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Faith in Practice

Personal performance

Hannah Kowszun

The new stations at St Pancras and King's Cross are clean, consumerist palaces, completely at odds with the notorious red-light district outside their doors. Sister Lynda Dearlove MBE works with Women of the Well to help improve the chaotic lives of street prostitutes.


FiP.jpgI come from a northern working class Catholic family, so I'm shaped by a strong sense of community and social justice; that's in my blood and in my DNA. It's from that perspective that I'm a Sister of Mercy. It's who I am, but it's also what I do. I'm part of a dynamic movement of women across the world that has the most needy as a focus and develops a response to that need based on gospel values.

The Sisters of Mercy have been on a journey that moves them to a place where they recognise that it isn't enough to give out cups of soup, it isn't enough to recognise that people are poor, it isn't enough to respond to those basic needs without challenging the structures that create that need. So we are an NGO, we have permanent representation at the United Nations in New York and we are effectively linked into structures in the UK and in Europe that are about political change. We're not challenging policies from a political perspective, but because they're unjust, because there are values that are directly challenged by what government policy is and isn't.

In this country and other countries people have education and healthcare as a right because congregations like ours provided healthcare and education free to the poor, to improve the quality of their life. Sisters of Mercy began because Catherine McAuley, a rich heiress, chose to use her money to provide for the needs of women and children. Part of this need was women who were being forced into sexual relations with their masters, who were being abused, which is where we started what we now do here with women involved in prostitution.

I don't know that I have a typical day. The services we provide here at Women at the Well are about vulnerable women: targeted at women locked into the pavement for a variety of reasons. My involvement day-to-day can be with the staff that work here, or looking to get funding to keep us going. So on a given day it can mean I'm sitting in a meeting with a government minister or sitting talking with one of the women here whose lives are so chaotic, or sitting with boring paperwork. It can be as broad as that.

For the development in Kings Cross my concerns were that it would be exactly what has been developed in St Pancras station, which is a shopping mall with transport attached, where vulnerable people are not wanted because they're seen as a threat. Before Kings Cross opened I was in a high-level meeting having a conversation with the British Transport Police, who told me they were going to have a zero tolerance policy. But what good will zero tolerance be for women who have a right to be in Boots chemist on Kings Cross station, which is dispensing methodone scripts? How are they going to operate a zero tolerance policy when they have a right to be there?

They need to be able to call us, to work with us, because transport hubs attract vulnerable people. If there is a possibility of interfacing with that vulnerability on the station, we need to be involved, but we need to fight to do it. So we have. Now the trainee British Transport Police do placements here to change their view and get them to see these women as vulnerable as opposed to nuisances, to see them as a face behind that difficult behaviour.

I have a passion about the needs of women. I think it's important to invest the time, the energy and the experience in embedding change. Policy needs to have the voice of the people whose lives are being affected by that policy. I was at a meeting at the Department of Work and Pensions today, about Europe 2020 and the things that we have committed to, although not legal and binding, regarding employment and skills and poverty, presenting to the people who have to deliver the report by the end of April. I was part of a dialogue to make change happen for the better for the people who are not going to get into that room to have that conversation.

I was given the MBE 18 months ago but I don't believe in the Empire! However, those awards are useful because they recognise a response to need. Sometimes having 'Sister' in front of my name helps because I represent the establishment (or not!).

I think I became a Sister when I ran out of reasons why not to. I explored vocation for a period of time in lots of different directions and almost finished in an enclosed order. Then I had a limited understanding about what being a contemplative was all about, thinking it was about silence and meditating and so on, when really being contemplative is about having a resonance, a bit like a tuning fork, with God being part of every moment and every action.

I discovered that I had to embrace the question of what it was about: my journey toward the relationship of what or who I understand God to be. And it's not a God that's vengeful or demanding in terms of do this, do that, but total and complete. I know that for me to be fully who I'm meant to be, this is it. Even after becoming a sister I was still full of reasons why not to be, and I've found a lot more reasons since. But I'm still here.

At the end of the day, I am called to be mercy. Mercy is the business of my life. I may not manage it very often but that's what it's about. My prayer is my life.
I'm not used to interviews that talk about 'I'. I don't believe that anything I ever do is as 'I'; my work is part of a mission that is ours as the Sisters of Mercy. I am here as Women of the Well. The huge thing we do here is move women out of isolation into belonging. My job is enabling a team to do that work, so it's about the we. If ever it's about me, it's a failure.

Lynda Dearlove was talking to Hannah Kowszun

Lynda Dearlove