Rev Richard Carter, St Martin in the Fields
Memorial service for those who died homeless in the previous year
Service is about becoming part of the orchestra of heaven
Gavin Bryars wrote asking to take part in the Annual Commemoration for those who have Died Homeless. He said he was a composer and musician and wanted to perform a piece he had written, ‘Never failed me yet.’ The words were these. “Jesus’ Blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, there’s one thing I know, for he loves me so…” I was not at all convinced. I already had two choirs singing, Streetwise Opera and The Choir with No Name – both made up of members who have known homelessness themselves. This was a commemoration to give dignity and respect to those who had died in the streets not the place for performance. I was also unsure about the words. Many of those on our streets do feel failed and the idea of Jesus’ blood not failing them was an image of redemption that just seemed hard to grasp. Nevertheless I invited him to come and meet with me to discuss his idea.
Gavin Bryars was a kind and thoughtful man and I liked him immediately. He spoke of hearing a tape of a homeless man singing in the street. Those words he had sent: “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet…” He was a composer. He had put the tape on a loop so that it repeated over and over again. Left it playing in the studio at Leicester Polytechnic where he taught and had gone away and when he came back had found a whole group of students nearby, mesmerised by the song of the old man singing. He passed me a CD and I turned it on.
The old man begins singing very softly. It slowly gains volume as it repeats over and over again. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, Gavin Bryars has brought in instruments, which seem to hold and enhance and deepen and broaden the song as though it were reaching out to include now not only the old man but all of us. It is a haunting sound. It is the sound of resilience and hope against all the odds; a sound that seems to get into your very bones. Of course I said yes, he must play the song at the memorial. He would use a recording of the old man’s voice and then bring an ensemble to join in slowly. I suggested that maybe the two choirs could also join in the singing as it built and Gavin readily agreed.
He arrived on the day with his other musicians. The two choirs were already practicing. Unlike many other musicians I have encountered he was thrilled to hear them sing and seemed in no rush and to have no anxiety to practice his own piece, which was going to be the centre-piece of the service. Finally, in the limited rehearsal time remaining, and very modestly, he practiced. And the song silenced us and filled us all with the dignity and hope of the singer. The conductor for Choir with No Name brought us in at the required time helping the two choirs and all of us to master the simple words and make them our own so that all of us became part of the song and the old man’s song was our song too.
At that service 166 names were read out, all of whom had died in London in the last year. Above the altar, was a huge picture of two holding hands, drawn by Don Pollard, an artist who has known homelessness himself, and who each year has created an artwork for this service. One of the hands is a child’s hand gently holding onto the fingers of the other older person. Which hand is supporting the other? It is hard to tell, both hands need each other. Which hand are we? Are we not at times both of them?
Then the recorded sound of the homeless man begins to sing: “Never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, there’s one thing I know, for he loves me so.. Jesus’ blood never failed me yet…” Slowly members of the packed congregation move towards the altar and the picture of the two hands. On the altar they take a card, each card naming one person who has died in the last year and asking them to remember this name in their prayers. As the song is taken up by piano, and violin, and viola, and cello, and guitar, and then voices, it is as if the company of heaven have also joined in including 166 homeless people now honoured and given a dignity that perhaps, so tragically, many never found in life. The whole church is now singing: “Never failed me yet”; God’s faithfulness palpable in each one of us who have become part of this greater orchestra. It is a sound that moves beyond words, beyond the tune itself and seems to speak to your soul, your profoundest hope. What will survive of us is this. It is as though the song actually becomes that healing, that redemption, that love. What will survive us is this.
“Never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, there’s one thing I know, for he loves me so, Jesus’ blood has never failed me yet.”