I met him for the first time as I was walking past my church one night after the gym. A big guy, hunched over, teeth rattling, his head sunk inside his collar, away from the autumn chill. When I asked him whether he was ok, I had no idea our paths would zig zag across one another repeatedly in the coming months.
He asked me if I went to the church. I nodded. I had been going to that church for almost twenty years. ‘So you’re a Christian?’ he asked.
‘So am I,’ he smiled.
He told me his legs were with bothering him because of DVT from his heroin addiction. We talked for a while and he said he’d be fine- there was nothing I could do to help- but we arranged to meet the next day. I was working at Highbury Court back then and heroin addiction was something I encountered daily- north London crime seemed to be fuelled by it. And yet I didn’t know what I could do as I made my way back to Upper Street the following evening.
He didn’t turn up. It wasn’t a surprise but it was when I met him again later that week. He called me Kate without asking if he could. I liked his easy charm, the way his eyes twinkled as he shared his street wit and cheek around. As our friendship developed, we would walk down Upper Street with him calling out to friends. It sometimes seemed as though he knew everyone. Shop owners, people begging in doorways, bus conductors.
I won’t say his real name. Let’s call him Tom. I remember walking past him as he sat with his friends outside Highbury Tube. Heroin had the upper-hand that day. He recognised me but his eyes were rolling back in his head and the twinkle had dimmed.
Some time later, I saw him at the courthouse where I worked. He was there for theft. I didn’t deal with his case but his presence on the wrong side of the law spurred me on to try and help. I lined up an appointment with a local drug rehabilitation agency. The drug worker added Tom’s name to the waiting list but warned it could be months before a place become available.
Around that time, I got to know our church youth worker. I told him about Tom. The youth worker said he could help, practically with the rehabilitation side of things, but also spiritually, suggesting Tom came to the church for prayer.
It was another dark night when we met outside church for a second time. As the youth worker struggled with a huge set of keys to let us in, Tom’s priority became hiding the mantelpiece-style mirror he’d arrived carrying. I remember wondering what I had got myself into as he hid the mirror behind the vicarage bins. He said he’d been given it but I wasn’t convinced. His eyes were rolling.
We went inside for the time of prayer. I have never seen or heard prayers quite like that before. The youth worker spoke to the addiction and ordered it out of Tom. I would have been troubled by such a bizarre experience if the transformation hadn’t been undeniable.
Afterwards, Tom winked at me with eyes that were no longer glazed pin pricks. He ribbed the youth worker, waving his feet in the air as he admired his pain-free legs. I seemed to have witnessed a miracle and left church in a bubble of euphoria. But Tom burst the bubble almost immediately when he made a beeline for the bins, swinging the mirror onto his shoulder and heading off to meet a man in a pub. My faith and my hopes shrivelled as I walked away, failing to make sense of it all.
This was 15 years ago. Tom and I were both 25 years old. I wish I could piece it all together but my memory is hazy in parts. My next recollection is staying awake until 3am one Friday night writing every Bible verse I could think of that offered comfort, hope, strength, peace. I put it in my handbag to give to him the next time I ran into him. He was the only person I knew who didn’t have a mobile so I had to rely on chance encounters.
The reason I know it was Friday was that I was waitressing at our church’s fair trade cafe the next day- a Saturday job I did once a month. Tom came bounding into the church crypt where I was gathering coffee mugs, strangely smart, and told me he was getting clean. He wanted to go home. I gave him my book and after my shift, I drove him to the station.
On our way to the train, Tom asked if we could stop off at his grandparents to say good bye. In a basement flat tucked away, I met a lady I came to love- a prayer warrior who had been praying for her grandson since his problems began in his teens. There was nothing she could not believe, there was nothing she didn’t have faith for. She said she’d been praying for a Christian to help Tom. She hugged us both and gave Tom his train fare.
At Euston, we said our good byes. Waving, Tom jumped the barriers, saving his grandma’s train fare for a final good-bye with his other friend.
Tom lived at home for several weeks. I got to know his mum over the phone and she confirmed he was going through the horrors of cold turkey. The sweats, hallucinations and paranoia. I wrote to Tom and he rang me sometimes. He was physically getting better but where there had been a seemingly misplaced joy with the drugs, there was no longer any trace of joy- his tone was flat when we spoke. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t excited about the slate he was slowly cleaning.
Late at night, I think it was November by then, an unknown number flashed up on my phone. It was a London code. When I answered, it was Tom calling from a payphone a few streets away. I sensed the eyes rolling backwards. He was high. It took my several minutes to work all that out and when I did, I felt so sick and so sad. He was back at the start.
I next remember seeing Tom in a petrol station as I filled up on my way to a party with my sister. He was on the forecourt. It turned out his friend John lived just around the corner from my parents’ house. I never really understood where Tom stayed in London but this seemed to be one of his main haunts. He was high, up to no good, still witty.
