Sunday, 1 September 2013

Will Pope Francis make a difference?

“Sister, you are on your way to hell!” This cheerful greeting from a placard-carrying street preacher held some relevance on Monday evening insofar as I was on my way to hear the blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, imprisoned and tortured in his native China for his work against forced abortions and sterilisations. However on Tuesday, meeting the same man in the same place and greeted with the same words, things were a little different insofar as, on this occasion he offered advice. “You don’t need Mary or the Pope”, he declared. Instead of ignoring the man, I turned towards him, smiled and told him not to worry. “I’ve got Jesus with me.” He looked genuinely concerned. “Are you sure?” he asked.

The last occasion when I was accosted by such a preacher happened to be on Clapham High Street. Another man, equally concerned for the salvation of my immortal soul, accosted me on my imagined religious beliefs. “You Catholics don’t believe that Jesus died and redeemed you once and for all.” That was news to me and told him so. “But you don’t believe that he took away your sins.” This time, I shocked the speaker. “I do believe that Jesus died and took away my sins, but that does not mean that I am sinless. I have to keep on trying to become a better person. Jesus told the Samaritan woman to ‘go away and sin no more’. Until the day I die, I will have to keep on trying to be good. The fact that Jesus died for me does not stop me from committing sin.” The discussion started to become complicated. The preacher had no intention of learning more of Catholic belief from a practising Catholic as opposed to an Evangelical pastor, so we agreed to differ and parted company.

Many street evangelists are deeply sincere as they courageously and publicly declare their faith, albeit often with a degree of fundamentalism which is hard to accept. Engagement and dialogue, however, can sometimes have an effect. A young Jehovah’s Witness braves all weather to stand on our doorstep with Watchtower and ready answers. After more than one year of discussions, I have come to believe that he visits because he is treated with respect and is not turned away. In fact both he and I enjoy the debate such that he surprises me by starting where we last finished.

The Hindu newspaper recently published a thoughtful article asking why so many women in Britain are converting to Islam. It is a question which I have often pondered when travelling on the bus or the Tube. Not everyone has blindly followed a future husband onto his beliefs. Some appear to have become Muslims after careful thought. Some, judging by their names, were originally Catholic. What has made the change?

Perhaps one of the most striking things is the fact that many Muslim women wear the hijab or the burqa outside their home and are distinctive, easily recognisable as Muslim and presumably offer each other a sense of solidarity. Although the burqa, a garment which totally envelops the woman in black appears to have little fashion appeal, market stalls and clothes shops which specialise in Islamic dress offer a wide range of stylish and colourful hijabs, garments which swathe the head in clouds of material and generally hide any wisp of hair. Yet surely British converts to Islam have a deeper reason for their actions than fashion sense. An American journalist, Annette Lamothe-Ramos, recently donned a burqa and walked around Brooklyn for the day. She subsequently wrote about her experience: "I figured that the only way I’d really know what life was like for women who have been consigned to wear the least-revealing piece of clothing of all time was to dress up as one of them... Eight out of ten people that I came in contact with while wearing a burqa acted as if I didn’t even exist, which actually made me feel worse than the looks I received from busybodies who were offended by my presence."

Cambridge University’s Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) and the Leicester-based New Muslims Project have recently published a 129-page report "based on the experiences of nearly 50 British women converts of different ages, ethnicities, and faiths or no faith". For some of the women they interviewed, there seems to have been a genuine and life-changing conversion. A formerly practising Catholic declared, "I realised this was what I had been searching for. It was a light bulb moment. So I read more, and studied the religion, and a few months later I become a Muslim."

Others had a different reaction to reading about Islam: “The literature that I picked up just stimulated me. And Islamic teaching made perfect, logical sense. You can approach it intellectually and there are no gaps, no great leaps of faith that you have to make.” In other words, it is possible to become a cultural Muslim without needing to make a “leap of faith”. Will such people still be Muslims in ten years’ time? Only God knows. The report itself stated, "The study confirmed a problem that lies at the heart of Islam — the fact that it is not simply a faith, but a way of life. The overlap between faith and culture left many confused."

Perhaps one important feature in the apparent ease with which Islam is able to attract female converts in Britain is because so many young people today grow up in an atmosphere of no faith and yet they are still searching for a deeper meaning to life than is offered in a society where God is often consigned to irrelevance. The conspicuous Muslim women attract their attention and inspire curiosity. In spite of the popular feeling that Muslim women are oppressed and often denied their basic freedom, some young women are urged to make further enquiries. Their encounter with Islam might be their first experience of a faith community in which they have some identity and suddenly, they have value and importance which was previously denied them in their secular environment.

Interestingly, "the study acknowledged the need to raise the status of Muslim women. Most converts were particularly critical of the concept of Sharia Council or courts operating in Britain, seeing them as a threat to women’s rights." Does this mean that some female converts ‘want to have their cake and eat it’? To what extent are conversions cultural and to what extent are they a matter of religious belief?

Converts from Christianity of whatever denomination, seem to have been unengaged in one way or another so that Jesus did not become ‘real’. This challenges the Church to do something about its outreach to young people. Catholics tend not to parade their good deeds, even though leading the world in the fight for social justice and human rights. Often it is personal encounter and engagement which turn a life upside-down. It will be fascinating to see what happens as a result of Pope Francis’ leadership. He is a highly visible sign of the joy, humility, service and simplicity which accompany an encounter with Jesus. Will he make a difference?