Christmas Day seems like a good time to remember The Rev. Chad Varah, founder of the Samaritans, the first telephone hotline for those in despair.
When he heard, while rector at St Paul's Clapham, that there were three suicides a day in London, it seemed to him that God was calling him to extend his counselling to those contemplating taking their own lives. But it was only when he was appointed to the exquisite City church of St Stephen, Walbrook (regarded as Wren's template for St Paul's, with central dome) that he was able to put his ideas into practice.
On November 1, 1953, he announced his plans for what was to be a lifelong commitment, originally called The Good Samaritans. God, he would claim, intervened to supply the church with its memorable telephone number — MAN 9000, ideal for an emergency helpline.
Journalists, sensing good copy, rallied to his cause. The first two telephone calls came on November 2, and it was not long before they were coming in at 100 a day.
One secret of the Samaritans' success, apart from Varah's resourceful manipulation of the media, was his recruitment of volunteers who became, by guidance and experience, experts in “listening therapy”, giving sad people their total attention and sympathy. Volunteers were not necessarily believers, and it was a strict rule that no Samaritan should exploit distress by attempting to convert a client to any religion or philosophy. So an ordained minister, operating from the crypt of a famous church, founded a wholly secular personal rescue service.
My father invited him to speak to 6th form pupils at Maidstone Grammar School (Kent) in the 60's. He paid for his own transportation down from London, gave an excellent talk, answered probing questions, and was enthusiastically received.