Mark Russell: Even in difficult times, we can all make a difference in 2019

THE turn of the year is an important moment to pause and look back over the last 12 months.

Desmond Tutu remains an inspiration, says Mark Russell who heads the Church Army.

What was 2018 like for you? What was the highlight? It certainly wasn’t a dull year was it? A year we lost Sir Ken Dodd, Avicii, Dale Winton, Aretha Franklin and Professor Stephen Hawking, France won the World Cup and the city of Salisbury became the epicentre of events that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Le Carré novel.

Chris Evans and Simon Mayo left Radio 2, The Greatest Showman was the soundtrack of the year and the fabulous Stacey Dooley won Strictly Come Dancing. One of my abiding memories of 2018 was seeing a huge orange baby blimp welcome Donald Trump to London – I’m not sure the British sense of humour was appreciated in the White House.

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There are no prizes for guessing what the defining issue for the UK will be next year. It really is anyone’s guess what will happen on March 29, 2019.

Will the Brexit divides be bridged in 2019?

It seems the Prime Minister’s deal will struggle to get a majority in the House of Commons, and Parliament appears gridlocked about what happens next.

Will we crash out of the EU with no deal or will there be a second referendum?

Whatever you think of her policies, you have to admire the sheer grit and determination the Prime Minister 
has shown in the face of such opposition.

The stakes could not be higher the closer we get to March 29, and as a Northern Irishman who lived through The Troubles, the impact of a hard Brexit on the Irish border – and consequently on the Northern Irish peace process – terrifies me.

I can’t remember a time in my life when the whole country felt so on edge, so split, so divided. How we move forward will be the defining issue for the UK in 2019.

I lead Church Army, a national charity and our teams work across the UK and Ireland, so I spend a lot of my time travelling.

I was sitting on a train from London St Pancras back home to Sheffield when the lady opposite me let out a sigh, a real deep sigh.

I looked up, caught her eye, and asked her what the matter was. She had been reading a newspaper, and she just said: “It’s all so depressing, isn’t it?”

I was sitting in Doncaster Sheffield Airport the next week and the same thing happened again.

It seems to me that the drama in Westminster, the uncertainty we face, has had a deep impact on our national psyche.

Is that it? Do we just sit idly by as our politicians debate these issues? Or can we impact the debate, can we impact our national mood?

It is an honour to call Desmond Tutu a good friend. He was for many years the President of Church Army, and I got to spend time with him from time to time.

If you can believe it, he is even more inspirational in the flesh! This little purple-cassock-clad Archbishop is a bundle of energy, laughter and joy. The same little purple-clad archbishop who lived through the horror of apartheid, and lived through the nightmare of murders, riots, oppression and intolerance.

I brought him to the Marylebone Project, the single biggest project for homeless women in the UK. Every year this amazing place serves thousands of homeless women, provides 40,000 nights of accommodation, and over 7,000 women visit our day centre where they can have a shower, get help, training and we help hundreds into work and support them move into independent living.

Picture the scene, into this busy community of homeless women steps this little Archbishop bouncing with laughter, hope and joy. Standing up in the room, he told the women that no matter how dark the day is, the arc of the future tilts towards justice, and then, in words that have never left me, he pointed at them and said: “You, yes you can change the world!”

To a bunch of women who were homeless, who had nothing, one of the world’s leading moral voices had just told them they could change the world. And he was absolutely right.

We can change the world, we can make a difference, and even as our country faces such uncertainty we can make a difference. We can buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person and in doing so we have changed the world for them.

We can give money to a charity caring for marginalised people and change the world for them. We can pick up a few extra items on our 
weekly food shop and leave it at the local food bank and change the world for a family unable to feed their children.

We can buy some flowers for the elderly person living on their own and so change their world. We can give a few hours to volunteer with a local charity and change the world. Our team benefit from more than 27,000 hours of volunteering each year which provide us with over £300k of extra help.

I remember once someone telling me if you feel you are too small to make your presence felt, you have never shared your bed with a mosquito. 
As we begin 2019, let’s determine not to be overwhelmed by the scale
of the issues facing our country, but 
like Desmond Tutu, be filled with
hope, and use our voice and our
energy to work for a fairer, more just world.

I wish you and all those you love a very happy and peaceful new year.

Mark Russell is Chief Executive of Church Army and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @markrusselluk