The com­pas­sion­ate legacy of Chris­tian women

The Church of England - - Leader & Comment -

Be­fore she dis­ap­pears from our £5 notes – to be re­placed by Win­ston Churchill - it might be fit­ting to cel­e­brate the life, work and legacy of El­iz­a­beth Fry, one of the na­tion’s most im­por­tant Chris­tians and so­cial ac­tivists. She was a deeply Chris­tian dis­ci­ple, a Quaker, and her faith led her into car­ing for the hope­less, fol­low­ing the life and teach­ing of Je­sus. El­iz­a­beth was a very prac­ti­cal dis­ci­ple, full of costly, Christ­like com­pas­sion, reach­ing out to the hope­less and help­less. She vis­ited women pris­on­ers in the dread­ful con­di­tions of New­gate Prison, of­fer­ing read­ing classes to the pris­on­ers and school­ing for their chil­dren, of­ten in prison with their moth­ers. She worked tire­lessly for more hu­mane con­di­tions and dig­nity for the in­mates.

This was the age of trans­porta­tion to Aus­tralia for con­victed crim­i­nals, and El­iz­a­beth vis­ited ev­ery ship tak­ing women con­victs, and their chil­dren, some 106 ships and 12,000 souls. The women were taken to the docks in irons in open carts, abused all the way by the hos­tile Lon­don mob. El­iz­a­beth worked to get them taken in en­closed car­riages, not man­a­cled.

She taught sewing to the women, who would then have a trade to earn a liv­ing in Aus­tralia. She gave a bag of use­ful items for sewing patch­work quilts on the long voy­age to each of the women, who would ar­rive with a quilt to sell. Such was her hu­man­ity, her faith, her very prac­ti­cal at­ten­tion to the de­tailed needs of the suf­fer­ing. And here is a won­der­ful role model for all of us. She cared so much as to reach out to the hope­less and shunned, and not just sen­ti­men­tally but prac­ti­cally, with ideas and ma­te­ri­als to help give hope for the fu­ture. This flowed from her per­sonal faith, work­ing at ev­ery level, per­sonal to po­lit­i­cal, to bring care to the help­less.

Her legacy lives on in the Quak­ers. As we com­mem­o­rate the Nor­mandy Land­ings on 6 June, we also think of the holo­caust vic­tims and the sur­vivors sent on the Kin­der­trans­port to the UK. They needed ‘jobs’ to be ac­cepted, and the Quak­ers, and Sal­va­tion Army, were vi­tal agents in work­ing to get Jewish chil­dren such per­mits for their last­minute es­cape from death. This kind of Christ­like per­sonal care was also seen in the women who tended the dy­ing Lee Rigby as he lay help­less on the streets of Wool­wich, mur­dered by two Mus­lim con­verts on 22 May last year. This Chris­tian com­pas­sion shows the world what true power is, the power of love that will not be bul­lied and in fact over­comes and trans­forms evil, rooted in the death and res­ur­rec­tion of Je­sus.

As we hear of el­derly pa­tients be­ing dis­charged at night from hos­pi­tals we can­not but re­call also Florence Nightin­gale’s achieve­ment in es­tab­lish­ing mod­ern nurs­ing care based in com­pas­sion, again Chris­tian praxis at work at ev­ery level. We thank God for such women, and pray for the re­turn of such com­pas­sion in our in­sti­tu­tions – it seems we need to re­new their strug­gle to main­tain it in all as­pects of our na­tional life.

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