come to the school and drag me home in front of everybody, not even the teachers could stop her, she would have interesting friends around etc…but me being a typical mummy’s boy, fought hard and long to stay with her. And then one particular week, things had come to the very lowest point – Mum had covered all the windows in black bin liner, there was no food at all, the house was cold, she wasn’t waking up or opening the door to anyone, and quite literally, the writing was on the walls – life was a mess. And to cut a very very long story short, I managed to call for help – escape from the house while my Mum was still asleep and from that day onwards until the day I left home for Wesley House in Cambridge, I lived with my Nan. She brought me up. Thank God, because it would have been that or going into care.
So Nan, who was an orphan at 5 herself, cared for my sister and I all out of her own pocket, until the day we left home, and for a time she did that and cared for our granddad until the day he died. Refusing to put him into a nursing home even when his Alzheimer’s was at its worst.
So I grew up, with a mother who was constantly in an out of psychiatric wards between jobs – a father who was mostly out of sight, but not back then, out of mind. I remember so many occasions having to wave goodbye to a mother who was basically a walking zombie as the sliding doors of the hospital closed between us.
When I think of Christ, when I think of love, when I think of sacrifice, when I think of priesthood and Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, when I think of the Church at its best – I think of my Nan and what she gave up to rescue my sister and I. And I know I can count on her prayers not just now, but even when she is called to the bosom of Abraham.
As I was growing up I had lots of experiences, many of them in Church, some at the Guy Chester Centre, a warm heart – a vision of myself as a priest, someone who I didn’t know at all was praying for me at a healing Conference and said that she’d seen a vision of me being ordained, and one day I was praying infront of a crucifix in a church in London struggling with the burden of my calling – and I felt very strongly a sense of Jesus Christ being on the cross and saying to me “Jarel, if you really want to serve me as a priest, then you must come up here and join me on this cross”. And there is a sense in which ministerial life is a daily crucifixion (those who are in ordained ministry might understand). My vocation was always an urgent thing, probably at one point, because day after day there was a new young black face on the news, of another young black boy who had been stabbed or shot dead…and I couldn’t help but constantly wonder when it would be my family breaking down on the news, pleading to the London masses for witnesses. My very first vocation, was to Roman Catholic priesthood, then to monastic life, then for a period I was desperate to be a missionary in Thailand after seeing the film ‘The Inn of The Sixth Happiness” where I felt God saying “If I can do that with Gladys Aylward, Jarel – what makes you think I can’t use you too?!”. A week before my planned First Holy Communion in the Roman Church, I freaked out about it completely and declined, and was confirmed in the Methodist Church a year later in the Methodist Church that my nan had taken me to every single Sunday.
My lust for Catholicism ended after being refused Holy Communion whilst on retreat at a Dominican Convent in the New Forest where I was asked by the priest just at the moment as he held the host up to me “Are you a Catholic?” and when I said no, he put the host right back into the Ciborium and looked behind me for the next person.
Just a few years after that, I was seeking a note to preach from the then Superintendent who was adamant, along with much of the preachers meeting that I ought to put off any idea of lay preaching until after university. I was often met with the response ‘go and experience life, go and live, go and sow your oats basically – the Church will always be here for you later – silly advice, because had I done that I never would have come back. I was eventually given a note to preach, after a stint at a local nursing home where I helped to lead worship and where I gave my first sermon, surrounded by loud often swearing old people suffering from dementia. In 2010, I ended up in Cambridge, after having secretly wished that I would get turned down as a Local Preacher and possibly getting through candidating with conditions – I said to God, if I get the OK, to train right now, then I’ll do it, if not, tough luck. And in my time in Cambridge I discovered many things about life, about myself, about the Church, the world, family and friends…much of which I didn’t want to accept, or even know. T.S Eliot was right; us human beings cannot bear too much reality…! It was during my three years in Cambridge that I understood fully what it means to be black and male in a white dominated world, [having a bottle of piss thrown at me by the EDL will always live in my memory] and learnt what institutional abuse looked like at its ugly core as I suffered at the hands of people whose knowledge exceeded their wisdom.
It would be fair to say that my time in Cambridge ruptured my relationship with the church, I can’t ever trust it in the same way ever again…I saw too often the way in which people’s allegiance to each other, overruled their allegiance to the Gospel, and it made me sick and everytime I think too much about it, it still does. It’s thanks to Reverends Jennifer Smith and Jenny Impey that I survived that experience.
So I left Cambridge with a greater faith in God, a deeper understanding of the human condition, a low self-esteem and a lesser faith in my fellow human beings and in the Church, which I think is sadly the most comfortably racist, sexist, ageist and homophobic institutions to exist.
