Orignally posted 13 July 2005.
The recent bombings in London bring back a lot of memories of all the trips I have taken to this great city. London’s underground and rail transport system are always a source of fascination. One reason is that people spend a lot of time in the Tube and on the train; London is a large city and it’s simply the best way to get around.
My first trip there was in 1976, as a part of a general tour of the U.K. This took me up to Scotland. As I was taking the train from Edinburgh to Birmingham (heading to what was in every sense the high point of the trip at Hergest Ridge,) I was reading the Scottish Catholic newspaper I had picked up at Mass the day before. It had a letter to the editor from a reader from Lubbock, Texas, which caught my eye as I was living in Texas at the time. He noted that, at Westminster Cathedral in London, the church staff had taken to shooing the beggars away from the church door. The reader was shocked; so was I.
The following Sunday I went to Mass there, and the beggars were out as well. So I decided that it was time for a little social action. I went up to one and mentioned what I had learned. His response? “I’m hungry.” So he took me to a pizza place around the corner from the Cathedral.
The scene was almost comic. The Indian waitress had a hard time understanding either one of us; he was lacking teeth and I was an American, and after all the work she had put in learing “English” having to deal with someone from the Colonies was just too much. But the beggar was glad for the meal and I was glad to have some help finding a place to eat. I told the beggar that it wasn’t the Christian thing to do to run them off, and after lunch we parted company.
One of the things I had always liked about Roman Catholicism was that it was universal in its scope and thus the church home of rich and poor alike. Its emphasis on social justice was something that I had come to expect. Unfortunately this wasn’t the last time I found the Church’s commitment to social justice had lapsed. I believe that a church that makes a big deal out of social issues–and goes left wing as a consequence–better be prepared to back it up with more than words, and one of the reasons I left the church was over a situation where it didn’t do that.
It has been nearly thirty years since I entertained a beggar in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral, in the midst of what was then a multiracial society (another eye opener of London.) But some things never change. Just before that trip, my downstairs neighbours were two guys who were students at Texas A&M (as was I.) One was a “cowboy” and the other a Pakistani student, an interesting combination to say the least. One evening the Pakistani proclaimed that he wanted to see Pakistan abandon the British legal system and adopt shar’ia (Islamic) law. It didn’t take long; three years later, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed, Pakistan did just that and the march to the present state of affairs went on. Although our media act like geese–waking up in a new world every morning–the truth is that the new day is more like Groundhog Day, only this time some of the groundhogs are getting nuclear weapons.