Monthly Archives: December 2014

Is our diversity only skin deep?

The choice of Lennie Henry to guest edit the flagship BBC radio programme Today inevitably brought the question of diversity into the public mind.

He is a much loved figure, amiable, “just like us”, and an excellent ambassador for “the Black Country” in both senses of the word.

You can’t not like Lennie.

If you looked for an example of an integrated person, in some ways different but in most ways not, it is hard to think of anyone better to choose.

Nevertheless, given a full , open choice of issues to explore, this very English man of colour felt it appropriate to go back to issues of diversity and exclusion. That was his right and his choice, but it is interesting that he felt obliged to look primarily  in that direction rather than others; he identified with exclusion even though he has been as well embraced as anyone you might care to name.

Brother Ivo has lived long enough to have seen much change in this regard.

His own mother spoke of her fear of seeing the first black man in herstreet in the North of England, the children fleeing,  lest he take them back to wherever he might have come from.

She was not initially comfortable around such strangers. She was troubled when the teenage Brother Ivo and a friend brought home a very pretty girl of Indian origin, yet to her credit she later  learnt her own similarity with people of difference by badinage, whilst buying dress making materials from an Indian young man in the local market. Shared interests bridged  cultural gaps

When she saw the fervour of dislike amongst some parts of the community with the early rise of the National Front,  she confronted her own discomfort and by an act of will put it aside, for which Brother Ivo always admired her.

If you have never felt difficulty with difference, you have no claim to virtue in espousing tolerance.

Listening to Lennie Henry exploring issues such as the numerical disparity of BME managers in professional football, the problems of securing more ethnic minority MPs and black authors breaking out of their traditionally niche subject areas, Brother Ivo began thinking about another side of the  diversity coin.

We regard ourselves as tolerant towards a diverse society because most of our major towns and cities have a variety of cultures in situ and  readily visible, with Dreadlocks, Turbans, and Hijabs abounding, but does that really tell us much?

Happily we have relatively little racial tension and no “rivers of blood” yet if we drill down looking for hard data,  how is the mutuality of acceptance really playing out?

Brother Ivo would have found it very interesting to hear not from those who have been motivated to integrate but rather to hear from those who have not yet done so.

Diane Abbott, Sajid Javid, Amjad Basir MEP and Chris Hughton had important and interesting stories to tell, and yet they are all people who have moved towards the values of the “indigenous community”: the story of those communities which are more inward looking is less explored. and it is a shame that Lennie did not go there.

That surely is the story that truly needs to be explored.

Brother Ivo was moved to explore this thought when he recalled a discussion he recently had with a colleague from another Church who sought his help in locating somebody willing and able to facilitate conversations within his own Church which had a number of people from a specific African region.

The colleague had made a mistake and did not want to compound it. He also had a problem, which he explained.

When he found people from the same country gravitating to his church he thought it was  a good idea to promptly introduce the newcomers to each other and expected that alone to be a successful strategy.

He had not appreciated the tribal dimension.

He soon learnt that there were plainly issues that he did not know and yet they were issues which his congregation did not feel comfortable discussing with him. They feared he might disapprove of their reservations and so, he was effectively excluded from a dimension of his own ministry. He may have been all for diversity and yet found that he needed needed  informed specialist help to penetrate the cultural issues that were holding back fellowship. Brother Ivo was able to suggest a source of such assistance.

There was another problem.

His new congregation members were very supportive of the Church. If he wanted simple things done his requests were met with enthusiasm yet those tasks embraced  tended to be of a more menial capacity. Recruiting people to join the PCC, to become Treasurers or Church Wardens had never been successful. He was concerned by this.

He did not want outsiders to speculate about racial glass ceilings. He was genuinely bothered that he was unable to extend his opportunities with this new generation of worshipers. There may be to be a very prosaic answer. The new immigrants may be young, have working long hours, have family commitments in other towns; in that they may be no different from other young people with too much to do, yet he cannot be sure.

It is these conversations that need to be had. It does take two to tango.

Brother Ivo shall be seeing him again in a couple of months and will be interested to see see how he is getting on with the support suggested.

The story from this local Church is the kind that does not reach the media.

