John Bird: Cathedrals remind us of humanity’s feats – rise to the challenge

"Street living and homelessness are human rights abuses. I cannot see it differently. Poverty is abuse. It robs you of all that makes you human"

The Isle of Ely is no longer an island surrounded by bog and water. Its cathedral, though, stands on some of the flattest land in the UK. Nestled around it is a small, largely unchanged city. Unchanged, that is, since the bog was drained in the 1620s and it became this dried-up isle of today.

But you will not miss the destitution of modern times. The beggars and wretchedness of some of its people. Nowhere seems free of this social collapse; collapse that’s not hidden, but in your face. Bargain shops mix in with others that look prosperous. This is us a few months before Brexit. And it’s Sunday night and the cathedral doors are open for a free lecture.

I am the speaker at this annual Ben Jupp lecture, organised by Amnesty Ely City and in memory of its co-founder. I arrive full of anticipation at speaking loudly in a vast space, parts of which date back to 1083. Not spreading stories of Israelites and biblical events, but in some ways trying to address the age old.

I think I inherited my mother’s mouth. It was always the loudest in the pack. Now I talk loud for social justice. Thank God I turned away from inherited hatreds that would have left me snarling, loudly.

My talk is about spreading the debate about human rights. Often human rights are seen as the cares of people far away. I want to build the argument around the human rights of Ely, and places closer to home.

And the human rights abuse of homelessness, and the fact that we let people simply injure themselves even more on our streets. Injury by leaving people in need to live outside of society, but within our eyesight.

Amnesty International has a brilliant, worldwide reputation built since its founding in London in 1960 by the barrister, Peter Benenson. Mostly seen as concerned with universal prisoners of conscience, it has grown to be seen as the best-known social brand in human rights.

People need rallying points like branding. Logos to understand and to be reminded. Amnesty’s candle surrounded by barbed wire must be one of the most descriptive images ever. It captures the pursuit of hope and truth even when surrounded by threat, inspired by the Chinese proverb, ‘Better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.


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So I talk in the loud place, or the place where I can be loud, about why do we allow our civility to be tainted by neglect? How can we see the people on the streets as the tip of the social iceberg, behind which there are hundreds of thousands of people caught in homelessness? And how can we stir ourselves up to act in unison against the oppression of poverty?

I am here to spread the human rights abuse argument, in short, into your very high street. That letting people injure themselves on our streets must not be left. That we have to build the therapeutic communities and places of comfort and safety where people in need can drain off their ills and woes and live again.

Before Henry VIII’s closing of the monasteries and sacking of churches they were, among other things, the social services and hospitals of the time. Ely would at some time would have been full of what they used to call the lame and the halt.

How fitting it seems to me to talk again about reconnecting our social and legal systems so that we can take people from the streets and get the demons out that caused them to end up on the street. To talk about such things in a cathedral which once united piety, power and social purpose.

Street living and homelessness are human rights abuses. I cannot see it differently. Poverty is abuse. It robs you of all that makes you human.

So therefore let’s sing a song to its termination, write books and poems, collect money for foodbanks; and do a hundred more things to fight it. But let’s unify our efforts, is my final message this night at Ely.

Our cathedrals are beautiful social engines. They are powerhouses to gather opposition to ignorance and illnesses. They rise above us and remind us what feats humans can achieve. They make us feel we can walk on air; or should.

But let’s get rid of this blasted thing that, like a millstone, we carry round: poverty.

That involves the grandest planning, the biggest unified thinking, the most careful husbanding of resources. The jettisoning of the slapdash, temporary, patched-up stuff that poverty-solving seems riddled with.

I left the dark cathedral having tried my best to widen human rights to include the person we see left behind on our streets with no system to support (other than the stop gap).

The bad news last week for the streets is how deadly they are. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed that 449 people died in the last year. This is the worst indictment against street-dwelling I’ve heard in years.

The streets are a place where neglect kills. Death on our streets is a human rights abuse too far.

Image: Rod Edwards / Alamy Stock Photo