‘Never been so scared, never known such grace’ – Interview with Andree Lee

When Andrée Lee, former prima ballerina with the Hong Kong ballet, prayed a simple prayer for God to “help the homeless” she had no idea she would end up bringing 200 volunteers from 26 churches together to run a rolling night shelter. Helen Harwood asked her about the experience and how it coincided with her decision to join the Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course at CMS.

Read on, or watch an extended interview with Andree on the video below.

HH: Can I ask about your background and your journey to faith?

AL: I am Chinese, originally from Hong Kong. My father was a lapsed Roman Catholic schooled by Jesuits, and my mother a nominal Protestant. Both parents were from a very westernised, refugee generation who escaped the Communist regime in mainland China and came to Hong Kong in 1949. Their priority was to afford their children the best education on offer, and typically of a British colony, the best schools were church-run.

Baptised as a Roman Catholic, I was first sent to an RC nursery, where I learnt that God was a triangle in the sky with an all seeing eye in the middle! Despite that potentially nightmare-inducing experience, I acquired a notion of a higher authority who was always loving and just. Primary and middle school was single sexed, English speaking and Anglican, in an acclaimed institution and competitive powerhouse that turned out generations of high achieving Chinese women.

It was there, through daily liturgical assembles and weekly RE lessons, that I acquired the foundations of faith and adopted a rhythm of worship. But I was confused and conflicted in my identity as neither Anglican nor Catholic, and grew up hungry to belong. I was confirmed in time to be married in the RC tradition to appease my father’s family. My husband had an Anglican schooling in the UK, but declared no allegiance and would not accept Catholicism. After a feeble attempt as an ill-informed, guilt-ridden Roman Catholic, I gave up church altogether and entered a desert time.

A family bereavement brought my husband to conversion and through that I came home to the Anglican Church. But a crisis of faith recurred when my mother died suddenly of cancer, and I began to harbour a secret hatred of God whilst serving him flat out in the church. Six years later I had a significant encounter with the Holy Spirit during a weekend course, and was mercifully released. Through my conviction/conversion experience I met for the first time that infinitely loving and just God of my childhood. Overnight I became one of those obnoxious charismatics who would lay hands on anything that moved! But I was truly alive in my faith and life has never been the same since. That was 15 years ago.

Today I am still worshipping at the same church, where I have been for 21 years, serving on the leadership team as Lay Pastor and lately Community Outreach Pastor. I have heard no call yet to leave this church family that has known, accepted and loved me through thick and thin, so will remain among them until God calls me elsewhere.

What led you to London and into pioneering, were the two connected?

Interesting question. I’ve been living in London since 1980 – a lifetime. I’ve always asked God why he brought me to England as we have no family here, so early days in marriage and motherhood were often lonely. I dug deep and coped, thought maybe that was the point. But every few years I seemed to arrive at a different answer about my life’s purpose,  as though this was a progressive revelation. It usually had to do with a change of roles, but as the roles continued to evolve things felt inconclusive and remained open-ended.

I first came to London in 1977 on a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School to train as a classical dancer. At the time I was mid-university degree, and prima ballerina with the Hong Kong Ballet, later ballet mistress to the company. Our patron Dame Margot Fonteyn had brought out a dashing German partner half her age to dance with us. All the girls had a major crush on him and we were devastated when he died two years later of leukaemia. A memorial scholarship was established in his name, and I was the first girl dancer to receive that honour to come to the Royal Ballet. During that time I met my future husband. At the end of the year I returned home to complete my university degree, got married and came to live in England. I trained further at the Royal Academy of Dancing as a teacher and would have become their youngest examiner in Europe. But my career was interrupted by a move to Boston, Massachusetts, and the eventual arrival of children and full time motherhood closed that chapter.

