Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Democracy is more than #GE2017 - let's get our act together!

OK. There's a vote coming up that will make a huge difference either way. Let's approach it with utter seriousness.
But it's not the be-all and end-all of democracy. There is more...
The stuff that is even more serious is the kind of stories we tell about ourselves as a country, the values we hold central... and how we talk to each other across our differences and what we do as a result of talking together.
That's real democracy.
So please, please, please, wherever you are in the country, whether you're 'safe' or 'marginal', before June 8th please organise some open get-togethers to talk vision, values, priorities, stories, identities, solidarities... and what we can do together as citizens. Because it's only by talking about that stuff together that we'll know what we need our politicians to do with us, or for us.
If you need help, or resources, Church Action on Poverty have got some good stuff. We've tried stuff in Hodge Hill which we can share.
Please: get people together, bridge divides, get people talking, get a taste for people power. That's the only way things will really change.

Monday, 17 April 2017

'Walks of witness' and an inter-faith Easter

I have a confession to make. Thankfully, we've entered the season of Easter in which grace and forgiveness are flooding the earth, and so my confession can come out more easily.

On Good Friday, I deliberately avoided engagement with some of my neighbours.

It was around 11.50am. I was making the 5-minute walk from home up to church for our meditative 'Stations of the Cross' service. I was in a bit of a hurry because I didn't want to be late (it was one of the services in the week that I wasn't responsible for leading, so was heading up simply to be there, to receive, to participate). And as I neared our little Tesco Express, I heard the unmistakably metallic sound of voices amplified through microphone and loudspeaker. A small group from one of our local Pentecostal churches, with a large cross, singing a song I didn't recognise. The song ended, the pastor took the microphone to preach.

And I passed by on the other side of the road.

The echoes of priest and levite in Jesus' story of 'the Good Samaritan' are not lost on me - although the folk outside Tesco didn't give the impression of needing or wanting any assistance. I do regret not engaging with my neighbours, my sister and brother Christians. But my response to them also got me thinking.

I am allergic to 'Good Friday walks of witness', at least in the way I have experienced them in many places.

It isn't just a personality issue (and I have examined myself repeatedly on this question). It's not that temperamentally I'm as allergic to public displays of faith as I might be to public displays of affection (snogging in front of a crowd of onlookers, for example). Yes, I often tend towards introversion, but that hasn't stopped me getting 'out there' and engaging with complete strangers for many different reasons over the years.

What I am allergic to is more theologically rooted. I'm allergic to the combination of unilateral initiative ('we, the church, have decided we're going to do this'), coming so often from 'the outside' to occupy - and implicitly claim ownership of - spaces that are not ours, 'broadcasting' a message that we claim as 'the truth', with little thought to how such 'broadcasting' might be received, let alone a dialogical responsiveness to what others might want to say. I am allergic too (and it all feels connected) to the message that seems especially to be broadcast on Good Friday - of 'the cross' (the symbol, as much if not more than the story) as 'triumph', 'victory', 'final solution'.

When I watch YouTube clips of members of Britain First marching down Birmingham's Stratford Road, just days before, brandishing a big white cross and broadcasting their messages of anti-Muslim hate, of course I understand that theirs is a vicious parody of what peaceable Christians are doing on Good Friday. But I can't help wondering if they have more in common than we might want to admit to: not only in their methods of communication, but also in the kind of message being communicated (the medium and the message are inextricable, after all). For most Christians, the message the God is Love will be incompatible with so much that Britain First stand for. But the implicit messages, that we come with God's truth, that we claim this ground for God, that we expect of others this pre-defined response - these kinds of imperialism make me wonder exactly who is parodying whom (and the answer may well date back all the way to Constantine if not even before).

Now I don't want to claim that we've got it all sorted in Hodge Hill. That would, ironically, be to fall into exactly the same kinds of imperialist temptation. But I do want to witness to a gift, or two, or three, that we've found ourselves being given here.

First, there's the now-established tradition of the Bromford Passion Play. I've talked about this so many times before, that here I just want to recall that it began with the initiative (and the creativity and drive) of someone with no affiliation to 'church', it developed as an invitation to Christians (among others) to walk the neighbourhood together (rather than invading it or claiming it as 'Christian space'), it wove together the story of the passion with the stories and longings of the neighbourhood, and it was enacted drama, rather than broadcast message, and so was an invitation to involvement, to be drawn into the story, rather than to respond to propositions. Although ending (like many 'walks of witness') with the crucifixion, it did not proclaim triumph, but enacted both comedy and tragedy - the central character enmeshed in relationships of love and power - and invited those who had been drawn in along the way to wonder, to make their own sense of it, to respond in whatever way they would.

