It’s a beautiful autumn day and the leaves are on the cusp of turning a beautiful golden orange red colour. The sun is shining and the sky is blue.

My sister is taking her children – my niece and two nephews – to a large park on the edge of the city. They have tickets for a steam train ride, which need to be used this weekend or else they will be forfeited. Would I like to join them?

The steam train is popular today. Lots of other families have had the same idea. We wait in line for our turn, climb aboard into the open topped carriages, spoon hug each other and hold on tight. The train chimney blows out a ‘choo choo’ and sets off on its way, ably manned by an elderly man with a crinkly face, weathered and worn by years at the helm, his wispy white hair blowing in the breeze. We wind our way around the track, once, twice, three times, the carriages following faithfully behind the curve carved out by the little blue steam engine. It reminds me of a classic book from my childhood, The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper.

There is a sense of disappointment when the ride comes to an end and little faces look down at little feet, amidst the cries for ‘more‘, reluctantly plodding over to the swings and slides.

Taking my older nephew by the hand, we head to the swings. Alfie* is 7 at this point in time and he has Downs Syndrome. He could quite contentedly sit in the swing for hours at a time, being pushed back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. After a while, it becomes soporific.

I’m beginning to zone out, deep in thought, in tune only with the rhythm of the swing, when I become aware of a man singing a song over his son in the next door swing. The little boy must be 3, or maybe 4, and he too has Downs Syndrome. An older boy and girl are running to and fro, keeping tabs on where their dad is, and joining in the song when they are nearby. It’s obviously a family classic and the words catch my attention:

“Oh ye of little faith,
oh ye of little faith,
oh ye of little faith,
you’ve just gotta have faith.”

The tune is catchy and I find it interrupting my thoughts, as I realise I’m humming along while I’m pushing Alfie. Before I know it, I’m engaging in conversation.

I like your song,” I remark, turning to the man who’s leading the singing. “I can’t help noticing the words. Why are you singing about faith?”

His response is warm and friendly. “Oh,” he says, “The song is one we made up in the summer, when we were on holiday and looking for a parking space.” He chuckles to himself, clearly remembering the scenario.

“Do you have a faith then?” I ask him.

Sure,” he says, pausing before continuing. “We’re Christians.

What about the parking space?” I enquire. “Did you find one?

Yes we did,” he says. “The song became a kind of prayer.

His older two children run over and join him and they excitedly explain how they came up with the tune. They are clearly a close family.

He asks if Alfie is my son and I say no, that I’m his auntie, pointing out my sister, his mum, in the distance. He introduces the little boy he’s pushing in the swing, letting me know that he’s his son, Tom*.

We talk about Downs Syndrome and then his story comes pouring out. His wife, Tom’s mum, isn’t well. Life has taken its toll since Tom’s birth. It’s not that they have lost their faith or stopped believing in God. It’s more that getting to church is difficult and lonely. There’s nobody there who has a child with special needs, nobody who understands. So it’s simply become easier to spend Sundays doing other things.

I feel a surge of boldness.

Why don’t you come along to our church?” I suggest, looking him in the eye. “There are several families there who have children with special needs. Tom won’t be the only one, and your wife might find support.

He seems open to the idea and, while we are chatting, my sister comes over with her other two children. I introduce her into the conversation I’m having and we exchange names. She shares some of the sources of support that she’s found available in the city, including our church, and he seems genuinely interested, asking when and where we meet, and making a note in his phone.

We talk about the steam train, as it turns out that he and his children were on it earlier, just as we were. I liken it to The Little Engine That Could, and bring in the story of the book, suggesting that sometimes there will be people who just aren’t able to help, and we have to keep pushing until we find one who can.

Perhaps our church could be what he, his wife, and their children, need in this season?


I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when, two weeks later, who should walk into our church but the family from the park! All of them, even the wife, not just the man and his three children. They are greeted with a warm welcome and Tom is treated like royalty. He can’t stop grinning as he runs around, making himself at home.

Six months on and they have been coming regularly, Sunday by Sunday. It is faith building to see.

They may have been singing, during that day at the park, about having little faith. But now they have found fresh faith in a new church community.

It’s a heartening reminder that God cares about those on the margins, those who are suffering in silence, those who are feeling lonely and isolated. He longs to draw them in, to shine a little light into their darkness. But it’s up to us to initiate an invitation.

Will we be like The Little Engine That Could, offering help to the stranger, rather than refusing it?


* Names changed to preserve confidentiality

[Photo by Sugden Guy sugden on Unsplash]


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