Pioneering is a recent nomenclature. Did I awaken one morning to find that I’d become a pioneer overnight? Well, no and yes. What’s a pioneer? Confucius he say, “May you live in uneventful times!” – as a blessing. I have lived an entirely eventful life and nothing has turned out as expected. As a child I was apparently restless so sent to ballet classes because I was such a monkey; and I nearly made a career out of it. But instead of continuing as a professional dancer I left the company at the peak of my ability, got married and became a hausfrau and mother. It certainly took me away from my family and friends, from the familiar and the known and landed me on foreign soil. I’d refused to study English and Literature at university, my natural areas of gifting, to become a writer as strongly advised. I wanted challenge and change so took up Psychology and minored in Sociology. My high flying classmates, the movers and shakers in society, cannot understand the classmate voted most likely to succeed in some form of world domination, who was rumoured to be exploring priesthood in recent years!

I wonder if people are born pioneers: restless travellers who are always in transit, forever looking beyond. I think it’s all about the choices I have made; in retrospect these seem always to have been an opting for something different. I’ve had a habit of holding an alternative view to whatever was mainstream; maybe because of an overactive and technicoloured imagination? I see the funny side of things, was a class clown who flew close to the wind at times. But I also feel things deeply and passionately, especially in matters of right and wrong, always on the side of the brokenhearted; turns out it’s what you call in adulthood issues of social justice. I often initiated things: I was the girl who first did this, or the woman who first attempted that. Or I did things in a completely different, or ridiculous way – often running ahead when others walked, jumping in with both feet where angels and committees feared to tread. I am noisily frustrated if nothing was done which should be done. As part of the church leadership I am the not-so-quiet moaner in the corner muttering about the attitude to money, praying barbed prayers about legalism, causing uncomfy shuffling of feet and paperwork with my barely veiled accusations against any hint of hypocrisy, complacency, or the unwelcome of the down-and-out and those different to us. I am often a pain in many butts! My vicar recently called me a dogfish – something fishermen apparently threw in amongst their daily catch, who swims the wrong way and keeps the other fish moving, so they are still alive when they hit land and can be sold. I thank God I am deeply loved despite my watery bark, and regularly forgiven!

It was not until I initiated a joint churches homeless shelter scheme in my borough last winter, that I finally emerged as what the Church would call a pioneer. To the relief of many, not least myself, it seemed good to finally know what on earth was wrong with me! This new label pulls many strands together: the creative dreamer, the mercy heart for the broken, the fierce passion for justice. Is this connected to my initial arrival in England as a ballerina? I don’t think anything in life is unrelated: we are all products of our past, and the signposts to our future.

Can you tell me more about your work with the homeless?

The Shelter Project started with a prayer two years ago. I’d come out of my office at the Christian Healing Mission on a very cold night, gasped a breath of icy air and prayed six words: “Dear God please help the homeless.” Unlike previous years, the thought of someone suffering in the cold wouldn’t leave me. It was as though God was asking, “So are you prepared to do something about it?” I think my unease was also related to a recent mission trip to the jungle villages of West Malaysia, where my heart for the poor had been stirred. I ended up quitting my job a few months later to pilot a rolling shelter scheme: a different church would open up each night of the week to offer hot meals, overnight accommodation, and breakfast the next day before the homeless guests moved on.

One prayer led to questions and pushing on doors, and doors have continued to fling open ever since. I was given permission to explore, and gathered a small team to cold call all the churches in our neighbourhood to gauge interest. Every minister I approached had regular homeless callers, and many also said they were just pondering their mission action plan or next discipleship scheme when I knocked on their doors. By early summer I’d organised an information evening and was fearing a zero response when 15 churches rocked up. Unknown to me, news of the proposal had spread like wildfire through our huge borough, which had no history of homeless provision despite its relative economic deprivation. There were still doubts voiced whether we had any homeless problems in our streets. But on our first volunteer training evening, 150 people queued round the church building to come in – it was worse than Christmas Day! – and I was gobsmacked at what I had started. I knew that it was all God, and somehow we had stumbled onto his plans. The way that money and all manner of equipment (from pillows, duvets and bed sheets down to toothpaste!) just poured in, and continues to do so today, was proof that this was what we were called to do.

Our primary objective was respite to rough sleepers, so none suffered or died in the streets during the coldest days of winter. By and large that’s what we achieved: for 80 consecutive nights last winter, 26 churches sent over 200 volunteers to work at six shelter venues. We served 48 men from 10 different nations, and fed an additional dozen others who didn’t overnight as we were full.