Secondly, there's our very small, quiet little rituals that frame the night of Easter Day itself. We've got into a habit of gathering, outside, somewhere in our neighbourhood, as the sun goes down on Easter Eve, to share our stories of loss and longing, of disappointment and hope and hopes-not-yet-realised. And the next morning, 'while it is still dark' (as one of the gospels puts it), to return to the same place, and watch the sun rise. With a barely-alight paschal candle, we then make a pilgrimage around our neighbourhood, seeking to catch glimpses of resurrection as the world begins to be flooded with light anew. It is, in many ways, a 'walk of witness' - but 'pianissimo' rather than 'fortissimo' (as one Anglican bishop last week put it), and as much 'witnessing' in the sense of seeing for ourselves as 'witnessing' in the sense of communicating to others.

Thirdly, then, the particular gift of Easter 2017. On Easter Eve, after our sunset gathering, I received a text. An invitation from one of the councillors in a neighbouring ward - a younger Muslim woman, and a passionate community activist. Could I, and any sister and brother Christians, meet her the next day, in the afternoon, to visit some shops on the Alum Rock Road where, the week before, Britain First had made their threatening and hostile presence felt? Could we come and show our solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers, sharing in peace together after our Easter celebrations?

How could I say No? What an invitation - and on Easter Day of all days! And so, after six hours of Easter morning services and breakfasts (many of manage at least 3 on Easter morning!), a small group of five of us from Hodge Hill Church headed down to the Alum Rock Road to meet Councillor Mariam Khan, with some of the local neighbourhood policing team, and they acted as both our guides and travelling companions (in a neighbourhood which, for some of us at least, was less familiar). We walked together up the road, we are taken into a handful of Islamic bookshops and gift shops, we were introduced to each other and greeted each other with words of peace ('as-salam-u-alaikum' is simply Arabic for 'peace be with you', of course), we listened to people's stories and to their deeply-rooted convictions and beliefs, we responded with a little of our own Easter gospel, we received warm welcomes and generous hospitality, and together we found ourselves sharing in a process of mutual encouragement, strengthening and peace-making - even perhaps in the healing of wounds.

It turned out to be quite a remarkable 'walk of witness' - again, with that double sense of 'witness' as both receptivity and communication. It evoked for me deep resonances with Easter stories from the gospels, both of Jesus appearing to his fearful friends behind locked doors, breathing on them and saying 'peace be with you', and also of two of Jesus' grieving disciples, journeying back to their home village of Emmaus, and encountering Jesus both on the road as a stranger, and as the guest-turned-host as he broke bread at their table. Perhaps it also had echoes of that encounter on the beach where Peter's three-fold denial of his friendship with Jesus was re-worked into a three-fold affirmation of love, at Jesus' gracious and challenging invitation.

Perhaps there will never be another Easter day where the invitation to such a 'walk of witness' will come our way. It would certainly be very different were we, the church, to decide to take the initiative on it. But of one thing I am confident: this is not the end of the story. It is only the very beginning.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The 'Robin Hood' restaurant and Christian mission



"Charge the 'rich' to feed the poor: Madrid's Robin Hood homeless cafe". So ran the headline in a heart-warming Guardian article about a Spanish restaurant that uses the takings from paying breakfast and lunch customers, to fund free evening meals for local homeless people. The article was picked up by a senior colleague in my diocese, who wondered if we might be able to try something similar in Birmingham. That wondering raised, for me, several important and very timely questions.

On the one hand, what's fantastic about this Madrid restaurant is that it treats all its customers with equal dignity and respect. In the evening, as much as in the daytime, the tables are laid with tablecloths and candles, the food is just as good, as is the service from the waiters. This cafe doesn't just feed people who are homeless, it treats them with the reverence deserved of any human being but which often in our world is only given to those who can afford to pay for it.

The 'Robin Hood' cafe (its name chosen very deliberately) also creates a channel for a small redistribution of wealth: the rich pay a bit more for their food, the cafe owners make a bit less profit, and the 'poor' (interesting how the Guardian article problematises the label 'rich' but not its opposite) get a decent meal. A more sustainable charitable model, perhaps, than relying on donations to run a soup kitchen. It's almost as if the 'donors' are enabled to give painlessly, without a second thought - or even affording them a rosy glow of goodness to accompany their tasty dessert.

And that, I think, is precisely the problem with this otherwise inspiring story. The richer diners get their decent meal, their conscience salved, and they don't have to think too hard about those who will eat in the same restaurant later in the day. Like any other monetary giving, it can be done at arm's length, without the disturbance or discomfort (dare I even suggest 'disgust' might sometimes be at work here?) of an actual encounter with those on the receiving end. The maitre d' and the waiters do that bit, of course, however 'heroically'. But they are also paid to do their job. Those who pay to consume (both food and the badge of charitable goodness) can, like most consumers, isolate themselves from their neighbours in their little bubbles of consumption.

