Two years ago I sat in a vast, chilly community hall with a small group of friends listening to a man who changed my life.
That man’s name was John Payne.
This weekend I attended a memorial service for John. He was 35 and had died suddenly and unexpectedly while packing to go on holiday with his wife.
‘Sudden’ and ‘unexpected’ are such bland words. The shock his family and friends feel is unfathomable. I didn’t know him that well – he was part of my old Connect Group (church home group), but London life being what it is, we were probably only in the same room a handful of times in the three years of the group. (My main memory of those times was of laughter – it seemed always to be bubbling below the surface – and of depth – you rarely had a meaningless conversation with John. He would quickly get beyond small talk to big ideas.)
Yet he changed my life.
I wrote a blog post that evening about John’s decision to sell or give away all his clothes – yes, all of them – and only ever buy things that he knew had been produced sustainably and with ethical employment practices, treating everyone involved in the chain, from cotton farmer to sewing machinist to importer, with dignity and paying them a living wage.
I learned on Saturday that his commitment to the cause meant that he spent the first three days of 2014 confined to his flat, as he had no clothes he could wear in good conscience.
But John wasn’t an earnest, monk-ish type who guilt-tripped others with a holier-than-thou attitude. He was full of fun. Absolutely overflowing with it. And he was, if anything, even more full of love.
What came over at his memorial service again and again was how well John loved his friends, his family, and anyone he came across in need. His love drove him to sacrifice, simply because his own comfort was of less value to him than the needs of others.
As I wrote in my blog post, I wasn’t quite ready (and never have been) to ditch all my clothes and start from scratch. John had the advantage of being very good at his job and able to command the sort of income that allowed him to make such a bold gesture, but he also had the personality to throw himself all in to everything he did. I’m a little more cautious than that.
Yet he has changed my life. I haven’t got rid of all my clothes, nor could I claim that anything I’ve bought since then was fully ethically sourced and produced, but I did read around the issue and – a sacrifice for me – stopped shopping at Primark and other perpetrators of the worst injustices and malpractices.
Thanks to a later provocation from a mutual friend, Jo, I’ve also almost managed to wean myself off Amazon, due to their dubious tax processes and stories I’ve heard of how they exploit their workers.
It has taken time. The Big A is so convenient, and so cheap! I can find all I want in one place, and have it delivered to my door without ever having to leave my chair. But is my convenience really what matters in life? I’ll rant at others for choosing their ease and comfort over what is right, but when it comes to mine, well…I confess, it has been harder to make my practices match my principles.
John Payne was a truly remarkable man. I am deeply sorry he is gone. It seems so irrational of God to take someone who had so much to offer, and who offered it so wholeheartedly. Yet what became clear on Saturday night was the ripple effects that had already been flowing from his life. In the midst of our grief, I think we were all inspired once more to think about our lives and the impact we are making. We can’t aspire to be anything close to John, but there are things we are being called, nudged, prompted to do that in their own small ways will begin to make a difference.
If you’re interested in ethical clothing, John and his friends set up a company called Visible Clothing which now carries a range of ethically produced clothes. If you follow their blog and videos you can get to know the people who actually made the clothes you buy. (I don’t know if they still do this, but their earliest ranges carried the handwritten signature of their maker on the label. Which is pretty cool.)
Otherwise, listen to your heart and your conscience and see what it is prompting you to do. It might be to do with ethical trading, it might be to do with social justice in some other form, or maybe it’s just to do with being a better neighbour and citizen of this world in some other way.
John is irreplaceable, but if we all play our part in following his example, the ripples of his legacy could change the world.
Thank you, John. I look forward to seeing you again some day.