Most of our guys had no recourse to public funds; many were migrant workers from Eastern Europe, with the Poles presenting with the most alcohol abuse problems. The other guests were all asylum seekers, Punjabis or Tamil-speaking Sri Lankans, some of whom were on methadone. We had many Muslims but few English because of the catchment area. We knew that language could be a barrier and brought in Polish or Tamil speaking volunteers. The moment a guest found his voice even if through another, they regained their identity and came alive. I learnt to meet and greet in Polish and reaped in 5.5 proposals of marriage, the 0.5 when that particular guest was especially drunk!

Regardless of background, genuine friendships formed between hosts and guests over the 12 weeks. I encouraged young volunteers to serve alongside adults, and the guests loved their youthful energy, or to listen to their music on their iPods. One church had their entire youth team cook the evening supper; no one died consequently but all made friends with the guests and committed to pray for them all winter. It resulted in one guest coming to worship with that church every Sunday till he left.

Before and after supper there would be friendly banter, killer chess (the Poles always won!), table games like cards or Connect 4. One night the team and guests tried to outdo each other with remembering childhood table games and tricks. I realised how much had been lost to the homeless: not just the big things like dignity, personhood and love; but the little things in life like laughter, fun, entertainment, sense of family. As the weeks progressed there was a notable and growing sense of ease with one other; I realised that we had built a community. The caseworkers told us that it is in such environments that a homeless person might have the space to review his life and the choices he’d made, a bolt hole to reconsider things and come to terms.

I knew that the project de-mythed homelessness and we met the real persons behind the label. We learned how there was no such thing as the deserving or undeserving poor. Homelessness today can happen to anybody; because of economic rupture, increasing government cut backs, lack of affordable housing, or simply an unlucky culmination of events such as illness, job loss. But the underlying cause is always about broken relationships, in individual lives and within community. Sadly, at the end of our shelters few were accommodated and most went straight back onto the streets; it broke our hearts and made us question deeply what we’d actually accomplished.

In my role as initiator and project coordinator I discovered that I was a kind of “glue”: I  connected different churches to together as a huge team; linked the project to the charities that worked in homelessness; was the continuity girl for the guests throughout the week in different shelters – liaising also between them and their keyworkers on a daily basis. I became the public face in community that pointed quietly but powerfully to what the Christians were doing; and  facilitated mission to be an outworking of faith to the congregations. Much of my work was intensive, hands on and hard graft: boring old admin, writing grant applications, physically setting up, dismantling and cleaning up shelter spaces, and turning my home into a perennial Chinese laundry! My favourite bit however, was waiting for that moment to pray for any guest who wanted a faith discussion and prayer. I found myself pastoring and discipling both guests and shelter teams: modelling ethos, problem shooting, giving guidance or encouragement, and eventually, autonomy when they were ready.

What does homeless ministry mean to you? How does it impact you? And can you give us a picture of some of the highs and lows of your work?

It was a steep learning curve! So many people taught me so much, volunteers and especially the guests. I’ve never known such a large Christian family with such diverse expressions of faith, and felt so blessed by them. I never expected to be a gatherer of hearts and minds on this scale.

I found that I did a lot of witnessing. I talked about shelters to many churches, how we have been called and why we must respond, and saw hearts melt. It happened across denominations. I always found that Jesus had gone ahead of me to prepare hearts to be receptive, so in even the most difficult churches I have found favour for the message. The most exciting thing was witnessing Christian collaboration, the living unity in diversity. In one of my shelters there were 10 churches represented in the team of 14, the place buzzed with God’s pleasure. One evening I found myself speaking of the Shelter Project to a group of young Muslims in North London who were thinking about starting a soup kitchen for their local homeless. I was terrified how to speak and not dishonour either Jesus or the Islamic faith. But as I looked out to the sea of faces I discovered that they were the same as the Christian ones: compassion truly has no creed or colour or tribe; every face was shining with genuine pity for the homeless, and full of expectation that God could use them to do something real, so faith was not a concept but action that made a difference.