There are many new cultures and communities now in the UK. Some are still not wholly comfortable with the language and the culture. With 4 million newcomers in the last decade, it would be highly unlikely that all the potential issues of integration will have even  yet been identified, let alone solved.

We should, as a larger community be keen to ensure that ours in not an exclusionary culture; In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free male or female. Yet the British have tended to be a pragmatic people relying on evolutionary practice rather than grand schemes of intellectual design. THis is both a blessing and a curse.

Seeing diversity on the street it may look ordinary enough, yet until we know and understand the various communities – and not least how they inter-react one with another – any declaration of diversity having been easily achieved is premature.

It may be too early to “celebrate diversity” not because we should not aspire to it, but simply because our success is greeted prematurely. Integrating  two  communities is of a different order of magnitude than integrating forty or a hundred. in many ways we have not yet begun.

Lennie Henry did a good job, but he skimmed the real depth of the problem

It will take time for so much diversity to bed down: the problems are exponentially complex and not exclusively caused by the “indigenous majority” – howsoever one defines it.

We can, however take a degree of comfort that the vast majority of folk do want to see this happen peacefully and naturally.

We in the Churches have an important role in facilitating acceptance on all sides, but we will help nobody if we allow the problem to be defined in the one dimension of indigenous intolerance only.

 

 

Walking towards the enemy

Brother Ivo cannot be the only one to have listened to a sermon over Christmas which drew its principle starting image from the 1914 Christmas Truce.

The preacher invited us to consider the courage it took for the first soldier in each sector to put courage, trust and hope to the ultimate test, by climbing over the firestep and moving, with lifted arms towards the enemy lines.

This was not the first Christmas truce.

During the American Civil War the two sides also laid aside animosity for the day; the Union soldiers were cheered to receive a turkey dinner, which had been ordered by  President Abraham Lincoln to offer some cheer in their cold and otherwise bleak circumstances. There was no such comfort on the other side: the Confederacy was a poorer economy, struggling to provision its soldiery to the most basic degree.

How tempting it must have been for the men of the South to disrupt their enemies bonhomie by a surprise attack, yet they did not do so. The message of hope and peace of Christmastide drew them to accepting their lot in simpler circumstances, despite hunger pangs and jealousy.

These historic events led Brother Ivo to contemplate our own divided lines within the Church.

At a macro level we are Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist etc. Within churches themselves, the evangelical, liberal and charismatic look on each other will entrenched distrust. They have recently struggled over the role of women in the Church, and prepare to reprise the performance by opening a second front over the position of gay marriage. It is very predictable, human and sad.

At Chistmas, Brother Ivo wrote of the “Soft Power of Christ”, reflecting that we are called upon to exercise it and especially noting that each of us has  no excuse for not exercising it.

Accordingly, having no duties in his own Church this morning, he will be getting out of his comfort zone to worship with a congregation he does not know in a tradition he does not share. He will be fraternising.

Perhaps this year we all need to do this occasionally, and those who exercise formal ministry might have a special responsibility to shoo their congregations out of their usual pews and Churches, urging them to trust in Christ and to try “walking towards the enemy” to enact our own journey of reconciliation at Christmastide.

The Soft Power of Christ

nativity-icon

Whatever account one accepts about the birth of the infant Jesus, there is no doubt that he came into the world in the most humble of circumstances.

He lived in the  most humble of circumstances, first as a tradesman and then as an itinerant preacher.

He died in circumstances that were worse than humble and swiftly put away on the eve of a major religious festival, so that the embarrassing presence of a beaten and bloody corpse should not defile the festivities.

He never wielded any power that would have been recognised by any of his contemporaries. To them power took many forms, but all of them were coercive.

There was the Imperial power of Rome, the local power of the client King Herod, the religious power of the Sanhedrin, and not least the capricious power of the mob that could stone a woman for adultery whilst leaving the errant man unpunished.

The values of that society were replicated across the world. The power which ruled the world  was built upon violence.

Jesus changed that.

His power was founded on teaching, service and example.

He healed by forgiving sin. He embraced the leper. He lifted up the fallen woman,

He broke the heart of the centurion who crucified him, restoring him to wholeness so that he could be the first to recognise that here indeed was the son of God.

