Sacred and the City

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Wesley Statue

I'm a country girl. I've lived most of my life in the country side and on a few occasions lived in small cities. When I was invited by the District to attend a large gathering at Methodist Central Hall in London, I agreed to go participate in a Mission and Evangelism day with a lot of excitement but also with a bit of anxiety. I grew a bit more anxious knowing that we would be meeting in Westminster in the midst of a historic day of a Saturday sitting of Parliament to discuss Brexit. I knew there would be demonstrations and that the situation could potentially be very tense. My fears whilst real at the time, came to be unfounded. There were discussions if our Mission and Evangelism day should be rescheduled given the crowds and police presence and it was decided that the Church needed to be in the midst of it, a decision that proved to be a holy one.

I've often wondered where God is in the city. Where is God in the midst of what I perceive to be chaos? When I travel on packed buses and tubes, I wonder how God can hear the silent pondering of everyone's heart. Is my understanding of God too small? Am I making God in my own image because I get overwhelmed by a hectic pace of life?

God's face was made present to me in many holy instances and my understanding of God changed this past weekend. Yann Martel in his book The Life of Pi says it best, "It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names."

God- The Word without words
The first holy instance was on Friday when I was en route to my accommodation. Tired and confused after a long train journey, I was uncertain how to make my way from the train station to the BnB, I got on a bus uncertain if it was the correct one. I sat next to an elderly woman. She had a thin vertical line tattooed down her chin. Her eyes were cloudy and her face withered with age, wisdom and experience. Her knotted arthritic hands made a motion which led me to believe she wanted off the bus. I asked her if she wanted off so I could move and she just said, "church" and her hand retreated. She had her hair loosely covered and I wondered if she was part of a group of Christians which cover their hair, much like Muslims do. She is likely from a group of women who is on the verge of traditions and culture close to extinction. Many young women have stopped the tradition of facial tattoos for various reasons. These tattoos are a cultural marking often indicating a certain stage in life, family associations or for protection against evil spirits. They are also often a symbol of long lost matriarchal systems of living. I wondered what her tattoo meant to her but I was too shy to ask. I simply smiled at her and she did not smile back. I quickly went back into my own head space, believing I was intruding on this woman's journey. Shortly after, she rang the bell to get off the bus. She got up and then held out her hand to me and she said, "Help me", indicating she wanted help off the bus. She put her hand in mine and held with the grip of 10,000 men and I helped her off the bus. Her cloudy eyes now became sharp, looking deeply into my soul, piercing through my tiredness and confusion, telling me I was on the right journey and not just to my BnB. There were no words needed. There, God invisible was between us breaking down barriers of language, culture and understanding. It was as if she opened a gateway into my soul clearing obstacles of my own making so that the Holy Spirit might have an unhindered path. "If your eye be single, your whole body will fill with light." Matthew 6:22.

God in the Refugee
On Saturday, after our Mission and Evangelism conference, a full day unscathed by peaceful protests surrounding us, I got on my bus. A family got on at the same stop. The bus driver announced something and the family thought it was for them and were being kicked off the bus. The mother was wearing a knitted hat, the father plainly dressed and the son was plainly dressed wearing a hat that could have been an indicator of a Muslim faith. After they realised they were not being asked to leave, they sat across from me. The fear was tangible. I asked the young man if he was okay. He said, "Yes." I said, "You look afraid. Are you afraid right now?" and he said he was. The story that travelled with us on the bus was intense. The family was from Iran. The young man was Muslim, the father Muslim, the mother Jewish. The mother and another son live in Germany. The father lives in Iran. The son before me had lived in Rome but now lives in London. The young man told me how he felt very lost in the world and that he didn't belong anywhere. He couldn't go back to Iran. Rome wasn't home and neither was London. He was an educated professional and said he felt he was a foreigner everywhere, even in his home land. I was reminded of Leviticus 19:34 "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God." His parents did not have fear in their eyes but you could feel the fear that was so deeply embedded in their soul and shielded by armour that has come from revolution. The son had had a true terror in his eyes that I have only ever seen one place before and that was in a refugee camp. It turns out he was afraid they were being removed from the bus because they are accustomed to that. Being kicked off buses and fear of the other was the norm. As the bus turned the corner, so did our situation. As the bus approached their stop the young man touched my hand and offered me a Muslim blessing. His mother then reached out and touched my hand and offered me a Jewish blessing. The father simply held my hand and offered me peace. In turn, I offered them a Christian blessing. As our eyes welled up with tears, we each saw God between us according to our own faith tradition, through a lens of understanding, gifted to us all, all of us knowing that in some point in our own faith tradition, we have persecuted each other in the name of the Sacred. In that brief moment, God was with us not bound to one faith tradition, in our fear and in our peace, and, in our deep longing for world reconciliation.

God in Dirty Fingernails
On Sunday I attended Wesley's Chapel for worship. Afterwards, I nearly tripped over someone sitting on the street because the street was crowded and someone bumped into me. I apologised to the person sitting on the ground. He looked at me and asked if I had any change. Oh how quickly I had adjusted to London life, the realm of cashless and contactless payments. "I am sorry, I don't". The man was very unkempt. His hair was matted and knotted in a tarmac of sweat and dirt. His nails were black with dirt. His face grey with clinging exhaust fumes and his coat very inadequate for the weather. I asked him if I could buy him some food and he said yes please. I went to the Pret across the street, got something really warm to eat, some water and a warm drink. I came back and he ate it with relish but slowly so as to save some for later. I asked him how in an age of a cashless society how this affected people giving him alms. It affected him greatly- people were no longer giving loose change, perhaps the loose change that could allow him to pay for a public toilet. People were no longer giving change, perhaps the loose change that allowed him to buy a cup of coffee. If people did have change, they didn't give it to him lest he be part of a group of homeless people being trafficked or exploited on the streets in which organised criminals offer a place for the homeless sleep in exchange for the day's cash givings. He told me his story. He had been a professional from Liverpool but living in London and through a nasty divorce ended up financially ruined. He then got ill and lost his job and had to give up his flat. It was one pay cheque short that landed him on the streets. Because of his poor credit he couldn't get a flat even if he did have income. And without an address, he couldn't get benefits. He was caught in a stasis of social systems designed to protect but had harmed. He hasn't seen his children in five years and has no living relatives to ask for help. Our time together was coming to a natural end and I opened my mouth to ask him if he wanted prayer but he spoke first and thanked me for listening to him. And then he blessed me, truly a blessing that passed the barriers of my quiet and ashamed disgust of dirty fingernails and matted hair, a blessing that penetrated the inner rock walls of my heart, a blessing that just for a brief moment, spoke "Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." My heart broke open as I saw the Christ in dirty fingernails, perhaps, once nailed to the cross.

God of Growth
I have been invited by God to evolve beyond my own limiting understandings of the Divine this past weekend. So often we can become immune to seeing the sacred around us. I have been showed by God how my prejudices of a big city have been misguided by years of comfortable country living. God has shown me the Divine Image in which we are all made in an elderly lady, a young Muslim and a homeless person. God is in community, not just in a building or a house of prayer, but where ever it is formed- on a street, on a bus, and, in our hearts. I am reminded of Job 31:32, "The alien has not lodged outside, For I have opened my doors to the traveller."

Revd. MacNeill Cooper

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