It’s hard talking to strangers. I don’t mean when a friend introduces you to one of their friends; or when someone rings the door selling bargain tea-towels; or when you swap health stories in a hospital ward. These are all situations where the context allows you to make conversation, even if it is only for a short time. I mean walking up to someone in the street on a Saturday afternoon because you hope to engage them in a discussion about the meaning of life.
Last weekend I was involved in the Spirit in the City festival. This is a project run by the Catholic parishes in central London – an attempt to make their presence better known to the locals, and to show to the hundreds of thousands of people visiting the West End that there is more to this area than restaurants and night clubs.
On Friday evening I joined a Eucharistic procession from Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, to the French Church in Leicester Place. Three or four hundred people, with a marching band, a few banners, and piles of leaflets and prayer cards to hand out, walking with the Body of the Lord through Covent Garden and Leicester Square. It was a glorious summer evening, and the pavements were thronged with people spilling out of the pubs and bars, either finishing the working day or starting the evening.
On Saturday the organisers somehow got permission from the local council to take over Leicester Square itself. A music stage, a prayer tent with continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a tent for confessions, another for discussion. And hoards of young volunteers in turquoise T-shirts handing out prayer cards and trying to engage people in discussion.
I spent a couple of hours on the main pavement between the street cartoonists and the Empire Cinema. Here are the stats (very approximate): I tried to offer a card to everyone who passed. I used a line like, ‘Did you get one of these?’ or ‘Can I give you a card?’ I’d say that about 1 in 6 actually accepted one. When someone did, I tried to start a conversation in a very unthreatening way, for example, ‘There’s a festival on in the square today…’ or ‘We are from the local Catholic churches…’ Of those who took a card, about 1 in 6 stopped to listen. And of these, about half were interested enough to have a conversation. So that means, very roughly, that I had a proper talk with about 1 in 72 people. The ratio was much higher than I expected!
I’m wearing the clerical collar, so they know I’m a Christian. And I found the best line to get a decent conversation going was, ‘Are you religious yourself?’ It allowed people to say ‘No’, and without me asking they nearly always told me why they weren’t. Or to say ‘Yes’ or ‘Sort of…’ and to say what it meant to them.
I had some amazing conversations. I won’t post about them – I feel it’s crossing a line to blog about personal conversations as a priest, even if they are anonymous. But it showed me how open many people are to talking about faith and religion; and how it’s possible to do that without any edge or antagonism – even with strangers. I think the sun helped too.
What’s the point of it all? Ah…the million dollar question. Most people don’t want to talk to strangers about anything, let alone religion. But many do – a surprising number. Genuine conversations. I think that is a good thing in itself, being able to talk and share and explore things. And it’s a sign to others that ordinary Christians like myself (I was one of many) care about their faith and about others enough to want to meet people and talk – it’s a witness. Then, perhaps, these kinds of conversations open something up in the hearts and minds of those who have them, something that might not have come to the surface without this random encounter. Both for the one drawn into the conversation, and for the one who starts it. And they get the free prayer card!