The Interview: January 1998
By Robbie Low
IT WAS PARKINSON that first brought it to my attention. Not the Barnsley boy and idol of late night television in the 1970s but another Yorkie nonetheless. Our own avuncular gravel voiced, shaggy jowled, menthol fuming National Director.
There we were, gathered in the Douglas Room of Faith House for a Council meeting, when Parky starts shoving round sponsor forms and encouraging us, in his own inimitable, and incontrovertible way to sign up for a goodly amount. As two of the first three signatories were "Tykes" and their response was out of all proportion to their tribal characteristics, any subsequent signatory pitching in for less might have been suspected of terminal parsimony. I remain convinced that one of the most financially cautious brethren thought it was an expenses form and put down his train fare. But...... once you've "signed".
What was all this for?
Apparently Colin Niblett, from the bookshop was trying to raise £2,000 for the Nazareth Hospital by taking part in the sixth sponsored Galilee Bike Ride. Most of us, having long ago abandoned anything so vulgarly energetic as bicycling were, I suspect, glad it was him and not us.
But Colin? Who would have suspected this secret vice?
Always a friendly face in the bookshop, welcoming, cheerful, the bright eyes and the roman hair, short and wavy, somewhere between Puck and Caesar. And he smokes! Surely he wasn't serious about all this exertion.
He was, he is and, as I write this on a late December evening, we have just spent a very convivial evening in front of the Vicarage fire reliving the journey, it's origin and purpose and the excitements along the way.
But a journey for the faith is never just about getting from A to B. Pilgrimages come at critical points in our life and we are, if we allow God's sovereignty in them, deepened and changed by the experience. Colin came to talk about the trip but, on your behalf, I ambushed him and got him to tell something about himself which is, after all, the context for the journey.
Colin is a Brummie. There is still a faint Midlands lilt behind his voice. Mum was a Ward Clerk at Selly Oak Hospital, Dad a Management Engineer in the Health Service. There are three brothers, two younger one older and the rest of the family are Villa supporters. Colin is a "Baggie" (West Bromwich Albion).
WERE YOU A RELIGIOUS FAMILY?
"We were all baptised in the Church of England but later parcelled off to Baptist Sunday School. Actually at the same corrugated tin hut where Mum and Dad first met at a social event. That was in Handsworth. When we moved to Harbourne it was Scouts at St. Peter's and church choir. Very different - incense and bells."
DID YOU KEEP UP YOUR FAITH?
"Not really once I was at the Grammar Technical School. We went to Methodist Youth Club 'til about fifteen but only occasional services. Having said that, my faith never left me - I always believed. I remember a Good Friday when I was eight years old and feeling so sad that Jesus had died. Never forgot that - what Jesus did for us.
But I didn't come back to church until about six years ago."
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER SCHOOL?
"I left at 16 and trained to be a chef. Four year apprenticeship forty miles from home, Lygon Arms, Broadway, near Evesham. By extraordinary coincidence it turned out one of the other cyclists had worked there the year before me."
From there Colin pursued an uninterrupted career in hotels and catering for sixteen years. First the Holiday Inn then to the Grand Hotel Birmingham. Chef, Food and Beverage Manager, Stock, Cellars, Orders, Crocks - everything the business can throw at you and "you may be a manager but if there's a waiter short you do that too!"
In 1981 he came to London, Heathrow Penta then in charge of personnel and accommodation. From 1985 a hotel next to Leeds Castle.
"The Christmas package was memorable. Lots of new money from Essex and London, many of them Jewish, for a traditional Christmas. Ma arrives with children in Volvo followed by transit van of presents and Dad later, in Bentley, when work is over. I'm arranging Midnight Mass outings and, in the hotel, the Sally Army Band plays. Then on Boxing Day they're off to London for a football match. Great fun to be with and very demanding"
This all sounds very familiar.
In 1988 he moved back to London where the hotel was taken over by Trust House Forte and as London and Heathrow group Reservation Manager he achieved 400% growth and was made redundant as the slump hit.
A recently bought flat, dropping prices, out of work for the first time ever.
HOW LONG WERE YOU UNEMPLOYED?
"Two years. I saw what it was like to be on the other side. I tried everything to get a job. Eventually a part time job in an East End pub during Lent where I met, you won't believe this, some Mirfield ordinands on holiday. We got talking and I went to one of the ordinations and God spoke to me gently and said, "It's time you started coming back" So I did."
"I tried my local church but it was known locally as the "mix and mismatch" which is sadly a pretty accurate description and moved on to try Abbey Wood where I was made very welcome and remain. Though our Parish Priest Fr. Martin Neale, who has been so encouraging, has just moved on this year."
HOW DID YOU START BICYCLING?
"The Daily Mail wrote a very helpful article on "living in debt" when I was unemployed. I wrote to thank them and was amazed when Sir David English wrote back asking me to do an interview on being unemployed. As a thank you they got me a bike (a la Tebbit) to save me fares. It was my first at age 34 - I'd never had one as a kid."
Meanwhile the church connection grew. "Hooked on God" Colin wanted to read whatever he could and found his way to Faith House Bookshop. He began to do odd bits and pieces to help out there and soon Arthur Leggat, of the Church Union, offered him a job. In 1994 he went to a vocation's conference and began discussions with the assistant director of ordinands. Excitement was turning to rush and with Fr. Neale's agreement it was decided to begin the Readers course (he is now in his second year) and get settled into new job and new home. Next year the Director of Ordinands will see him again.
