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Posts Tagged ‘strangers’

A miracle happened on the Piccadilly line on Tuesday evening. They broke the rules. The flew in the face of convention. They boldly went where no man or woman had gone before. They trampled on the strongest known London Underground taboo.

Three strangers had a conversation together.

Notice how carefully I choose my words.

(1) Three: Not one person having a conversation with himself. This happens quite often – through alcohol, insanity, loneliness, frustration, whatever. Not two people getting caught up in conversation. This happens now and then. Maybe I experience this a bit more often because I’m a priest in a clerical collar, which gives an opening. But in this case three individual human beings, sitting on the tube, apparently normal people.

(2) Strangers: All three were strangers to each other. So this isn’t two friends plus another stranger; or three old friends who bump into each other; it’s three people who have never met before. Unless they were plants/actors? Maybe I was on Candid Camera?

(3) Had a conversation together: Not just ‘grunted’ (‘Oh for goodness sake’; ‘what are they playing at’) or ‘exchanged information’ (‘What’s the next station?’; ‘Green Park’) or ‘shared curses’ (no descriptions needed).

Someone threw in the opening gambit, the others dipped their toes in, they felt their way forward hesitantly, and then they went for it and actually talked to each other – for about ten minutes. As normal people would. About where they had been, where they were going, what they were doing. It was remarkable.

At first, being British, what did I feel? Acute embarrassment. A discomfort so deep it was beyond words or reason. I thought, ‘Oh no – they can’t do that! Don’t they know? Where is this going? How can this last?’ As if some natural order had been disturbed; a sense of foreboding. I looked away; I concentrated even more intently on what I was reading.

Then, after about two minutes, when I realised it wasn’t just a dream, I felt an almost dizzy sense of liberation, a gratitude; even a kind of awe in the face of the boundless possibilities that open up to humankind when people realise they can be normal and that they don’t have to play the games. More than an experience of the Emperor’s New Clothes; as if I had secretly believed that the train would crash and even darker things happen if we didn’t follow the rules. (Where did these rules come from? Were they given as an injection when we were seven days old? Something in the water?)

Ten minutes of conversation between three strangers. I had a small part in it, but I wasn’t one of the three main protagonists. It began, inevitably, with an enquiry about where we were; and when the second person couldn’t answer, I threw in ‘Boston Manor’ – and then sank back into my reading.

But now comes the truth. It’s all as I have said, and it was indeed miraculous. It’s certainly the first time in my 45 years that I have witnessed this. But it was the Piccadilly Line; and yes, we were travelling from west to east – in other words, we were coming from the direction of Heathrow.

So perhaps, for the social anthropologists who have been devouring this post, it wasn’t technically part of the Underground system – they will bring up some formal exemption; perhaps, because it’s almost a spur from Heathrow, it counts – in the sociology of urban space – not as a tube line but as an airport lounge; as if the category of ‘train’ or ‘tube’ was somehow suspended for the thirty minutes from Terminals 1,2 and 3 to Earls Court.

In an airport lounge, even in Britain, you are allowed to talk to strangers, even to two or three at the same time; as long as you amble in nonchalantly, and back off at the merest hint of disinterest or disdain. And yes, I admit it, the conversation was about where they had been (on their travels) and where they were going. Or in this case, where they had not been (because someone had missed their plane – it’s a long story…And maybe that’s why it was allowed to develop, because it activated the sub-rule that you can break the rule and talk about recent or impending public disasters; only this wasn’t public but private, but it was felt so intensely that it took on a public dimension).

So maybe it wasn’t a miracle.

But they did talk. And they were complete strangers. And it was the tube!

And I was there to witness it! Something to tell my great nieces and nephews in years to come.

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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.

An image from the procession in 2007

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!

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Loneliness by Aditya Grandhi.

Richard Dowden writes about the loneliness that so many people experience in the West. The fact that more and more people live alone; the fact that even when we are in the same physical space together we often want to preserve a sense of privacy and isolation. He contrasts this with the ‘communalism’ he has found in Africa.

There, whenever I find myself alone, people join me, not necessarily to talk, or out of politeness to a stranger, but to have human company. What is awkward is to leave someone alone. To be alone is abnormal. When I have said I want to be alone people ask if I am ill.

It is hard to be alone in Africa. Everyone has family. A person without relations is nothing. And family in Africa extends far beyond the truncated nuclear family of the Western world. Cousins several times removed are called brother or sister; distant in-laws are aunt or uncle.

Dowden is honest about the negative effects of this communalism (and those who comment on the article are even more negative):

Distant family members can call on you for money. They will turn up unannounced and expect to receive hospitality. You cannot refuse. When rich men die, their fortune is pulled to pieces and squandered by the many people who can claim a gift from the departing relative. And in most families there is a delinquent who has broken the rules or is disliked. They — and their offspring — are excluded or tolerated, but exploited. These days, when labour is becoming more expensive, the traditional practice of taking the child of a poor relative into one’s family to help them has led to exploitation. Where the child is a girl it has even ended in a relationship of slavery and rape.

Communalism can also make societies deeply conservative. Where maintaining the community is the ultimate goal, important but divisive truths cannot be discussed for fear of creating a rift, so decisions are left untaken. And the African family ensures there is no such thing as a self-made man: the classic rootless entrepreneur of 19th-century Europe or America who tears up the rule book and builds a new world.

What interests me most are his more philosophical reflections on what it means to be human:

Descartes wrote: cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. The African would say: cognatus sum ergo sum; I am related, therefore I am. There are two sayings from southern Africa that make the point: “A man is a man because of others” and “Life is when you are together, alone you are an animal”. John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian, puts it like this: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” These sayings are easily applicable to all Africa.

In southern Africa, the concept is called ubuntu: you are who you are through others. This does not just mean family or group. Ubuntu extends to all humanity, shared personhood and values. In the past, the worst punishment in many African societies was expulsion. To be excluded was worse than death.

I think the overarching question is this: Is it possible both to belong and to be free?

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