Paul O’Grady is a national treasure.
No Really! I truly believe his Treasure Status is firmly entrenched. Not content to become the hero of all the Dogs and Dog Owners of the British Isles, he now moves his own particular breed of Scouse Everyman to a new project, a stint with the Salvation Army.
You Mark my words, he’ll be the face of God’s Army before the year is out.
His new show is scheduled perfectly for older folks and the people already in a Godly Mood preparing for “Songs of Praise” just after the news Summary on BBC1. I think the BBC have missed a trick here, his Battersea show was popular because it was slap bang in the middle of Dinnertime viewing. Putting this in the witching hour between after lunch and the Sunday “Settle down” would seem like a foolish move. I am thus bringing this truly heartwarming series to a wider audience.
On examining the sheer content of the show I suspect this blog series might extend across the whole month as there is so much richness to the subject matter that deserves proper attention.
Paul is embarking on a truncated version of the Sally Army Training course which is held at a residential centre in London. Most people are only really aware of the Salvation Army because of their Bands playing on High Streets at Christmas or their work with the homeless, but their scope is massive and Paul a long standing supporter of the movement ( If not the big G himself) is playing a bugle for their cause… We’ll come back to the Bugle later!
The Salvation Army is One Hundred and Fifty Years old this year.
The Salvation Army was born on the streets of the East End of London in 1865, the commitment of founders was to serve God and to serve suffering humanity by fighting against social injustice.
When The Salvation Army’s founder William Booth was told by his son about all the homeless people sleeping on the banks of the Thames, his response was simple: ‘Go and do something.’ That was in the middle of the nineteenth century.The Salvation Army continues that work today.
The Booths abandoned the conventional concept of a church and pulpit, instead taking their message to the people. Their fervour led to disagreement with Methodist church leaders , who preferred traditional methods. As a result, they withdrew from the church and travelled throughout England, conducting evangelistic meetings. Catherine and William walked the streets of London to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute.
Paul’s ambitions as a young lad were simple to play the Drum in the Salvation Army and to work in a Dry Cleaner, up until filming, he had done neither. As he himself states it is a Strange Alliance betwixt man and movement.
When asked by the crew does he believe in God? Paul’s answer is interesting. He says he finds it hard to follow blindly, he has to Know a thing. He jokingly says that were he to go to confessions they would need a team of priests going through the night with an exorcist thrown in for good measure so we are starting not from a place of pious purity here.
William Booth College is the British Headquarters and is where the residential training of recruits is undertaken. It is two years residential and five years on the job training until you can become a confirmed Salvation Army Officer. There are normally around one hundred students at the college in any given year.Here he meets Jo the Sergeant who will help guide him through his time here.
Heart to God, Hand to man. Is the motto she uses to illustrate how the Salvation Army operates, a Christian Organisation that provides support in the community.
Ahead of their time, the Booths had taken. an innovative approach by demonstrating their faith by offering practical support to people in need out on the streets of London and beyond. As social justice reformers, a large part of their focus was on caring for people in a practical way, and to reaching out to ‘the poor and destitute.
Paul admits he has the strongest respect for them as an organisation as in a previous career as a Social Worker he volunteered in a homeless man’s shelter run by them.
He also remembers in the eighties when the AIDS epidemic first hit London that even when nurses were reticent to enter rooms with sufferers, where masks and yellow hazard tapes on doors were common it was members of the Sally Army who provided care, support and succour.
Jo takes Paul to see the band that operates out of the only church on London’s Oxford Street, and who march down Oxford Street every Sunday. He shows off his bugling skills and has a crash course in the big Bass Drum that leads the band with it’s beat. He has a tremendous time and is on a high, very much looking forward to working with them more for the time he is “with” the Army.
Everything Stops for Tea:
Paul’s first real test is the ability to make “a right proper cuppa” in one of the Tea Vans that the Army send out in times of strain. First in 1917 utilised during the war to bring comfort to soldiers and Blitz stricken families in the Second World War , the ability to offer tea and sympathy to people in shock is a massively important thing. The Sally even produced their own brand of tea “Triumph”. I so wish it as still available!
The Sally were on site when the 7/7 bombs went off in London, tending to the Emergency Services as they dealt with the horrors of that day was their way of helping the city as it faced one of their worst days since the bombings back in the war.