I’ve discovered that many church leaders didn’t, or couldn’t lead their congregations from faith to mission. Most were keen to try shelters, but wary of relinquishing their sacred spaces to unknown visitors from a deprived background, unsure how their members would respond to the challenge. I had that privilege and opportunity to encourage and facilitate mission. The Shelter Project has allowed me to befriend different congregations,  to worship among them and be welcomed as a new little sister. I’ve dragged volunteers to each church’s social outreach events to cross pollinate the experience of faith and worship. I’ve made a point of building relationships so that the ministry would just skim easily above. It seems to have paved the way for further joint, ecumenical initiatives that benefit the community. Currently three different churches have approached me to consider starting up a Foodbank.

Above all the Shelter Project has been a personal journey of discovery and blessing.

I have never been called to such faith, praying my small but enormous prayer, and having to become the answer to that prayer. I have never been so excited, seeing churches gather together, feeling the growing sense that this was a movement of the Spirit, and therefore beyond the smallness of me.

I have never been so scared, knowing nothing about homelessness and how to stand up to big, drunk, smelly, lewd, homeless guys. I have also never known such grace in these big broken men, their courage to get up each morning to face yet another day in an indifferent world, and their immense gratitude for the tiniest favour.

I have never been so touched by the compassion and kindness in the volunteers at each shelter, Christians bending over backwards to befriend and serve their homeless guests without limit, and with great creativity. I have never ceased to be amazed at the easy ecumenism when those of diverse and sometimes opposing doctrines would lay down their differences to work with one heart and mind to do one thing together: to serve Christ in the homeless. We were a powerful witness.

I have never wept so often, and so hard for the plight of these men, knowing I cannot really change their circumstances, knowing they need Jesus, knowing that the whole world must change to eradicate their pain. I have never been more privileged than when I got to pray with a guest, and touched the heart of the matter. Or seen the lines on their pained faces ease in the presence of God, when the Holy Spirit covered them with the Father’s love, and for a short time they knew they mattered, had value, and that there was still hope.

And I have never felt more alive, running nightly between shelters for three whole months, exhausted with insufficient sleep and overburdened with labour, but feeling I am in the right place and right time, doing the very thing I was born and called to do.

You only joined the pioneer mission leadership training course this September but you’ve already attended one resource weekend and are just finishing off two modules. It seems the course has been a positive force for you. How did you hear about the course and how has it helped you in these first few months?

I’d signed up for a Jump For Jesus with CMS to raise awareness and money for the Shelter Project – true blue pioneer or merely idiot?? My role at church was morphing from lay pastor to community outreach pastor so I was seeking appropriate training. While looking up a detail for my skydive I stumbled upon the Pioneers website by chance. But of course, there are no accidents in the life of a Christian, only the discovery of the will of God.

I love theology and was especially attracted to the mission focus on this course; but what really did it for me were the video clips from current students who spoke my language. I’d been struggling for some time with an inward shift: although I will always default to pastoral love for my church family in their traditional setting, or my homeless guys in a para-church setting, I longed for a riskier engagement beyond our church walls. The season of committees, meetings, structures, or an inward focus was definitely past me. In retrospect, the homelessness work was only the first port of call on a new journey. In recent years within the Church no one seemed able to place me. A group who prayed for me had a picture that resonated: they saw that I had a huge harvest of tomatoes, but that people were arguing whether I was a fruit or a vegetable! I resolved to be ketchup.

My vicar felt that “pioneer” was a right fit, and brokered a meeting with Jonny Baker, who also thought that I had the symptoms of a pioneer in mission. I was both relieved and terrified, but excited at the thought of experiencing a community of others who were also a bit awkward and lost in their former traditions of worship, and needed to see/do church differently. Jonny promised others would spark me off, and that through them and the course I would be able to place my ministries into a context of understanding vocation, the nature of God’s calling on my life. I was SO hungry for that revelation: I’ve been waiting most of my life to know.