In my last term in Cambridge, my aunty who was a mother to me in more ways than I can express, was dying – and I didn’t realize this, nor did many of us to be honest as a family. She had had cancer for ten years and was in and out of hospital many times, so we all just assumed that this was another one of those times, but when I went to see her – she was coming out of the bathroom and her daughter, my cousin was helping her to get back into bed – and when I walked into the bay, I thought “aww that’s really sweet of my cousin to help that lady!” because my aunt had changed so much in appearance, that she had lost all her colour and I didn’t realize that it was her, and I will never forgive myself for the look of shock which I probably showed on my face.
She died on July 4th and we were all there at the hospital, I was holding her hand as she passed away and before she died she’d asked me via her daughter if I would take her funeral, and so I did. For those who understand, she was so changed by her cancer, that as a family with our strong Jamaican tradition of open coffins, we didn’t dare to open hers. I moved here on the 1st August 2013, Cardiff not known to me at all, not really what I had in mind from the stationing process – but I suspect many of you were feeling the same way. So after a huge bereavement, that I still really haven’t got to grips with, I was straight into work, trying to set up home with no real family support, no friends nearby, and no savings – which was interesting.
On top of that, someone had smeared dog crap all over the front door in the September of my arrival, I had racist abuse shouted at me by a man walking down my road on the way to church one evening – I’ve been asked so many times by most of the churches in the circuit “which part of Africa do you come from, how is it that you speak English so well, where did you learn it, how are you coping with the weather here?!…someone who said that it used to be us going over to evangelize you, now it’s you coming over to us!” and more recently someone who described their friend from Africa to me as looking as though ‘he’d just come down from the trees.” I note that the Connexion doesn’t seem as disturbed by my experience as I am, but would like me to have more community engagement…one of these days, I might write a module on the safeguarding of vulnerable Ministers and animals!
I don’t think that Christianity is about safety and security. I’ve learnt that for sure. I hate the message that having God in your life suddenly makes everything alright, I think that’s nonsense and we sell people a false hope when we tell them that. I can’t stand people who say that you should pray harder, or have more faith to get more out of God as though he were some kind of arcade machine…!
They say that every preacher has only one sermon preached in many different ways – I think mine in a big nutshell is this: ‘God is in love with you, God has always be in love of you, God will always love you, and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it. Start from this point. No matter how much you tell God to get lost, He will remain close to you. No matter how messed up your life may be, He will remain close to you for He can do no other. God sees your mask and He loves you, God sees all the things you hate about yourself, and He loves you. God likes you, and God gave His life upon the cross in Christ Jesus so that you may be set free from every bondage and burden and have eternal life – not an easy life, but eternal life…here and now’. That’s my sermon, and I think that’s the kind of God that Methodism has borne witness to in every age since its conception. It was the Wesley brothers who bore witness to the God of grace and mercy, as my ancestors were waiting for their deaths just down the road in Bristol, and in London – for stealing from their slave masters, or other crimes and accusations. That means so much to this descendent of slaves standing before you.
It’s a complete mystery to me, how a stone cold, dead, worn out corpse can enter an empty tomb and march out again three days later. But I know deep within my soul that it happened, and that’s a knowing that I cannot explain, it’s that knowing that gets me out of bed every morning to do what I can to tell the world that truth. And even greater a miracle is that he rises every morning in the tomb of my heart, longing to do the same for every soul that lives. It makes me quite a bad evangelist I think, because I have never doubted God’s existence in any serious way, nor have I ever doubted that God has called me to this enormous task, but I have, and I regularly do, doubt my ability to live up to that call. It’s not easy to be me in the Methodist Church, and I won’t lie about that. It’s not easy to live with integrity to one’s calling in a denomination, which so often fails to understand and affirm the kind of 24-7 cassock-wearing, transubstantiation-believing, tattoo loving, protesting, tobacco-fiend-foul-mouthed-when-furious’ presbyter you feel God has called you to be.
I yearn for the Methodism that was confident in its identity and calling.
I yearn for the Methodism that spoke truth to power and marched in protest, and got its hands filthy at every level for the Gospels sake.
I yearn for the Methodism that sleeps alongside the poor and helps stabilize them rather than selling cakes for them overseas.
I yearn for the Methodism that took the Gospel into parks and pubs and workhouses, the Methodism that was lost in wonder, love and praise…that didn’t give a damn about its own image or reputation but that risked anything and everything for Christ’s sake.