He broke the power of death by calling forth Lazarus, restoring Jairus’ daughter and overcoming the death by which which the powerful had sought to silence him

His teaching was never predicated upon violence, but pointed “The Way” accompanied by the simple injunction to “Go and do thou likewise.”

Soft power proved to be costly to those who exercised it, but it did not depend upon power from the top. On the contrary, the Church was really built by the 72, sent out on the road with the minimum of resources, but the maximum of faith;  that this was “The Way” things should be done. Christian communities have never been built to last without the soft power foundation of quiet Christ-like service.

There is only one difficult thing about the soft power of Christ.

There is no excuse for not exercising it. There is nobody who cannot reach out to another with an offer of a helping hand, a re-assuring word, or a prayer.

As we kneel in adoration this Christmas, let us pray that we shall be inspired by the soft power of Christ, to love as he loved us, and to do unto others as we would be done by.

Torture – what would you do?

Brother Ivo has lived a fairly broad life so, as the world considers the US Senate report on the interrogation of prisoners, you may not be entirely surprised to hear of a conversation he once had with a former work colleague who mentioned in casually that he had once electrically tortured someone.

Brother Ivo was young then, and even more idealistic, and was appropriately appalled. He could not but ask how this man, who he liked a lot, could do such a thing.

The story is short.

The  colleague had been employed as a colonial policeman in an outpost in Africa many years ago, when they captured a guerrilla fighter who had been working that night laying land mines. They had far too few men and resources to undertake a physical night search over a wide area. The guerrilla  had mines in his possession when caught so they had no doubt that lethal weaponry was out there somewhere targeting civilians.

The police station was equipped with an old telephone system,  and power was generated by a hand cranked generator which could deliver a powerful but not lethal charge. He had chosen to turn the handle and extracted the information.

The colleague then turned the tables on his interrogator.

“It is three in the morning, and the school buses hit the roads at 6 am. I had to make my decision: I turned the handle – what would you have done?”

That question has rested on Brother Ivo’s conscience ever since.

Would he have had the moral courage to stand by his principles, to look at the shattered bodies of children and into the eyes of grieving parents the following morning, knowing and perhaps explaining to them, “I might have stopped this, but chose not to”?

Alternatively would he have had a different type of courage, to have embraced the opprobrium of most right minded people and no small amount of self loathing, and inflicted the suffering on the would-be perpetrator so that the schoolchildren might live.

In either case, such problems rarely seem to present themselves at a time of quiet moral reflection with the academic support of expert moral philosophers on hand: like so many decision points, it came out of a clear blue sky, like a thief in the night.

Brother Ivo does not intend to answer that question today.

He recounts the story simply to act as a reference point for anyone thinking that they know what they would do in such extreme cases.

The truly fortunate never have to answer such questions. Many of us will offer an opinion over the news story as it unfolds, but whatever decision we think we might take, let us retain a degree of compassion for all and any for whom these questions are not matters of idle or academic interest only.

Prayer would not come amiss of both gratitude and intercession. as the Christas song agonisingly cries “Thank God its them instead of you”.

Let them eat tripe?

Many years ago whilst working with and for the poorest members of our society Brother Ivo came across a young man whose family was under threat from the Social Services.

They lived on what is called a “sink estate” which meant that the local school was heavily populated by what some call “problem families” but which ought properly to be known as families with multiple problems.

The couple were married. They had met in a school for the learning disabled; her family had some middle class wealth but he had been adopted and had lost touch with his adopters. They had no employment history but produced a number of young children. As is not infrequently the case, the number of young children, and the demands of that family grouping overwhelmed them and attracted the attention of the Social Services.

In the course of the investigation the Social workers complained about something which has become rather topical. The children were allegedly fed an “inadequate diet”.

None of them were physically malnourished but the complaint persisted in generalised form for months. The family did not have a table at which to eat its meals. That is a common feature of modern family life which Brother Ivo regrets at many levels. They did however attempt some cooking.

By the time mother left for another man, father was coping with two of the children feeding them on his limited variety of culinary expertise.

