Help when it's needed
While harder to quantify than fundraising, pastoral care is an integral part of Freemasonry. Caitlin Davies finds out about the compassionate support that masons are giving to fellow members and their families around the UK
'The phrase “pastoral support” gets used a lot,' says Mark Smith, Provincial Grand Almoner for Gloucestershire, ‘because it’s our duty. There’s a perception that Freemasonry is an inward-looking organisation – it’s not, it’s outward looking and founded on the principles of charity and benevolence. There’s the ritualistic aspect and the social side, but at its core it’s about helping those less fortunate than ourselves.’
Mark co-ordinates eighty Freemasons in Gloucestershire who ‘keep a caring eye’ on lodge widows, assist the elderly through times of illness, and look out for bereaved children and grandchildren. ‘What they need is someone to talk to, care and guidance,’ he says. ‘I might not have all the answers, but I know people who do.’
Central to pastoral care is the masonic network; if someone dies then ‘others will know the family’s circumstances, approach us and we ask if help is needed’. And do people say yes? ‘Undoubtedly they do. Just to have someone to chat to can be a great sense of relief, because there can be a huge amount of anxiety,’ says Mark.
A common source of anxiety is state benefits. The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution has a specialist advice team, providing free guidance on benefits and issues like care homes. ‘But older people can be confused and frightened about the system,’ explains Mark. ‘My experience is that it’s increasingly difficult to actually speak to somebody about benefits – you make calls, you get put on hold, you get told to speak to someone else and so on.’
Mark points to pension credit as a good example. ‘I have experience with my own father, I’m tenacious and I will get there in the end but I can see why someone older feels it’s not worth it and doesn’t bother to claim. People don’t know what they’re entitled to, and some have limited income.’
Yet unlike fundraising – for both masonic and non-masonic charities – it’s harder to measure the pastoral support that goes on. In Gloucestershire, the Provincial Grand Master set a fundraising target of £1 million in five years. In February this year the Province reached £1.6 million and recently gave £14,000 to seven local charities. Grants are measured, statistics are produced, but there is no means of quantifying community support and so the wider membership has little idea of the work that goes on.
Added to the lack of data is the sensitive nature of pastoral care. ‘Most people are too proud to let anyone know about the support they’ve received,’ explains Mark. ‘And the confidentiality of the job means their stories are often not told, especially if it’s financial help. They are too embarrassed to put their hand up and say, “I’ve received support.” There are misconceptions about Freemasonry and misconceptions within Freemasonry, so it’s sometimes difficult to share the positive stories.’
But Teresa Mills Davenport, from Newcastle upon Tyne, is happy to bear testament to how the masons helped her during a time of grief. One Saturday morning in the summer of 2010, her husband Rob set off on a bike ride. Teresa went about her normal business, taking care of her twenty-seven-year-old son Michael, who has severe learning disabilities, autism and epilepsy, and eleven-year-old Bobby.
An hour and a half later, there was a knock on the door. She opened it to find two policemen. When one said, ‘Teresa?’ she instantly knew what had happened. Rob, her husband of nearly twenty-one years, had been killed on his bike. Over the coming days she was full of despair, afraid of the future and how she would take care of her sons. But, she says, ‘I’m a strong believer and every night I talked to Jesus.’ She also discovered another kind of help in the form of the Widows Sons, an International Masonic Motorcycle Association founded in 1998 that Rob had recently joined. ‘The day Rob joined I said, “What’s that all about then?” He said it gives help to widows and orphans of Master masons and I said, “OK then.” It’s ironic, isn’t it.’ Teresa contacted Terry Fisk, a close friend of Rob’s and a brother in his lodge, as well as two other masons, Martin Coyle and Tom Parker. ‘I turned to Rob’s brothers and they couldn’t do enough to help me. They gave me emotional and financial support. I had to claim benefits and it was all new to me. They even took us to inquests.’
A couple of months later, Teresa had an idea. She would create a road-safety awareness group for motorcyclists: Dying to Ride. Martin advised her to contact Carl Davenport, the founder of Widows Sons in America. ‘I emailed him and I thought, “Well, he’ll help – he’s a mason and I’m a widow asking for help.”’ Carl replied that he would do everything he could to promote the group. The two kept in touch and then Teresa went to visit. ‘It was like a fairytale,’ she says, and in March 2011 they got married.
Dying to Ride now has three thousand, one hundred and seventy-eight members. ‘I don’t want to see others go through this, to get that unexpected knock on the door…’ Teresa explains, her voice breaking as she struggles to compose herself. ‘What I’m doing comes from a personal point of view.’
The Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB) is helping the family too, contributing money for Bobby’s school uniform and a new laptop, and paying for private respite for Michael. A financial grant also came from The Freemasons’ Grand Charity, to help with the family’s living costs before Teresa remarried. ‘The Freemasons have been brilliant. People say they are a secret society. I say there is nothing secret about them at all. I always defend masons because people haven’t got a clue – I’d be lost without them. The best thing Rob ever did was to become a mason, and then a Widows Son.’
For Mark, providing help where it’s needed is all about supporting others while achieving your potential. An electrician with his own business and a young family, his role as Provincial Grand Almoner is voluntary. Mark’s motivation is the fact that he is helping people who often don’t know where to go for support. ‘We make a real difference. If Freemasonry wasn’t there, they would have nowhere else to turn,’ he says, adding, ‘Freemasonry enables people to be the best they can. It has given me the opportunity to do this job and develop my skills.’
Malcolm Roy Elvy, Worshipful Master of the Elizabethan Lodge, No. 7262, Hampshire and Isle of Wight, has experienced the Freemasons’ community spirit. His desire to become a mason came out of curiosity: ‘I wanted to know if there was something there for me, an extra bond.’
Malcolm was born with syndactyly, meaning the digits on his hands and feet were fused. When he was four years old his legs were amputated, and after skin grafts and surgery his hands were partially separated to give him some ability to grip. Until he was twelve he spent most of his time in Great Ormond Street Hospital, where he joined the Scouts and went abseiling, hiking and sailing.
At twenty-one Malcolm started a transport company, although becoming an HGV driver wasn’t easy. So, Malcolm’s a determined man? ‘I’ve had no option. There was a lot of discrimination towards disabled people.’
After Malcolm joined the lodge, supported by Freemason Max Preece, he says he found a new bond of friendship: ‘I don’t belong to any religious organisation and it gave me that bit extra – I suppose you would call it spiritual depth, a bond that crosses all boundaries. I’ve been given support in all manner of ways. I got a lot of help at home, people visiting, and regular phone calls. When you’re ill you have to struggle on and the Freemasons were always there.’