“Pioneer School” has been a breath of fresh air. I love the non-didactic style of instruction and learning through group reflection. Our Moodle (student intranet) conversations have been such a hoot and a great tool for shared learning. Creative portfolio-making is encouraged and suits me, but I remain convinced that it is more work than a straightforward 3,000 word essay! I already cherish my fellow pioneers and am in awe of their mission hearts and mission courage.

I had expected that coming to CMS would mean a ‘coming to myself’. I prayed that I would not arrive to be weighed, measured and found wanting. Although the journey thus far has felt like a homecoming, it’s not been an easy one. I’ve been unlearning and relearning almost everything I thought I knew about church, faith and mission. Back on home soil I’m usually the one crying out for others to embrace difficult visions and voices. Here on the course that call has become personal, so I’ve had to confront myself and ask some honest questions about how I have become inculturated, numbed, blinded, acquiesced and betrayed the purity and integrity of the life I am called to. At times the oft quoted “Another World is Possible” mantra seems unattainable the moment I leave CMS; and week by week, guilt piles up when I know I haven’t been able to change anything much. Few friends outside the course understand what I am being exposed to so in some ways it’s got lonelier on the pioneer road.

I guess there’s no glory without crisis. Christ promises constant renewal if we submit to him, and his Spirit transforms us from glory to glory; so the pruning and stripping away must be key to growth. All I can do is hang on for the rest of the ride.

What do you think (or hope) the future holds for you?

Ah. If I were a true pioneer then I would say that I have no idea what the future holds, except that I would be journeying on and on, with no likelihood that I will settle in one place for long.

This week I was at the annual Fresh Expressions conference in central London and heard the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams speak on what the Gospel is all about. He said that it’s simply about us walking along on a road, feeling Jesus tap us on the shoulder so we would turn to him, hear him tell us “Come this way with me”, and in that moment, we would know we belonged.

So I hope that my future would find me still walking, with an acute awareness of Jesus’ hand on my shoulder; of his clear voice telling me to look at him; and with sufficient courage to walk down any road he has set before me. I hope that I would never lose the sense of security and confidence as I journey, or the knowledge of whom I belong to, who belongs to me. And by his grace, I hope that the outworking of this would be a ministry to the poorest, most broken, marginalised and vulnerable –  so I might point out the way for them also, and gain many travel companions to make our journey home rich and colourful, full of music and dancing and laughter.

How can we pray for you at this special time of year, and beyond?

That I would be an outstanding juggler! I work best with one project at a time, so I can throw myself into something: live, breathe, eat, dream the one thing. But as life goes, I have more than one target to meet. I know women multi-task, but I look set to multi-fail if I do not let the Lord share the weight of my yoke! So please pray that over this winter I would be able to deliver all that I’m meant to, to give of my very best, but in his strength. Here are the winter challenges that I face:

I have the Pioneer course, with much thinking, reading, writing, homework and feedback pieces to turn out. Please pray I will be able to complete my portfolio pieces in time, and to turn out good quality pieces to honour the great teaching.

I have a brand new season of homeless shelters to run daily from 6 January till 31 March 2013, with almost double the number of shelters than last winter, and a hope of moving folks on from entrenched homelessness, and not just offering temporary food and a bed. I know I will be deeply affected by sad lives, but I don’t ever want to become calloused or cynical. Please pray for the homeless men we will be encountering – for God’s deliverance and transformation through a united body of Christ; but also for the blurring of who is serving and who is served, so walls of isolation fall and community begins to be restored.

I still have the privilege of pastoral duties at my church: a Blue Christmas service to devise for the recently bereaved, and always folks who need visiting. Please pray I would be able to do this well and usher in God’s presence to comfort his people.

My son and future daughter-in-law will also be coming home from Jakarta for Christmas, and I want to have quality family time with them and with my daughter. Join me in thanksgiving prayers for reunion with loving family.

Beyond the winter, please give thanks that I will continue to find the Pioneer course a life-giving experience, and for my vision and heart for mission to be enlarged.

Happy blessed Christmas to everyone!

1 thought on “‘Never been so scared, never known such grace’ – Interview with Andree Lee”

  1. Dear Andree,

    What a privilege to call you my friend. God has brought you to such a place of influence through servanthood. May you be EVER BLESSED. karen

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