I feel I am right, but practically, I think I am wrong
In the closing months of 2014 my mind was captured by two issues. One concerned my church. 2015 would be the St Heliers Presbyterian Church’s 100th year. The second was the horror of what ISIS (the so-called Islamic State) was doing in the Middle East. The media carried stories of how they were now beheading women and children. Some of their victims were Christian and some were Muslim – the wrong kind of Muslim according to ISIS dogma.
Many Centenary functions had already been planned. I was wondering what we should organize as a ‘youth event’ in our hundredth year. Then it struck me. ISIS were hell-bent on promoting and promulgating hate and hopelessness, especially amongst young people. As a Centenary project, why couldn’t our church organize an event to foster reconciliation, peace and hope amongst young people.
As the idea was percolating in my mind, I was fortunate to meet Dr Anna Storck. Anna is a person with an enormous academic and practical background in intercultural relationships. With Anna I had coffee with Peter McClure and the Rev John Macdonald to tease out what an intercultural youth conference might look like.
Just prior to our meeting an amazing encounter took place in an Australian city. A follower of ISIS took over a restaurant in central Sydney. He killed two people and held hostages until he himself was killed by the police. The event was the lead story – breaking news, on every news outlet. That day, a young Moslem woman on a suburban train fearing abuse or worse, removed her head scarf. When she alighted from the train, a young fellow passenger who had seen her action ran after her. “Put your scarf back on” she said. “I will walk with you.” This encounter and this phrase was widely reported in the news and social media.
With this in mind, I suggested to Anna, John and Peter that we call our conference, “I will walk with you”. Peter had a better suggestion. “Let’s call our event ‘Talk to Me’ and we did.
We have now had three Talk To Me conferences, each one attended by around 60 participants. The core value of the conferences is respect for others and acceptance of the opinions and beliefs of all who attend. There is no proselytizing – that is recruiting others to your religion or your political or philosophical persuasion. Through games, exercises, video clips and speakers we work at befriending others and meeting them as persons – not as labels – meetings of one human being to another. Using art, dance, drama and music we search for images and ideas which can empower us to strive for peace and be agents of reconciliation.
How has it worked out? Explosively! In each conference, there has been a powerful release of energy, hopefulness and goodwill. An enduring image for me was when I watched Maori young men spontaneously hugging Asian young men. This was not organized: it just happened. At that time, in that conference it seemed the most natural thing in the world. I have attended many conferences, but I have never felt the bubbling up of positivity that each of the Talk To Me conferences has produced.
However, after the conference I was concerned. Why was it that so many of the youth we had contacted and who seemed interested, had not attended? This is where the heading of this piece originated – ‘I feel I am right but, practically, I think I am wrong’.
I now realise it is very difficult to recruit young people to attend “Talk To Me”. On the one hand everyone agrees that the conference is a great idea, but, in the main people, and in particular young people, do not want to attend. Why? Could it be that the idea of meeting others as ‘human beings’ is just too hard? Individuals feel they need a framework of identity and they find this through their race, their religion, their club, their team, their heritage etc.. Without these tags they feel naked, and or defenseless. Perhaps the idea of meeting others just as human beings is altogether too risky, too scary!
As an example, from my point of view as a Christian minister I have learnt a hard lesson. Our churches in Auckland, not just Presbyterian, mostly have youth associated with them. We have never had anyone from any of these churches or youth groups attend a “Talk To Me” conference. This is not because of lack of trying. We produced and distributed smart leaflets/posters and lots of ‘with it’ social media advertising. But all to no avail.
When I have talked to youth leaders and other church leaders I simply draw a blank. One youth leader told me it would be impossible to sell the idea of the “Talk To Me” conference to any church or Christian youth group. The reason being that the idea of meeting with young people of other religions or no religion simply to form open ended relationships would not be countenanced. “The only reason for meeting with such people would be to convert them.” The implication being that we Christians have all the answers and our God-given task is to make everyone like us.
The reality is sobering, but the “Talk To Me” idea is not dead in me. I am proud to be part of a Church and Centre where this ideal is a reality – with varying degrees of success. The main point is that we are working at it.
Despite the difficulties in recruiting young people, there is no denying the positive dynamic generated by the three “Talk To Me” conferences. I think about how scorned some health and safety ideas have been in past years, for instance, bicycle helmets and anti-smoking campaigns. Now bicycle helmets are accepted and there is noticeably less smoking. With “Talk To Me” I see we are at the sharp end of what will be a long campaign. Onward and up!
In my role as a minister I will continue to share how central the “Talk To Me” principle is in the ministry of Jesus and his Kingdom vision. I will write about it and maybe come up with a song or a play. But, I believe the most important thing I can do is to live out the idea in daily life. In reality, I feel this is my Christian calling.
Please note there is a growing core group of committed enthusiasts, including me, considering new ways of working with Talk to Me and engaging young and old in it’s life-giving and hope-giving encounters and dialogues.
PS. Actually in my lowest moments, I considered I was failure at promoting “Talk To Me”. As I am a born promoter I began wondering what can I promote next? I came up with what I imagined would be a sure-fire winner – cruise holidays with something more? For instance, think about this; an adults-only cruise which apart from all the normal onboard eating venues, has five extra 24-hour buffets, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, French and English and unlimited 24 hour alcohol? These cruises would also include a quality on-board health-care packet. I mentioned this idea to a group the other night and two persons wanted to sign up immediately.