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When the Archbishop of Canterbury sold The Big Issue

Big Issue vendor Lee Welham struck up a friendship with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby – and hatched a plan to get him to don a tabard, sell the magazine and sit down for a wide-ranging chat.

Shoppers and visitors to Cambridge may have got used to the sight of Lee Welham, the charming and enterprising Big Issue seller most commonly seen outside the town’s famous Round Church.

But eagle-eyed pedestrians passing his pitch on a recent summer’s day may have spotted another familiar face wearing the red hat and tabard of a magazine vendor: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

The head of the Church of England has been on study leave in Cambridge since May and the pair have struck up a friendship over the weeks. It didn’t take long before Welby had been persuaded to swap his robes for a Big Issue tabard and spend 40 minutes in Lee’s shoes.

Lee, a former market trader, is no stranger to looking after other vendors in his co-ordinating role across Cambridgeshire. He took Welby under his wing before sitting down for an interview on religion, hope and homelessness.

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Justin Welby: I was really nervous before I started because I thought, I’m going to be very conspicuous and, surprisingly enough in my job, I hate being conspicuous. But you were very encouraging, Lee. And it really struck me that people weren’t looking me in the eye, people were head down, I could see people crossing the road.

Lee Welham: You’re a confident man. So can you imagine how it would feel for somebody who has no confidence at all just having someone ignore you 70 times a day, you can see why it would feel so demoralising.

JW: But when someone did buy a magazine it really felt good.

LW: It does feel pretty good, especially if they’re a fella or a lady that normally doesn’t get it. And then you know what, they walk back and they’ll say: ‘Oh, go on, you’ve made me laugh, I’ll buy it.’

JW: It’s an extraordinary thing that you’re doing. Because I’ve discovered you are a franchisee for Cambridgeshire. So what you’re doing involves selling, but also organising, and a lot of pastoring. You’re looking after these folks. And presumably some of them are still sleeping rough.

LW: I made, like, £40 in two hours when I first started selling. That was amazing. It’s just so easy after a while. I can handle rejection as an old market trader and a funfair guy. But if you ask 1,000 people you’re bound to get at least 20 or 30 buying the magazine and that’s my ethos really. And I’ve got loads of cheesy lines.

JW: I’ve heard!

LW: The cheesier you are the better. It makes people laugh and I like to make people laugh, I’m a bit of an entertainer. You like my puns don’t you?

JW: Yes I do!

We don’t want to go back to normal because normal didn’t work, did it? We want to have a better life now and we’ve got a chance of starting something.Lee Welham

JW: I come from a family of both parents being alcoholic and my mother stopped drinking half a century ago and never went back. My father died of it. What happens if vendors who struggled with a similar thing go back on the booze or the drugs?

LW: For me, personally, I understand if people slip up because I’ve learned addiction is not so black and white as I thought it was. I’ve been quite lucky in life. I did a lot of my silly stuff when I was younger and I haven’t really got any addictions, except maybe to chicken. I don’t mind if my vendors fall, it’s about getting back on the horse. That is what I try and teach them. As a guy who has failed quite a lot in life, I teach people to get off your high horse in life and get yourself a pony – when you fall off it doesn’t hurt as much.

JW: I couldn’t agree more, I think that’s really good. I shall use that!

LW: I’ll be honest, you doing this is really going to help me get my voice out there. We really need to change the way we think as a society. 

JW: We need to change the way we think, we really do.

LW: We’ve spoken about this and it’s in your book [Reimagining Britain]. We don’t want to go back to normal because normal didn’t work, did it? We want to have a better life now and we’ve got a chance of starting something.

JW: And there were some amazing things we learned last year. I know Brendan Cox quite well, the husband of Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered. He asked me to chair an organisation [The Together Campaign] that brings together loads of people in the evenings, which is about saying we’re not going back to the old normal. It’s trying to get people in their own area to make sure that we don’t. We learned that last year 4.6 million people started volunteering for the first time. And 75 per cent would volunteer again. What that says to me is what you’re trying to do, that really says there’s an important change which we can pick up on.

LW: Kids right now are thinking in such a different way to any of the previous generations. This is why this project is so important. I’m going to send the video of this interview to primary schools in Cambridgeshire and I hope the kids are going to watch this and they are going to be inspired. It’s hopefully going to change the way the kids think so we can create this better time. Like it says in your book, after World War 2 we obviously had to rebuild and think about community. We created some amazing things, didn’t we?

Jesus was homeless. If you go back to the Christmas story, read the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ parents were refugees. Justin Welby

JW: Everything started in the late 1940s. Like the health service. And the country was bust. I mean, genuinely. And if you could do that then, what can we do now? There is no limit to what we can do. My ‘business’ is obviously churches. It’s quite a transformation of people, changing their lives and them being surprised by that in a really exciting way, finding love with their families. I think with schools, we need for young people to know that we’ve got people around who dream of a society in which everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter if they’re selling The Big Issue or running an army unit or they’re a doctor, whatever it happens to be, whoever they are there they’ve got opportunities.

LW: This community is so wonderful. Today I’m showing you everyone does treat the vendors well around here. I’ve built a lovely community. Each and every one of these people here comes and says hello to me every morning. And all the church lot and the colleges are taking a bit more notice of us vendors.

JW: That’s amazing and I think they will take notice because of you. The story I live by, and that reshaped my life when I was 20 was the story of Jesus Christ obviously. Behind that were these stories from the Bible about this bloke with no money. Was thought to be illegitimate. Who lived 33 years and was crucified, and I believe rose from the dead. But whose passion in life was with people who were outcasts. When the church recovers that then we do amazing things. People come along and are changed by it.

LW: So do you think the Church of England should be a bit more vocal on the numbers of homeless increasing since 2010?

JW: They went up massively. We just did a big report on the housing crisis a few months ago and we’re going to put a huge proportion of the Church’s inherited wealth into affordable housing. We’ve been around 1,400 years, you pick up a bit of this and that over that time, particularly the Middle Ages. But, if we can, the aim is to start with 2,000 acres. That’s serious. 

LW: It’s a game-changer. You don’t really think of homeless people when you’re housed, and when I went into a hostel I found out that they were charging £330 for a week. If you’ve got to pay that back there’s no way in hell you’re going to get a job to cover it. Then at the end of the three years, you get a set of keys and a council flat with no experience of bills. This is where it all starts. I firmly believe Housing First is a much better option. Give a guy a gaff and counselling for a year.

JW: It’s a lot to do with the relationships that they’ve got, isn’t it? They’ve got friends who can help financially, but you have to sit down with them and say, OK, you’re going to earn this much and this much is going to be on food et cetera. I’m a patron of a charity called Christians Against Poverty. They have a good relationship with the banks and people come to see them who are really up to their eyes in debt. So they teach them a bit about money. Then they found relationships can be part of the problem so they’d help them with counselling. Then what they need is housing and a job so they got into job counselling. Then it was navigating the benefit system. They’ve had so much impact and it’s beautiful to see.

LW: Give people the opportunity and they will reach for it. I have to ask, what would God feel like if he was homeless?

JW: Well, he was. Jesus was homeless. If you go back to the Christmas story, read the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ parents were refugees. They were chased off into Egypt by a really cruel government. And then later one of the great things, someone came up to him and said I want to be your disciple. And Jesus said: “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20).

LW: He was like a sofa surfer.

JW: He was! So what would he feel like if he was homeless? He felt like a pariah. It would have been a lot rougher in those days. He never had his own home, he was dependent on people taking him in. 

Lee Welham sells The Big Issue in Cambridge. He is running the London Marathon in October in support of The Big Issue Foundation – sponsor him here.

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