Christmas is the time of year when all the charities go into overdrive. It is the season of goodwill when people are more inclined to respond favourably to pleas for donations for good causes. The first Christmas catalogues plopped through my letterbox way back in August. I buy most of my Christmas presents from them, as well as all my cards.
So Christmas is a time of joy, of goodwill, of charitable thoughts and deeds. God's in his heaven; all's right with the world. Or is it? No, of course it's not. Many people I know are the lucky ones - we all have family and friends who love and care for us, with whom we can share the joys of the season. But not everyone is so fortunate. Christmas has a darker, largely unacknowledged side. Unaccustomed proximity can lead to bitter family arguments and breakdowns in relationships. And there are also so many lonely people who simply don't have anyone to share Christmas with, and who wouldn't feel like celebrating even if they did. For such people, the contrast between their lives and the Christmas projected through the media can exacerbate feelings of isolation, panic, stress and depression. For them, Christmas is a season to be got through somehow, not a time of joy and sharing. And even people who are spending time with friends or family may feel pressured to appear happy and to hide their true feelings or problems so as not to spoil the party atmosphere.
There is one particular charity, not as high profile as many, which exists to help such people. Its mission is (and I quote) "to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those who may lead to suicide." It is the Samaritans.
Most of us will be familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, as told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. A man lay wounded and dying by the roadside. The priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road, not wanting to get involved. But the Samaritan was different. Although he was a stranger in those parts, he did not hesitate. He went across to the man, gave him water and bound up his wounds. Then he put him onto his own donkey and took him to the nearest inn, and left money for his care. When Jesus told that story, he asked which man had been the wounded man's neighbour, and was told "He that showed mercy on him."
The Samaritans was founded in November 1953, by an Anglican priest named Chad Varah. Eighteen years before, his first act as a young minister had been to bury a 14-year old girl who had killed herself when her periods started, because she thought she had some dreadful disease. Varah never forgot this girl and, in his own words, seized "every opportunity to teach young people about sex, and finding that it led youngsters to join my youth clubs and young couples to come for marriage preparation, and couples drifting apart to seek marriage guidance before it was invented." He was labelled a dirty old man for his troubles, but carried on with his work regardless. People got in touch with him to talk through their problems, and he was delighted to help.
Then one day he read in a digest that there were three suicides a day in Greater London. To use his own words again: "What were they supposed to do if they didn't want a Doctor or Social Worker from our splendid Welfare State? What sort of a someone might they want? Well, some had chosen me, because of my liberal views. If it was so easy to save lives, why didn't I do it all the time? How, I answered myself, and live on what? And how would they get in touch at the moment of crisis? He concluded that he simply didn't have the time and that "it'd need a priest with one of those city churches with no parishioners" to do the job.
A short while later, he was offered the benefice of St Stephen Walbrook in the heart of the City of London, a church endowed by the Worshipful Company of Grocers. He told them of his idea of setting up a helpline for suicidal people, and the Samaritans was born.
The rest is history. There are now 202 branches of the Samaritans in the United Kingdom, and in 1974, Varah founded Befrienders International, the worldwide body of Samaritans branches. The basic principles have remained the same - Samaritans volunteers are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer that unique befriending service, and to provide confidential emotional support to anyone experienceing emotional distress or despair. In 2010 in the UK alone, Samaritans received nearly five million contacts, 85% of which were by phone, many of whom felt suicidal at the time of the call. They are dealt with by a total of 18,700 volunteers, who between them give nearly three million hours of their time to befriend people in need of emotional support. I think they are splendid.