Chad Varah and The Samaritans
An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To appreciate the life and work of a modern Christian.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and nine readers. Note that, as this assembly deals with very sensitive issues, choose more mature and sensible students to participate.
- Have available the song ‘She's leaving home’ by The Beatles and the means to play it at the beginning of the assembly and the song ‘Bridge over troubled water’ by Simon and Garfunkel to play during the ‘Time for reflection’ section or at the end.
- Familiarize yourself with the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10.29–37. You can read it out in the assembly towards the end if you wish, but this is optional.
- Note that there are two options for the ‘Time for reflection’ section at the end. For the first, you will need eight images of befriending and the means to display these during that part of the assembly.
Leader: Late in the autumn of 2007, one of the greatest, most caring and Christian men of the twentieth century died, aged 95. His name was Chad Varah and he founded The Samaritans.
Today we shall be looking at his life, his work and the legacy he left us. This legacy is the help that he gave through the organization he founded – The Samaritans, now simply known as Samaritans. It is a legacy of outreach to the many millions of people who felt that they were at the end of their tether, who were desperate, who were suicidal, who wanted someone just to listen to their stories and still offers this listening ear today.
We'll also hear some case histories of people who have been helped by Samaritans. These are true stories and permission has been given by Samaritans to use them today.
So, let’s now hear the first of these four real-life stories.
Reader 1: My name is Tony. I'd had a bad relationship and everything had come to a head. We were separating. My wife was moving away with the children. I'd just become redundant from a job and we were both planning to move house. Married 13 years. I realized that I was starting to act slightly differently – I'd be up all night. I'd be out walking until five or six in the morning; I was getting no rest, no sleep. I just couldn't take what was happening. So I decided to go away for a few days down to the south coast. I booked myself a room in a hotel. Didn't quite know what to do. It was then I sat down and just thought I might as well kill myself. It wasn't a dramatic thought at the time; there wasn't screaming or hysteria around me or anything at the time, it's just as simple as that. I thought I might as well finish it. There'd be less pain than I was experiencing then.
Reader 2: My name is Alex. At school in Worcestershire I was bullied both physically and mentally. It might have been because I was involved in theatre from an early age, both in and outside school and having my picture up at school. I also had very long blonde hair which girls first used to pull – they'd call me 'Barbie' from when I was about 13 – and then they began cutting it off. I told my parents and the teachers were told and records kept of the bullying at school and the girls involved were told to stop, but it always started up again – both inside and outside school, in the town. I was often followed home by four or five girls. After receiving threatening phone calls, I was cornered in a pub in town by two girls and attacked and had my nose broken. By this time I was 16 and studying for my GCSEs. I was back at school within only a couple of days and had to be escorted in and out of my exams for my own safety. At no time through all this did I cry. I put up an emotional 'brick wall' to everything and refused to 'give in'. I took my exams and passed ten GCSEs at A grades.
Through all this we were receiving death threats by phone at home. I was still insisting I didn't need any help. The girl who had attacked me was taken to court. Having gone back to school, girls attacked a friend of mine and I went to intervene and received broken ribs this time. On this occasion Victim Support urged me to phone Samaritans for some emotional support. I thought it was just for adults, how could they help me? But I phoned and I cried almost non-stop for about an hour. It was an emotional release after years of keeping everything locked inside me.
Reader 3: My name is Mary. When I called, it sounded like they were used to speaking to people who self-harmed and they weren't shocked by it. Even better, they weren't trying actively to solve my problems for me. I think I spoke to them for around half an hour. It sounds really corny, but, after the call, I felt really listened to and understood. Previously I'd felt like my self-harm was something freakish and wrong and I couldn't understand it or get my head round it. But they made me feel like I wasn't a freak; like they understood why I needed to do it in order to cope. I call regularly to talk. I invariably cry when I call and this gives me a huge sense of release. It's easy to be completely honest with Samaritans, because you don't know the person, you can't see them and you'll never meet them. It's not like with friends; you don't have to worry about protecting the volunteer at the end of the phone from your more extreme feelings or what they might think about you for feeling that way. I don't necessarily want my friends to have to think of me having thoughts about killing myself, which I often do. With Samaritans, I can just say it as it is.
Reader 4: My name is Sue. I was adopted as a child and I guess you'd say that things for me as a child were fairly normal until I reached the age of 12. At that point, my adoptive father started sexually abusing me. When I was 14, my adoptive mother left home, which made it a much more difficult position for me, because I was left on my own with him – I had no brothers or sisters. From that point on, over the next few years, I ran away on numerous occasions. We lived near London and I would spend days at a time on the streets, sleeping rough at night. As difficult as it was, it was better than being at home.