But the fun stopped soon afterwards. Tom became desperate for help again and somehow, miraculously, our church youth worker got him a place at a Christian rehab centre. I went to wave him off from the church steps where we had first met. He was so late that I thought he’d changed his mind. When he staggered up to me, I understood why. He had been to say good bye to that other friend. His eyes weren’t twinkling as he got into the back of the youth worker’s car. He was terrified but he went.
I spoke to Tom several times whilst he did rehab. It was serious stuff. He couldn’t have contact with anyone initially and later only by phone and letter. There was hard work for him to do. He said the heroin sat on his shoulder everyday like a monkey chattering into his ear.
On my way home from the gym one night, I received a call to say Tom was AWOL. I asked if he returned to the rehab centre whether they would take him back but they said they couldn’t- it sent the wrong message. I went straight to my friend’s flat where my prayer group was meeting that night. My faithful girlfriends dropped their own prayer requests to pray for Tom.
Whilst we were still together, we received more news: Tom had returned and the centre was willing to have him back on account of his quick return. My heart felt full of joy that night. Anything seemed possible.
Shortly afterwards, in late December, I was at a Christmas party with a friend. My phone rang with another unknown number. It was Tom’s friend, John, calling from a payphone: ‘He’s dead,’ he sobbed. Another call I couldn’t make sense of. And then the words sank in. Tom had left rehab and he had overdosed.
I went home for Christmas and nursed a pain I had never felt before. I hadn’t seen this coming, although many others had. Before Tom died, Tom’s grandma had told me this would be his last chance. She knew God was giving him a final escape route out of a decade-long problem. A friend of Tom’s told me at his funeral that he had said the same thing to Tom when he ran into him at a bus stop: this would be his last opportunity to get clean.
But why did it have to be his last chance? As I struggled to understand, I felt comforted by a God I couldn’t work out. He was standing by me in church at Midnight Communion on Christmas Eve as I choked on the final verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. He was there when I looked up and saw my grandad crying in his choir robes, as he did every Christmas, singing ‘Hark the Herald Angels’, overcome with love for his new-born saviour. He was there over the coming days as I played Tim Hughes’ ‘Here I Am To Worship’ on loop – a gift Tom had given me outside his grandparents’ flat that day when hope had seemed so tangible.
And then in the middle of the night sometime between Christmas and New Year, a picture of what had really happened to Tom came to me. The words tumbled into my mind, painting an alternative ending to Tom’s life, an ending so different to the one I had imagined.
I had visualised Tom’s ending as squalid and dirty. The drugs had won and they had taken my friend. A life pointlessly squandered on smack. I knew various things about Tom’s end and my mind had filled in the gaps. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
But God’s version was different. Tom hadn’t died because God had given up on him. The end came when God decided to call time on Tom’s pain- when he rescued his son from his tormenter. He had offered those final chances for recovery out of his grace, even giving Tom a chance to experience recovery without withdrawal. But God knew the struggle would prove too great for Tom. He was never going to stop listening to that monkey chattering away on his shoulder- not in this lifetime.
During that Christmas, I imagined the stable, or cave as some describe it, full of animals, dung and dirt where Mary, an unmarried mother, caught up in a scandal, was forced to have her baby, before becoming a refugee. Not an ideal picture. And yet, from Heaven’s perspective, it was the perfect picture.
God had an appointment with the world that night. As Tim Hughes sings in ‘Here I Am To Worship’, it was the night that the light of the world stepped down into the darkness. His presence in that filthy stable transformed the scandal and squalor, making it a place of light and life. Jesus came to offer us a way to get clean.
The night when Tom left, God had an appointment with his son. The dark circumstances of his end were covered over with God’s light as he arrived to take him home. That was the night Tom stopped being an addict, someone labelled by his mistakes. It was the night he got clean. The addiction died as Tom was called into his new life. The drugs didn’t win; God had the final say. Something that looked such a mess was actually encircled by the divine.
All my reference to my job and the gym, my family and prayer group may give the impression I was living life well but I wasn’t. I was a mess too. One aspect of the grace I see in Tom’s story is the role God allowed me to to play in it- the fact that he would let one broken person try to help another broken person. And the role he gave me became a means of mending me. I set out to help Tom and instead he helped me.
You may feel as Christmas approaches that your life is a mess or that you can’t make sense of it. Or maybe you’re going through the agony of watching a loved one mess up their life in seemingly senseless ways. Tom’s story incorporated all of these scenarios for me. But it was still full of God’s grace. There was the messy story Tom was writing and the graceful one God was weaving through the mess.
God can do the same thing for each of us. Just because our life looks one way, it may be that God is working his grace through it in ways we can’t even imagine. I don’t suppose Tom expected his story would be retold to my friends 15 Christmases after he died. It’s a story that reminds me that we don’t need to be clean for Jesus to love us; he was born into a mess; his purpose for coming was, purely, simply, entirely, to help us with our mess.
‘Here I Am To Worship’