Paul’s manner is perfect for this kind of job, a strong cup and a biscuit and some cheery chat makes all the difference. After checking Paul’s tea brewing credentials , he is unleashed on a role play that he passes with flying colours of course. Today the Sally Army brews a a Quarter of a million cups of tea a week. Remember Milk last and nice and strong, the bag for Mother is the key! (Loose tea sadly is a relic of the past!)
The next challenge is harder. The seaside town of Bournemouth has a high level of homelessness. The Army provide food and comfort for them. One of the most symbolic things they do is to wash feet. This not only has a practical function as feet Care is vitally important when one does not have regular access to wash facilities and the extremities are at the mercy of the elements.
It is also a visible manifestation of Jesus’s love. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, he the Lord, the Son of God showed humility by washing their feet and love by offering comfort to aid their discomfort. The Salvation Army seek to model this behaviour when washing the feet of the homeless, the people that generally society places on the bottom of the social pile.
There is much to be said for a nice warm foot soak, it does provide comfort and it gives charity workers a chance to see feet that might also need medical attention.
After a quick training session, Paul travels to the coast and meets Graham a painter and decorator who has fallen on hard times. He sleeps in an archway metres from the beach and has often slept in sub zero temperatures. He finds the hardest part not being able to Toilet, wash and bathe or eat properly.Thankfully he will get at least one hot meal tonight thanks to the sterling work of Sally Army volunteers.
Seventy Two Year old Mary has been cooking meals for the homeless twice a week for Twenty Two Years. Rosemary has been washing feet for almost as long. She hears many harrowing stories as she offers comfort and care in close contact with the poor and ignored. She shows Paul some photographs of a gentleman whose legs and feet are severely ulcerated at injection sites due to intravenous drug use.
The food is hale and hearty, chicken and vegetable soup and sausage and mash with veg. They pack up 60 meals and bowl up at the car park of local church where they set to work. Soup , sandwiches and hot meals are dispensed with a smile and a joke, everyone clamouring to speak to Paul, a perennial favourite with old and young alike, one man even says he always watches him when he is in prison! (There is another solution to homelessness I had not considered, getting purposefully put in Prison. Any port in a storm and at least shelter and meals are assured..)
Graham and Yousef have both been coming to Rosemary for years to have their feet washed. Graham explained he had stayed in a hospital for two weeks with no one knowing by staying in a remote staff room with access to a shower and microwave. I guess it is these little triumphs over his adversity that get him through the darkest times, that and weekly contact with the Sally Army.
Yousef has struggled with drug addiction and has seen young men freeze to death due to hypothermia in the very vestibule in which Rosemary washes the feet. People want to feel heard, to feel valued as a person, not as a statistic or a nuisance so just sitting and chatting about their experiences helps those living on the street to feel part of society even for a short while.
Mary is pleased with Paul, he have made them feel important and worthy. This small thing twice a week shows someone Cares for and loves them. She has no answers, homelessness is a vast problem. She is sure however Jesus would help. The people there Give Paul lots of hugs. One man calls him "best man ever" he jokes that he rotten to the core. But his next statements make a liar of him. It is a Cold night and he is worried about the vulnerable people he has met.
Back at London HQ , Captain Jo is eager to see how the food ministry has gone for Paul. He admits it is hard not to let people’s personal stories and struggles affect you. Paul learned. Valuable lesson there too, his nerve to carry out the washing was unmastered but his ability to bring light to the people he met was a servitude of it’s own.
I think the message is simple ,Choose the gift you can bestow with most vigour and do it freely with an open heart and it will be meaningful whatever it may be. His kindness is evident in his other TV work,and it manifested again and again here, the secret stashes of chocolate “for later” and his pocket of dog treats personal touches that warmed the heart of recipient and viewers alike.
Regular visitors to the blog will know that I like to bang my drum for social issues; with Homelessness being one I am particularly vocal about. I knew of the Salvation Army’s work in this area and strongly advocate their approach.
This was a programme that lifted the soul and I defy anyone to complain about the “God Bods “after watching this. The folk featured are not preaching doctrine, but actually being an example of how Christian teachings must be applied to be truly effective. I cannot wait to share the next instalment with you and to see how learning more about the Army will affect Paul’s attitudes and beliefs.