Which brings me, disturbingly, to church. I'm not going to launch a full-on assault here on 'consumer Christianity', where you (the consumer) choose your brand, go for your 'fill-up', and move on somewhere else when it's not working for you any more. No, plenty of others have got that base well and truly covered. What I'm struggling with here is 'charitable Christianity', and I'm pretty sure most of us Christians are well and truly embedded in it. It operates on a very clear and simple model: we go to church to 'fill up', and then we're sent out into the world to 'give out'. If you're from a more evangelical tradition, you might hear the gospel in church, and preach/share it in the world. If you're of a more catholic persuasion, you'll be fed with the eucharist in church, and then disperse, like the broken bread, to feed others. In the Church of England eucharistic liturgy, this logic is laid out very clearly in one of the two post-communion prayers: "may we who drink his cup bring life to others, we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world" - a logic echoed in the strapline for Church of England Birmingham's new 'resourcing church' when it proclaims it wants to be "light for the city", "bringing hope and light to Birmingham".

Now all of this is, at the very least, half of the truth. The trouble begins when we make it the whole truth. If we are to preach the word, then others must be the listeners. If we are fed to feed others, then those others have nothing that might nourish us in turn. If we are the "light for the city", then where we are not is, implicitly at least, in the dark.


In the gospels, it is Peter more than any other who is confronted with the half-truth nature of these beliefs. Peter is well-practised at getting things 'half-right': "you are the Messiah", he proclaims, before instantly getting it terribly wrong when he refuses to let Jesus take the path of suffering laid out before him. But the moment I have in mind here comes later on, at Jesus' 'last supper', when Jesus kneels down and attempts to wash Peter's feet. "You wash my feet, Lord?!" Peter protests. Surely it should be the other way round?! Peter has 'got' the idea of 'service', it seems - but can't get his head round being on the receiving end.

I love Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) precisely because it's the day of the year we get to re-tell that story, and re-enact it too. We're invited to confront the sweaty, dirty, mis-shapen awkwardness of each other's feet, and to get up close and personal with them with a bowl of soapy water. And while it's a privilege to be involved in doing the washing, it's the being washed that seems always to be the hardest part. Women with tights have a particularly convincing reason for finding it difficult. But it's not just a logistical challenge. There seems to be something that goes very deep within most of us that, like Peter, resists letting someone wash our feet. Disturbance, discomfort, disgust, maybe. But more basic than any of those, simply being on the receiving end. Being touched. Being 'served', without retaining the power of paying for it. Little wonder, that even among my wonderful congregation in Hodge Hill, at most only 50% of those who come to Maundy Thursday service are usually game enough to have their feet washed.

Now I don't believe there's anything particularly magical about foot-washing that inherently disrupts the logic I laid out above. I know of plenty of Maundy Thursday stories of Christians going out of church to wash the feet of their neighbours - either literally or metaphorically (shoe-shining seems to be a popular version at the moment, at least among communities where shiny shoes are more the norm). If the more sacramental among us did foot-washing rather than eucharist every Sunday, you can bet we'd be having our feet-washed to go out and wash others' feet as a matter of course.

But what foot-washing does have over preaching the gospel and breaking bread is the in-built element of disturbance, discomfort and disgust attached to being on the receiving end of it. It could never (I think) be something received easily, casuallly, without an degree of awkwardness about it. And maybe that's precisely why Christians haven't adopted it as a central, weekly practice. Maybe that's why it's not central to the anneal gathering of clergy in Anglican cathedrals that happens every Maundy Thursday morning (even if it may be talked about in readings and sermons in those gatherings). Maybe learning to have our feet washed can teach us something about an openness to receiving strange, awkward, holy gifts from our neighbours - rather than allowing ourselves to imagine that we're always sent out of church to 'bring' something, 'give' something to others?

In our neighbourhood over the last few weeks, a wonderful and rapidly-growing team of volunteers have started a weekly cafe, in partnership with The Real Junk Food Project, cooking and serving food that would otherwise have been thrown away by major supermarket and restaurant chains. The meals themselves are of the best quality, and the service is warm and friendly. One of the distinctive things about our Real Junk Food Kitchen is that it operates (like all TRJFP cafes) on a "pay as you feel" basis: you can pay money for your food (if you want to and are able), or you can pay by contributing your time, skills and gifts (to the cafe, or to other things happening locally) - or both! Where our cafe differs from Madrid's 'Robin Hood', then, is that there are no separations between those who can pay and those who can't - in fact, few people will notice who is who. We all eat together, and in the process, make friends across our differences, and receive the gifts each other brings. Those of us who feel less comfortable being on the receiving end just have to get over ourselves (including un-learning our consumerist and charitable tendencies) and learn to welcome the (sometimes strange) gifts that come to our tables. There's something pretty Easter-y about that, I'd suggest...