We arrived at the Church of the Holy Cross to meet with the wonderful Debbie Collins who came in specially to open up for us. Her smile and warm generosity was a great start to a day marred by earlier sombre reflections. It was with gratitude we accepted the task of passing on some small bags of chocolates to children we might meet on route. However it was our route which was causing our reflection. Yesterday a young man walked into a New Zealand mosque and murdered fifty people simply because they were there. Peaceful unarmed people shot down, it is difficult to comprehend how anybody could ever consider such an act, let alone carry it out. All of those murdered in this act of cowardice were of the muslim faith. Our proposed route would have taken us, not deliberately, through a largely muslim area with some fifty mosques at times when the worshipers were potentially attending for prayer. Whilst we would happily have stood outside as a show of solidarity with our muslim neighbours, we felt it was insensitive to be walking a twelve foot cross past them at such a time. Our symbolic move is about the incredible story of Christ, peace and love, not militancy. We decided to move the cross past this area using the car, praying for this community whilst also showing it both restraint and respect.
There are some out there of course, who wrongly claim that religion is the cause of conflict. The three volume encyclopaedia of ‘War’ by Charles Philips and Alan Axelrod lays this to rest. Whilst it is a popular piece of fake news spread around many atheist social media channels, accurate impartial assessment shows that only around 4% of wars have a religious cause. There is an obvious reason for this, those who have a religious belief nearly always follow a belief that promotes peace and seeking to live in harmony with others. What causes conflict is not a particular belief system but human nature. Certainly humans use religion to define sides, a good example of this was during the Northern Irish insurgency where one group were culturally Catholic and the other Protestant. Both cultures were labelled as believing in the same God, in the person of Jesus and in espousing peace yet the United Kingdom saw decades of terrorism with indiscriminate killing and the deaths of many innocents. This wasn’t religious, it was about one culture not being integrated with the other and about national identity. On both sides religion should have acted as a brake to what occurred but sadly it took many deaths for peace to finally be found.
Something similar applies to our Muslim neighbours. Islam worships the same Abrahamic God that is followed by both the Jews and Christians. There are theological differences but all are monotheistic beliefs from the same root. This attack in New Zealand cannot have been carried out by a person of any faith, it has to been undertaken by someone whose belief system reflected more their own human failings than any religious outlook. Similarly those misguided individuals who have been grabbed by the darkness of the extreme Wahhabism exhibited by the so called Islamic State are not true to the Islamic faith. Islam, like Christianity, seeks peace and also accepts social integration of other faiths. That is why prior to the terrible conflicts that have waged across Iraq and Syria there were large Christian communities. In Iraq some 15% of the population under Saddam were Christian. What is heartening is to see is the true believers acting out their faith. The Iman who intervened to save the life of the Welsh criminal who mowed down his congregation exemplified this recently. We need to see more examples of Christians, Jews and Muslims working together to reduce difference and promote understanding. This also means we should be looking at how our communities are physically structured. It was quite clear as we travelled that most of the Muslim areas were much poorer, with large swathes of Arabic or foreign shops and a loss of public houses. I’ve noticed this previously in areas such as Ealing, formally a major film area, pubs do not survive when nobody drinks in them. When an area is dominated by any one culture then that culture affects the visual and trading aspects of that community. Successive area planners have let down our cities and have also let down our new neighbours to be. The non Muslim areas we drove though were also clearly different but how on earth can we seek to integrate when we allow such clear physical segregation to grow around us? It is far more healthy to have different cultures and communities mixed in than separated. Mixing promotes common interpersonal understanding, accelerates cultural exchange and fosters mutual respect.
This is where women can learn of the freedoms our society promotes for their equality, where f.g.m is easier to stop, English becomes a shared common language and respect for how hard people work arises. This cannot occur when different cultures live and operate in virtual silos in plain sight, and that includes our own.
A good example of how this can work in a positive manner occurred during a short train ride back to our accommodation. We boarded with a lively and pleasant bunch of Morris dancers and quickly struck up a conversation. In the same carriage were two young ladies who it transpired were missionaries from Utah and Malaysia, working from their church of the Latter Day Saints. Adele was talking to a man who turned out to be an Anglican lay preacher whilst I was talking to a man who had a business producing honey. His response to what we were undertaking was ‘that’s cool’ and so followed a conversation about his work, faith, life the universe and everything, all crammed into about fifteen minutes. What struck me powerfully was his awareness that he, using his own words, was very much on the edge of belief, having never taken that leap which occurs in forming a relationship with God. In context this was with having a friend who apparently has just written a theological work which I believe was entitled ‘Sin, Grace and Free Will’. His friend, the theologian and author, was pictured on his phone meeting ArchBishop Justin Welby in a deep conversation around the book launch but he himself was just intrigued by it all. I can relate to that. My family were Catholic. I was raised going to church and also served as an altar boy. I understood the power and the dominance of God but I had no idea he was reaching out to meet me. At school I learnt from inspirational teachers about religious belief in a good Methodist school but again never realised God was there, reaching out like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. It was only after having moved away from religion for the majority of my life that I suddenly bumped into God unexpectedly and discovered that faith was a gift. No door step preacher could sell it to me because it isn’t a human gift to offer. No cult could force it upon me for the same reason. Faith was and is a gift from God and in finding that out it was for me to take the step towards it and enter the unique relationship on offer, between myself and my maker. If only more took the journey to hope for this gift, peace would appear to be so much easier to achieve.
We arrived on time to Holy Trinity RC Church at Sutton Coldfield to meet with Father Michael who had kindly offered to give the cross a home over night. The church was calm and quiet as we manoeuvred to get it into the building, one of those moments where silence evolves conversation into mutual whispers. Howard Drake, who I believe was the churches finance director, helped with sensible guidance and then offered to come in early to open up for us at 06:30. Our day was hugely enjoyed but as always was very much not under the control of ourselves. This was confirmed when we turned up to find our booked accommodation had suffered some sort of glitch and our room had been allocated for April. There was initially no room at the inn but as is often said, that is another story.