He could cook five things: potatoes, sausages, brussel sprouts, baked beans and fish fingers. In various combination, and supplemented by a cereal breakfast and school meals, the children were fed. As was belatedly pointed out, this might be reasonably described as a monotonous diet, yet drawn as it was, from each of the main food sources – greens, protein,pulses and carbohydrates – it met the children’s nutritional needs, albeit whilst offending the social workers standards. The children were not overweight. Doubtless the “professionals” would have described them as living in “food poverty” had that term been in vogue.

This recollection came back to Brother Ivo as he listened to the public debate over that modern term.

A Peer, Baroness Jenkinson has been upbraided for remarking that the poor don’t cook. Was it wrong (factually or morally) to say so?

Traditional cooking skills have been neglected and lost across the whole British social spectrum. If one has lost the abilities of budgeting, and preparation which had sustained past generations there is surely at the very least a skill shortage. Do we therefore have concurrent with “food poverty” a more widespread and regrettable “food preparation poverty”?

The number of take-away restaurants in poorer areas is observable to anyone; one rarely hears of traditional reciepes for the poor being cooked, and whilst processed foods abound in our supermarkets one sees less of the cheaper cuts and offal that were once a regular feature of our local butchers’ counters. If you want to try tripe, pigs trotter soup or stuffed hearts, you will now have to pay a celebrity chef to cook it for you.

We may not cook as we once did, but paradoxically, cookery shows have become the staple diet of much television.

The professional version of televisions Master Chef presents to its contestants a mixed box of faded vegetables, off cuts and trimmings from which they somehow manage to  conjour remakably chic dishes: it may not quite be water into wine, but it does show what can be done with unpromising cheap ingredients, knowledge and imagination.

It is not suggested that such skills are readily available to ordinary folk, but in the same way that professional football or the National Theatre lifts the aspirations of many lowly participants of those skills,so  the example of what can be done by stretching our food culture is not one to be ignored. Every culture across the world is rich in the dishes of the poor whose ingenuity in making good food from cheaper ingredients is both commendable and culturally enriching.

In the interests of transparency, Brother Ivo should confess that he is not a lover tripe: that said, very little food waste escapes his kitchen, with every chicken carcass boiled down for soup stock and stale bread frozen for breadcrumbs. He rejects any notation of the “best cuts” of meat, seeking out pigs cheeks, and skirt steak for pasties. He regards fillet steak as the Big Mac of the undiscerning palate.

He chose a provocative title to further the debate within that, recently set by the proposition that we need a new organisation “Feeding Britain” to address the problems of those visiting food banks or otherwise needing encouragement help to lift our nutritional standards.

The report was created after much inquiry. Brother Ivo confesses to being slightly disappointed to read that the answer is to create a co-ordinating top down bureaucracy, but respects the cross party nature of the investigation and the integrity of the leadership and accordingly holds back an initial scepticism of such approaches.

When there is real pressing need amongst those visiting food banks, it is no time to quibble.

The idea of using supermarket waste makes sense and yet, we need to be cautious about allowing the big corporations to not only feed the poor, but the source of this and problems by feeding a dependency on processed foods and their purveyors. If they were to meet the challenge by handing over just in date processed foods, it would be some, yet an insufficient response to a bigger problem.

Oscar Wilde once observed that Jesus did come to turn publicans into Pharisees. He wanted better.

In the same way, insofar as our poor have embraced the advertisers pitch of ready prepared meals, selling less than healthy foods at inflated prices. we do need to be careful.

Perhaps “Feeding Britain” might ensure that within the project, good practical information on cooking and nutrition is made available. Some of those attending food banks will be doing so having been hooked onto long term mobile communication contracts; we might as well give them good useable content to help them prepare what is offered.

Brother Ivo comes from a generation that experienced the legacy of post war rationing. Paradoxically, it was probably the healthiest cohort of children to be born. We may even outlive some of our grandchildren.

If caring is to be comprehensive, it must stretch beyond knee-jerk welfarism and if that means taking a critical view of families food culture -rich and poor alike- we cannot be overly timid to say where things have been going wrong.

These issues are too important to have any aspect marginalised by over concern with what can and cannot be said. Brother Ivo thinks that when we explore the debate about “food poverty”, all contributions should be gratefully received.