Thursday, October 29, 2015

RIP Don Humphries

Sad to hear of the passing of the man responsible for my coming to faith and being ordained. This is not an obituary. It is an appreciation of someone who I was profoundly influenced by for about fourteen years but haven't really stayed in touch with. I think my story may be echoed by many others.

When I first met Don I was sixteen and he was a curate in his late twenties. He was serving his title (as the expression goes) at my home church of St Stephen's, Selly Hill. I did not go to church but responded to an invitation to a Youth Service, run and promoted by the church youth group he led called Cross Section. The week after the service Don called round to my house to follow up. He invited me to a games night and a Bible Study. He also spent most of the time watching Wimbledon on the tele, specifically asking my Mum not to turn it off, and, when he came in from work, arguing with my Dad about the proof of the existence of God. Don wore a leather jacket which made me think he was cool for a vicar and my unconvinced Dad must be wrong.

The curate's house at 114 Cherrington Road was a semi-detached with three bedrooms. I was once there for a Bible study with 78 members (we counted them). We broke into three groups - one in the lounge, one in the dining room and one in Don's bedroom. I think some people sat in the front garden and smoked. Do not read 2015 Safeguarding advice back into 1971.

In the holidays (when not doing houseparties) he got the youth group to do decorating jobs around the church and hall. We even decorated a probation hostel.
The Cross Section programme card for the summer I joined and a venture badge
Don managed to get young people from Selly Oak Boys School and King Edward's (direct grant, examination entry) happy in each other's company. There are probably more people in full-time ministry from a non-Christian background as a result of Don's ministry than any other clergyperson in the C of E. CYFA groups do not have to be mono-cultural.

For his thirtieth birthday the girls of Cross Section took Don shopping and bought him a second pair of trousers. He wore them for many years.

Don was an evangelist. He challenged everyone to Christian commitment. Everyone. His methodology was delightfully simple. He ran CYFA (Church Youth Fellowships Association) houseparties, now called Ventures, in the school holidays. He persuaded you to go. If you were too old to be a member he got you to help cook. He knew that on the houseparties you would hear two talks a day on aspects of the Christian life with one strong challenge to turn to Christ and a further one to wholeheartedness. He gave these two talks himself. He wanted you to reach such a stage of committed faith by age 18 that you could become a leader. He told Liz not to commit to me until I shared her faith.

Once 'promoted' to leader he trained you as a leader. After a few years of leadership he asked you to consider ordination. He did this to me in a gym equipment store room in 1978 as we were putting chairs away.

He insisted that speakers keep to a precise length but never managed it himself.

Here's the funny thing. There is a small army of us out here, who learned things under Don's tutelage and pretty-much decided never to do most of them that way. I have an image in my head of me doing lunchtime notices at Clarendon and Don snapping his fingers to make me go faster. I was trying to learn wit while he taught speed. His houseparties ran to a tight timetable. We also joked that his gift of encouragement ran to 'Steve, may I encourage you never to do that again.'

But we did learn that he hated stuffy rooms. Entering any room we could usually anticipate the command to 'Open the windows'.

He taught us wisely how to set up a room for a meeting. Chairs should face the dullest wall.

We also learned that once the houseparty leaders had got all the young people to bed those not with them in dorms went out for Chinese food.

His Bible study methodology was to ask a million questions. If he didn't agree with an answer he'd ask what anyone else thought.

The inside pages
In the leaders meeting after the morning meeting on the venture everything from the previous day was reviewed. So that we learned from all the mistakes and so that speakers learned to take criticism. It was a harsh environment but we learned not to be too defensive about errors.

Throughout his next three appointments, as chaplain at Warwick University, Vicar of Christ Church, Bedford then Holy Trinity, Cambridge, recruiting people to houseparty work continued to be the thrust of his evangelistic ministry, alongside recruiting teams to run missions around the country. Others will say more about that period of his life, his family and ministry.

Don did not enjoy good health. A nasty pancreatitis in the mid 70s required major surgery. In later life he endured Parkinson's Disease. Brandishing a knife, with a hand tremble, to cut the wedding cake at his marriage to Sarah he remarked to us all, 'There may be casualties'.

Don was a third generation of houseparty leader following Eric 'Bash' Nash at Iwerne Minster in the 1940s and 50s then Ken Habershon at Limpsfield in the 1960s and 70s. In 1985 Bob and Ann Clucas, Dunc and Gilly Myers and us Tilleys joined generation four (begun, I believe, by Steve Allen and Steve Wilcockson) when we started Great Ayton. I stopped in 2002 but Bob and Ann continue, although the venture has moved sites many times.

Don taught us to be leaders by joining in a project to do something for young people. We were taken away not for lectures and reading but to work in a team. We worked ridiculously hard and faced some unbelievably difficult situations. We learned to work out what to do because we were trusted at a young age to get on with it. In 1984 he was unwell on day one so he told (not asked, told) me to lead the venture. He had prepared me for this moment in a thousand brief conversations. I wasn't overawed. He also told the team I was in charge. I was then the same age he had been when I met him.

We discussed and prayed a lot. You will note the regularity of prayer on the term card for Cross Section.

Don's commentary on our work was often critical, but he made good people great. He ironed out the minor faults with direct words.

I am profoundly grateful to him. What Would Don Do? has been a helpful question to accompany thirty years of ordained ministry.

OK everyone. That's enough reading.

Washing up.

Don's funeral will be on Tuesday 10th November.


Mike Peatman said...

There are a few Don-isms that he never said, but "can I encourage you not to do that" was definitely a real one - in a variety of versions, but the same general theme.

Head Gardener said...


Caroline Too said...

I am so sorry to have missed news of Don's death and of the things I remember him telling us was that if someone we knew and loved was ill, it didn't matter how far away they were; we were to go and see them...So much of what I just take for granted as good practice was learned in those morning leaders' meetings...