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Wisdom from a tramp

On 12 November 1997, in Durham Cathedral, England, a group of five preachers delivered their sermons hoping to win "Preacher of the Year Award". The theme of the talks was "holiness", and the unanimous winner was the Reverend Paul Walker, a vicar from Moorside, Sunderland. In his sermon he spoke of his unusual encounter with a tramp. One of the judges, broadcaster Joan Bakewell, said: "Paul addressed the subject very clearly. His sermon was original, appealing and new. There was a general sense of warmth throughout the congregation when he had finished, and a sense that people had been a little more energized in their Christian life. He spoke very much from the heart and I think we all felt very moved. We were made to smile and made to think."

Share International contacted Paul Walker to hear his story.

Share International: Could you tell us about your experience at Victoria Station?

Paul Walker: I believe that most people have something that happens in their life that makes them think and changes them and I guess this is the one for me. The first sermon I ever preached included this story and every significant sermon I've ever preached has included it.

At the time I was a student training to be a priest on the south coast of England, and I was waiting for a train at Victoria Station, London. Refusing
to spend a lot of money in the local cafés, and having a long time to wait, I nipped over to an off-license and bought myself a bottle of beer. I came
back, opened the beer, lit a cigarette and was hanging around when this fellow came into the station. He was a typical tramp: he was making a lot of
noise and shuffling along, looking in bins and talking to people. It was one of those situations when everyone on Victoria Station knew he was there but was pretending he wasn't! I had that sinking feeling that he was going to come and talk to me - and of course he did.

SI: Do you remember what he looked like?

PW: Not really. Although I remember his eyes. His eyes came to me quite piercingly - I remember seeing very strongly his eyes. He was Scottish.
He said: "Do you have a cigarette?" I thought if I give him a cigarette that'll get rid of him. Then he said: "Can I have a swig of your beer?" I was a bit
annoyed because I'd just been over to the off-license to buy it. Anyway, I gave him a swig, expecting him to finish it off, but, much to my embarrassment, he just took a swig and handed it back to me and I felt that I had to drink out of the same can that he'd drunk out of.

Then he started talking to me. He asked: " What do you do?" I told him I was a student. He said: "Student of what?" I told him I was training to be a
vicar. He said: "Do you pray?" It was not exactly the sort of question I would normally expect to hear from that sort of bloke. I said: "Yes." Then
he said: "No. I mean really pray - I mean pray all the time?" Then I remember thinking I didn't, but that he was only a tramp so I could lie to him, and I said: "Yes." The conversation went on and we talked about prayer and being in touch with God - and being in touch with God through spending time listening. He told me he prayed and he pulled out of his pocket a broken set of rosary beads which I realized he'd been fiddling with the whole time we'd been there. The whole situation was feeling eerie - I was feeling more and more uncomfortable as it was going along and I was aware that he was telling me things about prayer that I hadn't learned in my training. The conversation seemed to go on and on.

SI: How long do you think it lasted?

PW: I'm not sure. Probably not that long in retrospect. Then at the end he said: "Now listen. Remember what I've said. God can only work through
you if you let him." Then he said thank you for the cigarette and the beer. Finally he looked at me and said: "Paul (I could swear I had not told him my
name) - you never know who you've been talking to." Then he walked away.

At the "Preacher of the Year" event, Reverend Walker had ended his sermon at this point, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions as to who the tramp might have been. Talking to Share International he again refrained from speculation on the tramp's identity, but explained that whether the tramp was "supernatural" or not, the event itself had had a profound effect on his life and faith.

Editorial note

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