I suspect ( indeed hope) that most people have a period in their lives that they can look back on and say “That was a special time. Or, that time really changed me”.
I’ve probably had more than my fair share of periods like that. Not because I am especially lucky but because every circumstance that I have found myself in, I have always looked for opportunities to learn new things. Whilst curiosity may have killed a few cats, it’s always enriched my experience of being alive.
But there is one very special period in my ministry life that was transformational on so many fronts.
I had accepted a ‘call’ to work in North London and arrived there in1982. One of the things that attracted me to ministry in that area was its cultural and religious diversity. Diversity existed in every aspect of community life, including the congregation. We lived in a row of terraced houses in Middle Lane. My neighbour on the left was an irritable old lady from Northern Ireland who hated the English and told me so every time she saw me. She used to ‘post’ weeds from her garden through our letter box. My neighbours on the right were a Muslim family recently migrated from Turkey. The mother of the family, Aisha, had 3 children, but adored our 3 children as if they were her own. The father of the family, Mehmet made the strongest and most delicious coffee I have ever had. He loved having a ‘Holy man’ living next door. We would walk down the street talking about faith in the context of ordinary things. I learned a lot from Mehmet about looking for God in the simple things in life; especially Turkish coffee.
In my first year of ministry in the Tottenham, Hornsey, Wood Green area of London, I undertook a research placement at my son’s primary school – Rokesley Junior School, Hornsey. It was 1982. I had enrolled for a course with the interesting title of ‘Black Settlement in post-war England’ and I wanted to get a sense of how a local school approached teaching in a multi-cultural, multi-religious context. Staff at the school were very welcoming. At the time the local area was about 40% BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups excluding White ethnic groups). The congregation where I was ministering had a large number of Methodists from the West Indies. Within 3 months of taking up this ministry, I was asked by a small group of Sikhs if they could meet for prayer and discussion in one of the community rooms. I often sat with them to talk about life as a Sikh in London. 6 months later, I was asked by the leader of an African Spiritualist congregation from Nigeria, if they could gather for worship in our building. Each of these aspects generated a fair bit of debate among the congregation about whether a Christian building could be used by people of other faiths or ‘strange’ beliefs as some people called them. It was an important theological conversation about ‘borders’, and inclusion. It was a ‘fun’ time but all of it was resolved in the positive in the interests of local Peace building and being a welcoming community.
Back to the school. In many ways the local school was ahead of its time. It recognised the character of its community and celebrated the significant days of all the major religions. In fact, they used those days as opportunities to invite parents to gather with students and staff, and talk about their culture and their religion, if they had one, or their world view if they didn’t. It was a very meaningful exercise in enabling young children to grasp the richness that diversity brings to a community. It was also a very meaningful way of valuing the contribution that diversity offers for developing communities. The parents felt especially valued by the school.
It was one of those watershed periods in ministry during which I learned so much about people, place, patience and respect. It was also a learning experience that my son has never forgotten and to this day, lives by. In Singapore, where he lives, they have public holidays and public celebrations for every major religious festival. Religious respect is enshrined in their constitution – he loves it.
This Sunday we will be celebrating Pluralism Sunday by having a post-colonial look at a story involving an Ethiopian eunuch and a chariot-chasing evangelist named Philip.