Have you ever felt slightly alone, overlooked or left behind? Perhaps it was your first day at a new school or university, that promotion you never got and never found out why or the party invitation that didn’t seem to find its way to your door. You may be one of the lucky ones who have never experienced feeling left out or excluded, but there are plenty of people who have.
At school I remember, as if they were yesterday, our sports lessons where the two most athletic students took it in turns to pick people for their teams. It was increasingly painful as the pool of talent got smaller and smaller until eventually the two usual suspects were left. I was one of them. By this time the team leaders were of the attitude that they would rather leave the two of us behind than have us on their teams.
Being alone, overlooked or left behind in relationships is one of the most painful experiences in life. Most of us will remember at least one time when we have known those feelings of loneliness, isolation and rejection. Tragically for some people in our society this is their everyday story.
300,000 children and young people are tragically excluded from school each year. 59 per cent of ex-offenders are unable to positively reintegrate into communities after leaving prison and find themselves incarcerated again within 12 months. 500,000 elderly people spend Christmas Day alone and those in care homes are twice as likely to feel severely lonely. Whilst our country is becoming more racially diverse our cities are becoming more racially segregated.
These realities create a sense of 'them' and 'us' and 'haves' and 'have nots'. They create resentment and anger resulting in a society with strained and difficult relationships. Feeling alone, overlooked or left behind, or as the policy people call it - socially isolated and excluded - is one of the greatest challenges of 21st century society.
Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney, the national policing lead for children and young people recently said, "Social isolation and loneliness have an impact on so many people in our communities, whether an elderly person who falls prey to a fraudster’s perceived friendship in order to steal money, or a young person who is groomed into sexualised behaviour because the adult makes them feel ‘special’. While the police are always here if you need us, simple acts of awareness and befriending one another can go a long way to keeping us all safer from crime, and preventing harm from escalating."
Many of us are familiar with the Bible story of Joseph, a young many who was wrongly imprisoned. Joseph found himself in jail alongside the Pharaoh’s sommelier and the two became friends. Even though Joseph helped the sommelier, the Bible says that the wine server quickly "forgot him" (Joseph 40:23). Two years passed before the sommelier thought about Joseph and put in a good word for him with the Pharaoh. Soon after Joseph was released and went on to become the Pharaoh's chief civil servant administering his entire kingdom. This story does have a happy ending, but unfortunately, that is not the experience for many who have been forgotten within our society.
This year the charity that I lead, Cinnamon Network looked for church-based community projects that are building relationships with and amongst young people in their communities who feel alone, overlooked or left behind. Shortlisted projects pitched at a 'Dragons’ Den' style event to win a place in our programme to help them franchise their projects so that hundreds of other churches can follow their lead. The winner was BoxUp Crime that helps churches run boxing academies to engage isolated young people. We need to encourage innovation and the scaling of community projects that combat isolation and exclusion.
Far from being full of religious rules and regulations, the Bible is a book of relationships. It speaks of a God who reached out throughout history to have a loving relationship with humanity. God never wants us to feel alone, overlooked or left behind. God reassured Joshua saying, "I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Joshua 1:5) and Jesus said to his disciples, “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:19). God wants us to know he is with us.
Let's not forget one another like the sommelier forgot Joseph. Let's look out for young people and students who are starting a new school or university. Let's do more to ensure that the people in our communities who might feel left behind, overlooked or alone are invited and included. Let's overcome our inner fear and prejudices to help people who are unlike us. Why not reach out today to someone who you might not normally speak to and help build a society that includes all.
First published in The Times Newspaper 3rd September 2019