I yearn for the Methodism that was scholarly and evangelical and deeply sacramental in all that it did. None of us can doubt the fact that Methodism is in need of a serious spiritual orgasm, it might help if we we let God be God, and also let our Deacons be Deacons, our Presbyters be Presbyters and our laity be laity and stop behaving as though saving us from decline is anything other than God’s task in and through us…can those with no theological understanding of what the Church is about leave those who might have some idea in peace and not in pieces!…I know we’re having an identity crisis, but I can tell you, we’re not a discipleship movement anymore…we are a Church, which is that and so much more.
And yet, as I yearn and moan, I realize and I accept, under sufferance, that that Methodism if it starts anywhere, needs to start and continue with me. With us. Here. Now.
Many people have said to me that I’m stupid to have gone into the Ministry when I did, and maybe they are right. Infact if I was an Anglican or Roman Catholic I couldn’t be ordained a presbyter until I was at least 25. Too often, I hear people say things like “You can’t possibly minister to someone who’s lost their job, or who is going through a divorce, or who has had a miscarriage, because you aren’t old enough to know what any of that is like!” No, I haven’t had as many years experience as many other probationers, but I have experienced many things that lots of people have only read about – I know what it is to fall in love, to be cheated on in a relationship, I know what it is to be held at knifepoint, to be thrown infront of a moving bus, to slowly and helplessly watch someone that I love die. I know what it is to be starving hungry, abused, betrayed, degraded and dehumanized, to be poor and cold and vulnerable, to be depressed and lonely in a home full of people, wishing that life would end. I’d hate to think that no-one should enter the Ministry until they have experienced every one of life’s tragedies…and if that’s what we think, then it’s the Church that’s not ready, not her student ministers! I know what agony feels like, and I think heartbreak is a pretty universal feeling regardless of age, or circumstance or background.
I often make myself content by telling myself “Jarel, you’re not the best Minister in the world, but you’re certainly not the worst!” and then I call it a day.
I have to say a huge and a serious thank you to my close friends who believe in me even when I don’t believe in myself. To my immediate family, who for good or ill, remind me who I really am and where I’ve come from. To my music teachers, particularly Jeremy Davis and Sophie-Veronique, for being brutally honest, beautifully encouraging, but most of all for not forcing me to play repertoire I didn’t love and for giving me a dreamworld and a voice.
To those good Christian people who answered my deep theological questions as a young boy and gave me so generously of their time and their love – to the people of my home circuit in Ealing who showed me who God is, who I was in God, and who bravely allowed a 14 year old into their pulpits, and to this circuit for taking on a probationer like me, to those colleagues, lay and ordained, particularly the Supernumeraries – I am in every way an anomaly, and I can be outspoken, and headstrong, and have a tendency to cocoon, maroon and quagmire myself in all sorts of things, but I am sure your reward will be great in heaven. I was struck after my first Christmas in Wales, that I actually loved, very deeply, in an unexplainable way, the people that I serve, and by that I don’t just mean those that come to Church. I also realized that all the secret dreams I’d held in my heart were not that important anymore – having a lot of money, studying music full time in Paris, getting a DD, starting a large family, publishing books, being on the Faith and Order committee…I’m not saying none of that can’t happen, but my aim now is just to live, serve and die well, confidently, and in full faith.
One of my treasured possessions, is a letter written to me from the late Revd Dr Kenneth Greet and he closed it with the words “you must never let failure defeat you, nor success rob you of humility”. It was generous of him to assume I had any humility, I don’t know what success is, but failure is familiar. I’m 23, pretty fearless with the exception of Moths and Hell, I consider myself a ‘brand plucked from the burning’, because if you knew everything about my childhood I really ought not to be standing here alive today, if you think that this was a probable outcome, then we really need to go for that coffee!
I haven’t got it all sorted, I’m still learning how to be a presbyter and how to be fully human – I’m trying my best. My testimony, is to a God who has been with me in every day, of every year and every moment of those 23 years, of a God who just will not let me go, and who I am sure will be with me until I am promoted to glory….until then, if that time be tonight, or in many years to come, I give myself Body, Mind and Soul to Jesus Christ and His Church, entrusting myself to him and the protective mantle of his Blessed Mother whom I love.
There’s an old Thai proverb, which says, ‘Just as a long distance proves a good horse, time, proves a good person’…and so, for those moments of faithfulness and obedience to the will of God, I give God the glory. For those moments of disobedience, unfaithfulness, stubbornness, hardness of heart and mind of which there have been many, I ask for God’s mercy…and for the future, which will doubtless be a mixture of all of that…I ask for your love, your prayers and your understanding!
‘Lord, in the strength of grace,
With a glad heart and free,
Myself, my residue of days,
I consecrate to Thee.
Thy ransomed servant, I
Restore to Thee Thy own;
And, from this moment, live or die
To serve my God alone.’ – Charles Wesley.