HOW DID YOU GET ON THIS BIKE RIDE?
"I was lighting the charcoal in the vestry and Fr. Neale suggested it, left me the papers and said I should ask Forward in Faith friends to support the hospital. That was in June."
Colin had never been to the Holy Land before but support gathered quickly and keenly and, in early November, he found himself with eighty others on the night flight to Tel Aviv. Sunday dawn saw the weary travellers transfer to the summit of Mount Carmel - be united with their bikes, kit, support vehicles - those wonderful suppliers of water, almonds, apricots and energy giving bananas. The wise had brought their own saddle covers to put on the razor edged racing saddles on the sturdy mountain bikes. And, of course, to worship.
THE SECOND DAY?
"From the mountain top the most wonderful views of the Zebulun Valley, past Muchraka where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal, across the brook Kishon and running parallel to the Mediterranean coast up past the Crusader port of Acre to the borders of Lebanon. Fine at first, then drizzle then, by nightfall thunder and lightning and torrential rain."
Those who have wondered how, in 1 Kings 18, Elijah managed to outrun Ahab's chariot need only ask Colin for an account of
THE THIRD DAY?
"Hilly, off road riding, ascending through fruit plantations to the high points of Galilee. The tracks dissolved in mud, the support vehicles could not continue. Those of us who made the final ridge could not ride it we had to drag our bikes. The "picnic lunch" was spent sheltering and scraping the mud off our bikes and our kit. The Lebanese border was lost in shrouds of rain and mist. But it was tremendous for bringing us together as a team."
THE FOURTH DAY?
"The mist continued until our final approach to the Sea of Galilee when, suddenly, the clouds parted and the sun shone. Wonderful. Lunch. Prayers at the Mount of Beatitudes. The realisation that we were standing where Jesus preached. It was very moving. And Tabgha - the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The ancient mosaics. One of our riders was baptised in the sea!"
And night in the Gennessaret Kibbutz
THE FIFTH DAY
"A dawn start. The boat took us across Galilee sailing east into the sunrise and breakfast on the shoreline. So much of the gospel happened right here.
Then it was back on the bikes and a loop round to the Jordan Valley and the site of the Baptism. We had a chance to pray and to swim in the springs.
With improved weather we were back on schedule and able to visit Beit Shan - a huge archaeological site - amphitheatre, synagogue etc.- the town where they fastened Saul's body to the walls (1 Sam 31). And then overnight in a farming kibbutz at the foot of Mount Gilboa where Saul and Jonathan were defeated.
The kibbutz laid on a party for us and the support team."
THE SIXTH DAY
"Bending back north and west, largely off road through the Jezreel Valley (Naboth, Ahab, Jezebel I Kings 21) through the hills towards Mount Tabor (scene of the Transfiguration) before turning down through the village of Deborah, through the Churchill Forest and the long slow ascent again to Nazareth.
When we arrived we were greeted by a local youngsters pipe band and the hospital staff and the Bishop of Jerusalem.
We poured water all over each other and there were lots of hugs and rejoicing and worship that went on so long our coaches left without us!"
TELL ME ABOUT THE
"It was funded last century by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society and is the largest employer of local staff in Galilee. It's the district general hospital and a centre for nurses teaching. Jew, Christian, Muslim come there for treatment. The Nazareth population now is about 100,000. In 2000 because of the millennium it will be approaching half a million!
This year's ride was to raise money for a new operating theatre - it's old, out of date and cramped, also a new labour ward - there are 7 beds divided only by curtains for 2,800 births per year.
The casualty is tiny and deals with 4,000 per month."
HOW MUCH MONEY DID YOU RAISE?
"We had to commit ourselves to raising £2000 each. Thanks to our people's generosity I hope to be able to hand over £4000."
HOW DID THE RIDE AFFECT YOUR FAITH?
"The Bible really came alive. I can see it when I read it now. But I'm not sure I'll be able to sing that hymn "O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above!" ever again!"
WHAT OTHER THINGS WILL YOU REMEMBER?
"So many. The Basilica of the Annunciation and the priest who had ridden with us explaining Mary to his protestant friends.
The Agape at Galilee. The way we respected each others traditions without compromising.
The overwhelming hospitality of Marcel and Salim and their family in Nazareth. Christian Arabs worshipping at the Greek Orthodox Church. The baptism of orphans there with their new families. The riders - Stephanie, a presenter from Radio 3, Nigel from London Bible College, Gordon and Kieran our chaplains, Jim from Morecambe - over 60, full of humour, and a bag of sweets for all the children we met.
Our day in Jerusalem - the Japanese Mass at All Nations by the rock of the agony. The silence on Remembrance Sunday at Masada, the children's memorial at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial..."
You don't come back from pilgrimage the same as you went. Ask the young man who kept borrowing Colin's bible during the week and asking him questions. On the Saturday, having read the story of the Prodigal Son, he gave his testimony - too long away, he gave his life back to Christ. Colin gave him his Bible.
Anyone wishing to contribute to Colin's effort for the Nazareth Hospital can send a cheque (made out to "Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society") to Colin at Faith House Bookshop, 7, Tufton Street, London SW1.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's Bushey Heath, in the diocese of St Alban's.
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