Ordinary People Living Extraordinary Lives
Thomas J. Barnardo: A Rooftop of Ragamuffins By Cleo Lampos
The moon glistened in the London night sky, breaking into moon beams through the smoke from the chimneys of the crowded tenements of the poorEast Endsection. Very little light reached the old donkey shed which housed a “ragged school”, named for the state of dress of the penniless boys who attended. Their teacher, Thomas Barnardo hid a yawn behind his upraised hand. He already ended a day crowded with classes at medical school. Now he needed to complete an evening of teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and Bible to slum children. In 1866, night school provided an option to the children who worked in factories or begged on the streets. Thomas taught ragged school in his nativeDublin,Ireland, so the English lads did not prove any more incorrigible than the ones he had left. This night, however, turned Thomas from teacher and medical missionary to a pioneer in rescuing homeless children.
The class dismissed and the ragamuffins tumbled out the door into the moonlit streets. Thomas gathered his books, then turned to the fireplace to quench the fire. A small figure stood staring into the flames. Thomas recognized the lad as the one who sneaked in late and did not pay attention to the lessons. Evidently, he just needed to get out of the cold for a while.
“Well, my lad, it is fortunate that I spotted you before I locked up the school. You would have been left in here all night.” Thomas took the stoker and poked the embers.
The boy answered immediately. “That would suit me just fine, sir.”
“But whatever do you mean? Your mother would be worried sick if you were gone all night and never came home.”
“I ain’t got no mother, sir.’
“Well, your father would miss you, then. Run along, now, while I close up.”
“No Da, either. I got no home to go to, sir.”
Thomas grew exasperated. “Get along, go to your friends or wherever you stay.”
“No friends, either. I told you. I don’t live nowhere.” The lad clenched his teeth as he held up his head.
The young teacher held his tongue, gazing at the child, watching for signs that he joked. The defiance in his eyes told another story. The clothes hung on his body in shreds, much to thin to keep him warm on such a cold winter night. Bony legs and arms stretched out of the tattered knickers and shirt. Dirt crusted over his body and coverings. He wore no shoes or socks. In all the years of teaching in the slums, Thomas had not encountered this level of poverty.
“How old are you?”
“Ten, sir.” Small for his age, the child’s eyes bore the pain of a suffering old man.
“You have no mother, father or home. Not even friends?”
“I’m not lying. I am alone.”
“But where do you sleep?”
“In a hay wagon at the market. But a boy said that I could come here to get warm. I won’t do no harm. Could I stay by the embers?”
An icy wind blew against the side of the shed. Thomas realized in alarm that if this lad were here, how many other in the city ofLondontried to survive the winter blast?
“Are there other boys like you, without a home or family?”
“Of course. Heaps of them. More than I could count.”
“Could you show them to me?” That will prove him a liar, Thomas thought. After all, how could this be true?
The two left the warm shed, the boy pulling his rags around him, his bare feet padding on the pavement. “My name is Jim.”
“I am Thomas.” They walked past locked dingy storefronts and through back alleys. At midnight they came to an old shed where used clothing was sold. The place was deserted.
“The boys don’t sleep here, cause the police would find them.” Jim led the way through the shed and back into an alley which ended in a brick wall.
Jim signaled for silence. “In a minute we’ll see them, Thomas, if we are quiet.”
Thomas glanced around at the alley and the brick walls. Where were they?
Jim scurried up the side of the building like a monkey. He lowered a stick for Thomas to grasp and hoist himself up so he could peer over the edge onto the rooftop. He stifled a gasp of horror. Lying on the flat roof were at least eleven boys. Some curled up in a ball, others huddled for warmth. Their clothes were even worse than Jim’s. No covers draped them. Most appeared to be fourteen to eighteen years of age.
Working among the poor houses, Thomas became familiar with dingy homes with little furniture and scarce amounts of food. The depth of the poverty on that rooftop gripped Thomas’ soul. He even doubted what he saw.
“Shall I wake them?”
Thomas shook his head.
“Would you like the see more places?”
Again, he shook his head. Deep inside, he heard God speaking to him. You must help these boys. Thomas breathed a silent prayer for the waifs. He ended his prayer with words of resolution, “Yes, I will.”
That defining moment changed Thomas Barnardo from teacher to father of tens of thousands of homeless boys for whom he fought until the laws of the British government were changed. His goal of becoming a medical missionary in a far away land dissolved in the wake of a warehouse roof of shivering teens. A life long crusade on behalf of orphans began.
In Other Words
“We think that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
“’Where do you live?’ rung in our ears. ‘Don’t live nowhere!’…All this motely throng of infantile misery and childish guilt passed through our doors, telling their simple stories of suffering and loneliness and temptation until our hearts became sick.”
-Charles Loring Brace, founder of Children’s Aid Society
“One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”
-John F. Kennedy
“We, who have so much, need to reach out to the orphans of this world and show them the care, hope, and love they deserve.
-Kim DeBlecourt, Until We All Come Home
“What does love look like? It has hands to help others. It has feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has the eyes to see misery and want. It has ears to hear the sights and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
“You cannot comfort the afflicted without afflicting the comfortable.”
-Princess Diana, Princess ofWales
“God is in the slums, in the carboard boxes where the poor play house…God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunities and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
-Bono, Lead singer of U2
The life of Thomas Barnardo is filled with thousands of children taken from the streets and given chances to become productive members of society. His work continues in the UK to this day. He is an inspiration to me. Read about my attempts to reach out to children in my book, Teaching Diamonds the Tough, available on amazon.com.