I wasn't attending school regularly by that stage, so I had a social worker and various other people involved with my care. I eventually told a teacher about what was happening, who alerted Social Services and the police. Everyone in the family was interviewed and I went through a harrowing interview myself, but, ultimately, the police believed my father and so the case never came to trial. I was in a bad way and by this stage had started to self-harm, cutting or poisoning myself regularly when I felt bad, as a way of coping with the thoughts inside my head.
I can't remember at exactly what stage of the experience I contacted Samaritans, but I first became aware of them when I saw a poster in a phone box in my neighbourhood, saying it was available at any time of the day or night. I didn't know anything about what they did, I just felt desperate. I left the house in the middle of the night and went to the phone box.
When I first rang, I couldn't speak straight away, so I rang back a few times. I found it really hard to make a decision about whether or not I could speak to the person at the other end of the phone – about whether or not their voice sounded like they'd be able to help me – so each time I hung up without saying anything. When I eventually did manage to get a few words out, the volunteer offered to ring me back as I didn't have the money to keep calling. It took me ages to get to a point where I was doing anything more than sobbing and saying how awful I felt, but even that in itself was a connection and helpful to my state of mind.
But I began to feel supported. Rather than self-harming, I was able to talk about what was going on. The volunteers at the end of the phone were people who cared about me when I didn't think that anyone else did.
Leader: Although not all of these people were led to consider suicide, they were all despairing. They felt alone and without help. Samaritans enabled them to find support in fellow human beings – support that was non-judgemental, support of a listening kind. This was Chad Varah's vision.
Reader 5: Chad Varah was the eldest of nine children and was born on 12 November 1911. He died in 2007, aged 95. He was, without question, one of the most remarkable, and highly honoured, Church of England vicars of modern times. His greatest achievement was to found the telephone helpline service for people in despair or contemplating suicide that became known as The Samaritans and, after a period of rapid growth in Britain, provided a model for similar organizations in most other parts of the world.
He was a dynamic vicar with immense compassion, especially for those with sexual problems, and he was quite unshockable. His chief interest throughout his long life lay in personal counselling.
Reader 6: He became interested in counselling in 1935 after he conducted his first funeral. It was for a 13-year-old girl who had committed suicide because she feared that she was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, whereas, in fact, she had simply started her period.
Nearly 20 years later, when he went to work in London, he read in a newspaper that there were three suicides every day in the Greater London area. This coincided with an invitation to become vicar of a church called St Stephen Walbrook, in the City of London. He accepted the appointment on the understanding that he would use the basement as the base for a new kind of ministry aimed at helping desperate people. Anyone contemplating suicide could telephone him at a given number.
Reader 7: Calls soon began to come in and doubled each year from 100 in 1954 to 1,600 in 1959. Eventually they would grow to 100 a day. Because he felt that a befriending service was more important to people than a professional counselling service, this enabled a wider range of unqualified volunteers to be recruited. They were carefully selected and, in their training, taught to recognize symptoms that required professional help. Later the movement advertised its availability to the despairing as well as the suicidal.
Reader 8: Within a decade, few parts of the country were without a branch and the number of active helpers had risen to 17,000. A national association was formed in 1963 and the expansion of the work overseas later led to the formation of an international body. Today, Samaritans branches are spread across the UK, from Truro in the south west to Thurso in the north of Scotland and from Norwich in the east of England to Sligo in the west of Ireland.
In Luke's Gospel you can find the parable of the good Samaritan.
Read Luke 10.29–37 at this point, if including.
One basic idea we can take from this story is that of helping another without thought of reward. The Samaritan helps the injured man purely out of love for this other human being.
Reader 9: Chad Varah's great contribution was to show, similiarly, that love can be best shown by putting aside a little bit of time to listen to others. Nothing else. By listening, being prepared to share the thoughts, anxieties and deepest troubles of others without thought of reward, he had found a way to express a basic love of humanity. Out of his work, we have Samaritans, which enables callers to gain help, remaining anonymous if they wish. Other agencies, such as Childline, have emerged, too, increasing the support available to people in need of it.
Time for reflection
Option 1: I would like you to look at the screen. You are going to see eight images with some 'significant thoughts' and hear the song 'Bridge over troubled water'. Take a few moments to reflect on each image, thinking about what impact the words on the screen and the lyrics of the song are having on you.
Consider what it means to be a friend to another person and what it means to the other person if you give your time to them when they need you.
Show all the images and, after the final image has been shown, close with the following.
Let's bow our heads for a brief prayer.
Option 2: In the next few moments of quiet reflection, I would like you to think about what impact the work of Chad Varah might have on you.
Also, consider what it means to be a friend to another person and what it means to the other person if you give your time to them when they need you.
Let’s bow our heads for a brief prayer.
Heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God,
You provide light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Shine your light on those who are wandering uncertain and doubtful in the night of this world.
Make known to them the way of truth and peace.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.