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There but for the grace of God

To encourage the students to think about homelessness and their attitude to homeless people.

by Helen Redfern

Suitable for Key Stage 3


To encourage the students to think about homelessness and their attitude to homeless people.

Preparation and materials

  • Note that the other assembly on this subject, On the Big Issue, is targeted at KS4/KS5.
  • Useful websites: (general overview of homelessness)
  • Many cathedrals organize a ‘Big Sleep’. You might like to research your local one and invite students to take part. Cathedrals usually have an education department and will be able to advise you.


  1. I was on the Underground when it happened. I was huddled in the midst of dozens of commuters, each with their noses in a magazine or newspaper. A young homeless man got on the train and began asking for money. I don’t know if I imagined it, but it seemed that as soon as he started speaking we all slid a little deeper into our reading material. And then suddenly he lifted his head and addressed the whole carriage: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began, ‘I don’t want to be like this and I haven’t always been like this. But you should all know that anything can happen to anybody.’ His words hung in the air and we lifted our eyes from our newspapers and looked at him. We knew that suddenly there was a philosopher on the train and he was right: anything can happen to anybody. (Quoted with permission from Rob Parsons at Care for the Family.)
  2. How do you react when you see someone sleeping rough? What do you do when you see someone selling the Big Issue?

    Do you look the other way … or do you agree with the young man on the train that anything can happen to anybody?

    It’s easy to take what we have for granted – a roof over our heads, a caring family, sufficient food, a good education.

    But we never know what is just around the corner. That is why some choose to say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
  3. Let’s take a look at the origin of that phrase. John Bradford was a keen supporter of the Reformation in sixteenth-century England. In the first month of the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Bradford was arrested and imprisoned because of his devotion to the Church of England.

    At some time during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, he witnessed a group of prisoners being led to their execution and remarked, ‘There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford,’ the phrase for which he is best remembered. And people still echo his words today: ‘There but for the grace of God …’

    On 31 January 1555 Bradford himself was tried and condemned to death. He was burned at the stake.
  4. John Bradford knew that he could not take his own life for granted. The man on the train had learnt that he could not take a roof over his head for granted. Anything can happen to anyone.

    The Big Sleep in Newcastle Cathedral in May 2008 aimed to give young people a glimpse of what being homeless is like. Hundreds of young people slept rough, for just one night, to stand in solidarity with people who have nowhere to sleep every night.

    We had actors role-playing throughout the night as homeless people, people busking with guitars, a soup kitchen, police moving everyone on in the early hours and dust men waking them up in the morning just as they might do on the streets. We also had sound effects waking the young people up through the night e.g. dog barking, police sirens going off, the noise of people exiting a club at closing time. (Quoted with permission from Jane Brown at Aquila Way.)

    A little understanding goes a long way.

Time for reflection

A young girl selling the Big Issue,

A boy asleep in a cardboard box,

A group huddled under a bridge,

A world apart from our world.

Let’s reflect on all that we have and give thanks:

A caring family ...

A roof over our heads …

The food and clothes that we need every day …

A world apart from their world.

Our world can touch their world.

We can give time, food, clothes and money to local homeless organizations.

We can buy the Big Issue.

We can smile at the individual without judging the situation.

We can remember the words of the boy on the train.

Anything can happen to anybody.


‘Think of a world without any flowers’

‘Now thank we all our God’

Publication date: September 2008   (Vol.10 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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