Pope Francis has spoken about finding God “in the messiness of life”. It’s a phrase that resonates with Gerry Flanagan.
In the early 1980s, Flanagan was a young man looking for ways to live out his faith. But he was turned off by many movements within the Church: they came across, he recalls, as “talking shops”. To him, “acting is the key thing”.
That impulse took him eventually to the presidency of the Salford branch of the Young Christian Workers; today, he is a community worker for Caritas Diocese of Shrewsbury, based in Wythenshawe, an area of Manchester which is home to Europe’s largest council estate.
Flanagan is a busy man. He manages St Aidan’s Centre, from where he runs three support groups: one for carers who look after dependent people in the community, another called MenD Minds, for men with mental health difficulties; and another, SENsitive, for parents of special needs children.
Before the pandemic, the centre also operated a food bank and community café. During lockdown these were replaced by the Hope Project, which offered food parcels to isolated pensioners, people struggling with mental and physical health conditions and also for families who experienced a sudden loss of income.
At a time when the selfishness of hoarders made the headlines, Gerry says he witnessed the best of human nature, with local people making great sacrifices to donate what they could.
He is helped in his work by “a spine” of dedicated Catholic volunteers who, he says, go “the extra mile” for the poor.
He recalls how during a sudden blizzard in one winter he struggled to contact the volunteers to tell them not to come to the centre. When he turned up after a three-hour journey through gridlocked traffic he found a group waiting for him, some having trudged miles through thick snow.
“It shows you the commitment that Catholic people bring to these projects,” Gerry says.
“It gives a really solid basis for some of the work that we do. They’re motivated because it’s part of their faith and this is their witness to the world.”
He is less impressed by the bureaucrats formulating youth and community policies “not rooted in the ground”, and often so disconnected from those they are meant to serve that they can exacerbate the problems they are meant to solve.
He is particularly dismayed by the current trend of “signposting”, a system by which support agencies attempt to direct vulnerable people to where they might receive the right help and advice.
In reality, “often people are treated as hot potatoes and thrown from one agency to another,” Gerry says. “One individual I know went through six different agencies in three months without getting to the heart of the matter. We can really see the impact that this way of treating people has on them.”
The way he prefers to work is to help people to find their voices as they struggle to improve their lives, an aspect which took on a new importance for some clients in the early days of the pandemic.
“Covid shone a light on human dignity,” explains Gerry. “At the food bank we have seen the great side of the human spirit.” On the other hand, he said, it was “really sad” to discover that NHS hospitals were placing do-not-resuscitate orders on children with special needs.
“This was at a time when we didn’t realise the impact (of Covid) was less severe in young people, and a young child was going to be valued differently than other people.
The Government made a statement that that policy shouldn’t be followed but weeks later some NHS trusts still had it in place.
“It was devastating for those parents. This is why it’s important that we are vigilant and that we do work with a broad range of people and we work to have our voices heard on issues like that.”
Equally, he has seen members of MENd Minds, set up to address the high rate of suicides among men under 49 with mental health problems, in agony during the pandemic because of the lack of human contact. “Unfortunately, as much as you try, you can’t replace that,” he says.
Clearly, he has not lost his impatience with talking shops. “I find increasingly that some of the most vulnerable people – whether it’s mental or physical health – with all the great theories and support networks unfortunately they are overlooked,” he says.
“I think it is really sad that with children with special education needs, with the elderly and also other people – with mental health groups – we are not being imaginative as to how we support these people at these times.
“It does feel that for many families they have not only been pushed to the side but also have been devalued as human people.
“The older I get the more I appreciate and value being focused on the dignity of human life.”