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9-INTERNATIONAL-MASS

An open door which isn’t just for visitors

SALLY FRASER takes comfort in a celebration of diversity — By SALLY FRASER

‘Sally, Jane Austen is from Yorkshire isn’t she?” asks Fr Lylie as I stand waiting for the kettle to boil. “No, Charlotte Brontë is from Yorkshire,” I reply. “Ah yes, of course, Charlotte Brontë. And there is a Yorkshire pudding, yes? And also a Yorkshire Tea.”

Yes, that’s right, I say, quickly dismissing an urge to unnecessarily complicate things with mention of Parkin, a slightly disappointing Yorkshire gingerbread, and reflecting on the fact that I cannot name an author, pudding and beverage from Sri Lanka, where Fr Lylie hails from, so he is doing pretty well on my homeland.

We are on a theme, you see, in our parish. We are organising an International Night. We knew there were lots of people coming to Mass who we hadn’t got to know properly, and we knew that our very church had been built by people Not From Round Here. So our not-so-catchy ‘unity in diversity: let’s celebrate’ night seemed like a good idea.

It’s going to be a Mass and a pot-luck supper, and we have done a mapping exercise to find out where in the world most of our parishioners come from, so we can work their languages into our celebration and because, well, we are a bit nosy.

The results have been astonishing. When the congregation at one evening Mass was asked to raise their hand if they were from ‘outwith’ Scotland—the blow-in Irish priest struggling with the Scottish term as much as my spell checker is—around half raised their hands. And our come-from-aways are not all from the same places either, we already have at least 30 different countries represented, from New Zealand to Northern Ireland, from Sicily to South Africa.

But the zeal with which the project has been greeted is surprising too. People are excited, grown-ups and children alike filling in their luggage labels and sticking pins in maps with enthusiasm, seeming to relish the opportunity to make things a little bit about their own lives, to share something of themselves.

And I can relate to that. The first time I ever got involved in a church event, the first time I actually stayed behind to, well, ‘Speak To People I Don’t Know,’ was at an international night with a pot-luck bring-and-share supper like the one we are planning.

I had ditched the Parkin and made bhajis because, being from Bradford, they are the food which to me most represents a taste of home (although I cook them using Yorkshire pudding technology, in tins of hot oil in the oven. Our sense of heritage is, so often, a complex issue, a mixed bag.)

I had turned up to church with them, tearful because they had all gone wrong, and my friend Mike reassured me ‘they smell nice, and we are all glad you have made them for us to try and that you came along.’ And I remember the Bible readings that evening were about us being clay pots and I thought, gosh, that’s it isn’t it? We are all flawed vessels, broken bhajis, all welcome in the house of God. I had brought something of myself, and my imperfect offering was accepted and loved.

Quite often, at the moment, I reflect on just how much of my work is inspired by a desire to create the kind of environment that could absorb me as I was at 20 or 21: a somewhat fragile and more-than-slightly troubled figure, in so much need of welcome, of somewhere to belong.

I would like to think that we could absorb people here into a truly diverse community, diverse not only in where we come from but in terms of what stage we are at on out journeys.

Because, when we are truly open to everyone, we welcome not only a myriad of cultures and languages, sounds, rhythms, tastes and smells, but the huge spiritual spectrum too, of all the different ways Faith is lived out in people’s lives, no two relationships with God the same, no two people at the same point on their own personal pilgrimages. That is part of the diversity I hope we can celebrate.

Then, when we are ready, we can remember that we are one. After all, unity doesn’t seem to me like a side issue for Jesus, so it shouldn’t be for us. I mean, it’s not like he didn’t really go on about it quite a bit. Vines. Ligaments. Body parts. Brides and bridegrooms. One in the spirit. We would have to be pretty dim not to get the message but of course, so often, pretty dim is exactly what we are.

And perhaps that’s because we are, of course, all away from home. All blow-ins. We all left our first home and await our return to it at whatever stage, back where we truly belong.

We each face exactly the same daily struggle to make out the voice of the Father we all share, but all place ourselves at varying distances from, at times so that we can hardly hear Him at all. That is where our unity lies and that is why we need each other, why we need communities.

Let our churches be places where people can bring something of themselves, even if it’s broken. Let’s share something of where we come from, because the story of our lives will inevitably be the story of what God has done for us.

– Sally Fraser is a pastoral associate at St Mary’s Star of the Sea in Leith, Edinburgh. She converted to Catholicism in her 20s and is married with two small children

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