If you use social media, you’ve probably noticed a number of people posting then-and-now profile pictures in recent weeks.
It’s a trend that’s best known as the #10YearChallenge, which involves people comparing pictures of themselves in 2009 to ones taken in 2019. It gathered momentum as we approached the end of the year and the end of the decade.
While I don’t usually take part in social media trends, this one seemed worthwhile, as this past ten years has been particularly significant for me. Here is what I shared on Facebook on New Year’s Day:
Our #10YearChallenge began with my first Christmas in Australia where I proposed to Warren during dinner overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge. We were each involved with different churches then, until 2011 when we both found a home at St Bride’s Liverpool. We had begun going there monthly in 2008 to support Open Table Liverpool but didn’t know then that we would end up running it, developing it into Open Table – Come As You Are, a network of communities across England and Wales and registering it as a charity in 2020. Warren was then a medical secretary at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, and is now approaching eight years at the Diocese of Liverpool. He started there just before our civil partnership in 2012, which his new colleagues learned about in the Church Times! Little did we know when I proposed that our civil partnership would be the first to be registered in a place of worship in the UK, and would make the news. Meanwhile, I had just become a full-time youth support worker at the Young Person’s Advisory Service with the longest-running LGBT+ youth group in the UK. Cuts to youth service funding led to redundancy and retraining as a chaplain, which is what I have been at the YMCA in Liverpool and St Helens for almost four years. It’s been an extraordinary time, for which I am most grateful. As I enter my 50th year, I hope the next decade holds similar promise of hopes exceeded by reality.
It’s an interesting prospect to review life in larger chunks than just a year, as we often do around this time. I also found it interesting because of the juxtaposition with where I found myself ten and twenty years earlier than the ten-year challenge.
Thirty years ago, in December 1989, I had just completed my first term at university and experienced the first stirrings of what I thought was a call to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
Twenty years ago, in December 1999, I had just moved into my first flat, after a brief period of being homeless. I had qualified as a primary school teacher to gain life experience before training for ministry in the Church. I completed three of six years, then left following a diagnosis of clinical depression.
I stayed with a religious community for about a year, with the romantic notion of joining them, but it wasn’t to be. I could have gone back to London to live with my retired parents, but that didn’t seem fair on them or right for me as I approached thirty. So I persevered with the help and hospitality of new friends I had made that year, and began a new chapter of my life as an openly gay man living independently for the first time. If I had ended the story here, it could have been easy to feel discouraged, as the plans I had made in my 20s had not turned out as expected. But as my #10YearChallenge photos show, a new plan emerged that was better than anything I could have expected at that time.
There have been a couple of occasions this year when I have been invited to reflect on where I was around 20 years ago, and how far I’ve come since then. The first was on the Journey of Hope pilgrimage of training in
‘Christian peace-building and reconciliation… to inspire and equip Christian leaders to become skilled practitioners of reconciliation in their churches and communities.’reconcilerstogether.co.uk
One of the passages we were invited to reflect on while on the Journey of Hope course as the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). I had reflected on this passage over several days while I was on a silent retreat following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality and find a new way of being in relationship with God, my family and others. At that time, my experience of the story was to recall my own time of ‘dwelling among the tombs’, especially the circumstances of a breakdown ten years before that. Hearing the story again this year in the context of a course on reconciliation, I experienced the call of Jesus to ‘go home to your own people’ as a challenge – as an openly gay Christian called to ministry with and advocacy for the LGBTI+ Christian community, I recognised the dynamic which called the marginalised to speak back to the community which marginalises its own people. You can read my reflection on this passage here.
The second opportunity came through my new role this past year as chaplain at YMCA St Helens. Until recently, St Helens had the highest suicide rate in England and Wales. In response, a local artist began an artistic project called the Suicide Chronicles to address the lack of an effective language through which we can publicly discuss this issue. In Chronicle One, three women from Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide reclaim this experience and give an audience public access to a private world. Chronicle Two, currently in progress, is working with professionals who support people experiencing mental distress and at risk of suicide. This includes colleagues at YMCA St Helens, as well as paramedics and prison officers.
One of the exercises was to illustrate around ten key moments in our lives which have led us to where we are today. I chose to trace my journey to becoming the chaplain at YMCA St Helens, which began with the breakdown that let me to leave training for priesthood. I will share more about this project when it is complete in the next few months.
These experiences have reminded me of some words of wisdom shared with me around 15 years ago as I left teaching to begin training for priesthood. The owner of the house where I lodged while teaching gave me a card featuring the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, which is perhaps better known by its first line:
GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
On the back of the card, my landlady had written:
Your line is: ‘Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.’