Given at the Chapel of St Joseph, Lourdes at the Mass for children and pilgrims with learning difficulties on Wednesday 24th July 2019
My Daddy was a very good man. And he taught me many things. One of the things he taught me was that when Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour’, it was actually true. You really can love your neighbour. When I was about six (my name is Nicholas but my Dad used to call me Nick) he said to me: ‘Nick, come on. We’re going to see Bob next door.’
Bob was a bit lonely so we used to go next door once a week for a cup of tea with Bob. What was funny about Bob’s house was that it was the other half of our house, so it made me think it was just like our house only the other way round. One day we went round and rang the bell and there was no answer. And I’ll never forget - we went round and looked in through a window and there was Bob lying on the floor. So we called an ambulance and Bob was taken to hospital and he was all right. But I remember thinking to myself, ‘What would have happened to Bob if we hadn’t gone round that day?’
Daddy also used to take me across the road to Miss Ferris. Miss Ferris was the oldest person I had ever seen and her hearing had gone away so she couldn’t hear but she still liked our visits and Dad would chat and she would smile all the time. A really, really beautiful smile that would show just how much it meant to her to have my Dad and his son come to visit her and at the end she would always give me a bag of jams she had made and some butterscotch for me and my brothers - that was another reason why I liked to visit!
And then on Saturday mornings - my Dad used to teach on Saturdays and after that he would come home and he would say, ‘Nick, where are you?’ and he would say, ‘Get the shepherd’s pie’ and we would go in the car down the road to Mr Flood. He lived in a very poor flat. I remember the furniture. It had just an armchair and a zimmer frame (you know they are used by people with disabilities to get around) but that was all. He didn’t say much but he looked so happy to see us, his face was full of joy from the moment we arrived but you could tell he was waiting for us to go so he could start the pie! So it was lucky we didn’t talk too much.
So - all these neighbours: my father taught me you can actually look after your neighbours. You have to think, ‘Who is my neighbour? And who needs a visit?’ It’s as simple as that.
Now, my Daddy also used to go in the evenings to a prison. Wandsworth Prison. He would visit specially people who were coming to the end of their time in prison and were preparing to come back out. And he got to know one prisoner he really liked called Stuart. And my Dad invited Stuart to our house the very day he came out of prison. He came for lunch with us and then Dad took him off to a hostel (it’s like a hotel) where he was going to spend the night. And we liked Stuart.
And Stuart used to come round to our house a lot. And he always used to bring me and my brother (you can tell we liked these incentives) an old fashioned chocolate bar with hazelnuts. We really liked them. Stuart had no money but he always bought chocolate for us. And Stuart was often hungry and he used to sleep on the streets outdoors. And he was often quite dirty.
You often see people sleeping on the streets in London.
So he would come to us for a bath and have a good meal and Dad would polish his shoes for him. So he had nice polished shoes when he left the house. And when he saw the food, then Stuart would clap his hands - he had an unusual way of clapping his hands to show he was happy - I’ve never seen anyone else do it like that [demonstrates rubbing hands together and clapping]. And he ate everything on his plate twice as fast as the rest of us.
Stuart’s job was to play the piano in pubs. He was a pub pianist. So he was used to playing loud. When he played our piano we said we’d never heard it played so loud. He used to tune the piano as well.
Stuart used to come and go and come and go. And sometimes he’d be really lonely and he’d call Dad in the middle of the night and Dad would go and see him and they’d sit down and have a cup of tea in a cafe and my Dad would give him a five pound note to help him until the next day. And then one day - we hadn’t heard from Stuart for a long time - the police telephoned and said that a gentleman called Stuart Harper had died in the street because he’d been too cold. He’d died in the street and the only information he had on him was my Dad’s telephone number. So they asked Mum and Dad if they’d like to go to Stuart’s funeral. And they went to the funeral. And they were the only people there. Stuart didn’t know anyone else in the world. There was the priest and my Mum and Dad.
My Mum said afterwards she felt so privileged that, ‘Of all the people in the world, we were the ones who could be there for Stuart.’ When my Dad was an old man himself, I said to him (we were talking about dying), I said, ‘Are you looking forward to seeing Stuart?’ And he said to me, ‘If I’m worthy, Nick. If I’m worthy.’ That shows you what sort of man he was. And I said, ‘Dad, of course you’re worthy. Do you know something? When you arrive at heaven’s door Stuart will be the person who’s waiting for you. (My Dad’s name was Richard). And he’ll say, “Richard, I was in prison and you visited me. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink ... Come now, Richard, I’m going to take you to meet God.”’