Keith's Story

Keith's Story
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Interview with Keith Thomasson, Senior Chaplain by Helen Inglis

“By using the gifts of the people, rather than relying on his gifts alone, chaplaincy can reach many more people than would otherwise have been possible”

Keith was appointed as Senior Chaplain in 2014. He had recently been made redundant and the future was uncertain. The idea of working for Alabaré felt very relevant. He had previously worked as a school chaplain and in a parish in Bristol with a lot of social deprivation. I spoke to him as we were starting to come out of lockdown about his experiences, inspirations, and faith.

The role of Alabaré Senior Chaplain is twofold, it includes overseeing the provision of spirituality across the organisation, and chaplaincy and both aspects have evolved hugely over the seven years that Keith has been with us.

Spirituality

What comes through when talking to Keith is his longing to embed spirituality in its broadest sense into every sphere where Alabaré works. He believes that this should start with where people are rather than being imposed, and this is being demonstrated through the Values Training, which provides staff and volunteers with a safe space to explore the Alabaré Values of Care, Compassion, Generosity and Respect. Conversations are taking place between different parts of the organisation about what really matters to them working in a Christian organisation.

Chaplaincy

An early priority for Keith was to build a strong network of volunteer chaplains – both lay and ordained and from all denominations – to ensure that every home or service was supported. Today the chaplains’ work is hugely valued, and it is increasingly embedded in the provision of support. Each chaplain fulfils their role in a different way – some by making tea, playing pool, cooking or gardening, but always by listening to the stories that the residents tell. By using the gifts of the people, rather than relying on Keith’s gifts alone, chaplaincy can reach many more people than would otherwise have been possible.

Ethos

By bringing in experts from other organisations, Keith has worked with the Trustees and leadership team to look at what makes Alabaré distinctive. He has encouraged them to think about how to embrace the best leadership and management models, alongside being a Christian organisation.

Community of Practice

Keith has also encouraged staff and chaplains to support one another in their work. With chaplaincy in the homelessness world an emerging area, he is keen to bring others to a place where they can reflect on their own practice and learn from others.

Inspirational People

Keith has been inspired by many of the people he has encountered, both inside and outside Alabaré. He recognises they have influenced the way he works and the way he understands homelessness and vulnerability. He has often been struck by what he has witnessed in the homes, with  transformation taking place between staff or volunteers and clients. He talked of attending the Art Group at Alabaré Place where the staff would take delight in those who came, welcoming the abundance that they brought. In Keith’s words, ‘Normally agencies work in the deficit – this person is homeless, they’ve usually lost their network, their future, they are in slavery to the debt of the past rather than the possibility of the future, but I’ve seen the staff just welcome the individual and what they bring, come alongside them, make a drink and listen.’

When he arrived at Alabaré he had no experience of Learning Disabilities, but he told me that one of his most profound experiences was arriving at the office early to prepare for a Faith Saturday and being greeted by some of those attending. Instead of preparing for the afternoon as he had intended, they invited him to go and sit with them and share news. Keith the host became Keith the guest. Keith says, ‘They have taught me the importance of living in the present moment. We were in the office space where it is often very busy, and they just sat there and were very much at home. And then they of course helped me set up for the service.’ The idea of stopping and ‘Being With’ is very important and is a concept that he encourages others to explore.

Creative Spirit

Keith is proud of the transformative work that is being done through the Creative Spirit project, which grew out of conversations he had with two support workers in our Young People’s services. This project encourages staff to sit with clients and create something – it could be cooking, gardening, knitting, which can lead to conversations about issues and traumas that aren’t always unlocked during key working sessions. He feels that this way of working can be the starting point for working with and supporting our clients as it enables staff to hear stories that are otherwise hidden.

Biblical Inspiration

A passage from the Bible that inspires Keith for Alabaré’s work is Genesis Chapter 1. It speaks of God hovering over the darkness and the chaos before bringing light. In Keith’s words, ‘In Alabaré we are welcoming people in who are coming with that depth of darkness. Then there’s this possibility of being alongside them which is a very Holy Spirit thing but as key workers or chaplains we come alongside them and when they are ready, we begin to shine a light. They invite the shining of light onto the world of the trauma that they’ve come with and from there, there can be real creativity. That is an inspirational image for what we are doing in Creative Spirit and therefore what we are doing within Alabaré. It’s a verse that we need to use more.’ Keith enjoys using the biblical text in creative ways to preach about Alabaré’s work in our partner churches.

As we reach our 30th Anniversary, Keith’s vision is for an organisation where spirituality and pastoral care are integral to everything we do. Within the sector as a whole God has been taken out of the provision. He explains that this doesn’t mean that God is not present but that there’s a very secular mindset in terms of what we do as key workers or housing support workers. ‘There are really great people involved, with staff coming alongside clients who are really struggling at the end of their desire to live, and we really need to say that the big questions of spirituality (which does not mean pushing the Christian faith but rather the breadth of spirituality) need to be integral to our work, and we’re not quite there yet.’ His hope is that in time our Values will truly underpin the whole organisation so that people can be honest about how they are feeling, express it in a safe space and feel enabled to find the time and support that they need to fulfil their role. Keith longs for us to be able to use our spirituality, faith, and scripture confidently so that it can inform our work and build one another up. Chaplaincy in Alabaré stands as a bridge between the church and the organisation, and that experience can enrich both worlds. 

Keith ends by saying, ‘It’s a privilege to work out how we can embrace spiritual nurture. It’s challenging but it’s truly worthwhile. It’s been a delight to have had a role in this. 
‘I’m sorry the overriding need for Alabaré’s services is still around but given that the need is still there it’s great to be celebrating 30 years of it.’

In July 2021 Keith moves to be Rector of Troon in the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway. He leaves chaplaincy in a good place and is excited at how the new postholder will creatively shape this ministry in the coming years. We are enormously grateful for his support, direction and dedication during his years at Alabaré and we wish him and his family all the best. 

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