Harriet from Dumfries and David from Possilpark were privileged to attend one of Gothenburg diocese’s Diakonal formation days (they have over 200 deacons!) which this year had input from Heather Roy of ‘Eurodiakonia’ based in Brussels. Heather had studied at Glasgow University, so we didn’t need a translator for that part! Other presentations were ably translated for us by our host Peter Andersson, who had fond memories of his visit to our own Diocesan Synod in Dumfries.
Entering the cathedral, there were rows of shirts of all designs on hangers – could this be a clothes swap shop? Like we have in Possil, I thought – on closer inspection, I noticed that they were all in various shades of green and the scores of (mainly) women holding them up and examining them, were themselves wearing many styles and hues of GREEN clerical shirts. It’s the official colour of Swedish diakonia! We were there to learn what that is all about, though the diaconal colour was left unexplained – unless it was drawing our attention to a very vibrant, growing and life-giving charism which is especially informing the reformed Churches of Europe and entirely consonant with the emphasis of the papacy of Francis I throughout the universal Church.
There were 4 main inputs in the day, after the celebration of the eucharist –
Eurodiakonia is a network seeking to support the diaconal work of member Churches, from its secretariat in Brussels, with members in 32 countries including the Church of Scotland, Salvation Army; City Missions; ecumenical organisations; advocacy organisations etc, with an emphasis on HOPE and DIGNITY especially for the marginalised. It works for inclusion, for direct care (as in service provision) but also as an advocate. The network has a watching brief (somewhat like ‘Faith In Community Scotland’) which monitors social divergence and exposes weaknesses in our society where values of human dignity are being eroded. With this presentation we rehearsed the increasingly competitive and privatised nature of health and social care provision, the increasing tendency to measure ‘successful outcomes’ and the atomisation of people into economic units. These issues are familiar to all of us working in the Third Sector and we were encouraged to ponder on the broken relationships in our society, the erosion of solidarity when we have to look out for the survival of our own, and the poverty of being unloved and unwanted. All of which can be linked to the rise in extremism even within faith groups, a subject of a later presentation.
A lesson for our Churches in our diaconal vocation includes getting to know our communities so that we can discern the ‘invisibly marginalised’ of the unwanted; to see beyond material deprivation. We were reminded of the famous dictum about service provision – ‘don’t just keep pulling people out of the river, go upstream and find out who or what is throwing them in!’
Ahmed’s story Ahmed now works in an organisation helping Asylum Seekers integrate into Swedish society – the important point for our conference is that he was helped into this new phase of his young life by our greenshirt brigade! However, prior to that, we heard his moving story of determination and survival from being a teenager in Afghanistan and his journey involving attempts to settle in Pakistan, being trafficked to Turkey, internment, kidnap, 36 hour secret shipment to Italy in a 3 ft crate, travel to Paris, internment in the Netherlands, attempts to get to Sweden…… in all about 10 years of struggle, living on the inspiration of his mother back home, his own evident resilience AND the bridging of the gaps in care and compassion which was providentially provided by the diakonia of the Church in Sweden.
Toleransprojektet – a model for meeting and preventing extreme intolerance and the creation of gangs. Christer had been a young teacher, one of the teenagers in his class had been typically idealistic with a solution to what he saw as the problems of society (sadly not untypical) being to keep Sweden for the Swedish; of course keep it racially white and avoid contact with foreign religions.
The teacher not unreasonably confronted this position as completely unacceptable in civilised society; the confrontation was powerful and the extremist lad went his own way. Only 20 years later did the two meet again, by chance, and the teacher learned that his confrontational attitude had forced the boy into neo-Nazi groups for almost all of those 20 years.
The presentation we were given provided an exploration of how best to address some of these issues which are re-emerging in our societies. This followed a model along the lines of ‘in each one of us there are two lives: the one we are living and the one inside us, the life we have not yet lived’. The diaconal work of the Tolerance Project follows the line of hope which endeavours to see, and let the ‘extremist’ discern, that other potential human life within him/herself which is creative.
The teacher, brought to this work by the experience he had after confronting the abhorrent attitudes in the teenager then meeting the lad as a grown man 20 years later, centres on recognising how easy it is to see just the Awful Other in someone with who you cannot agree, to resist that and try to build up the yet unlived life, the ‘real Me’ in that person. Then followed theoretical and practical explorations of the gang dynamic and how to de-fuse it.
Powerful stuff when you look at the news with repeated incidences of polarisation, but a diaconal work not amenable to a quick fix. It was suggested that this work requires 4 elements:
Fantasy – develop an imagination of the unlived life
Humour – to give energy and distance. How many fanatics do you know with a sense of humour?
Curiosity – create a space for criticism; ask questions; admit some questions remain unanswered.
The Bishop wound up the day with a reflection on human fragility. It had its basis in the frightening experience he had when attending a celebration with his wife, and realising that she was having what turned out to be a mini-stroke.
He wondered if a generally longer life expectancy tends to alienate us from our condition as humans, in that we forget our inherent fragility. He reminded us, with Psalm 90, that life is not robust, but fragile and – perhaps bearing in mind the Church’s diaconal vocation to serve – that it is the weak who notice that fragility first. Our inheritance as humans is our dignity which is not achieved, but Given; recognising this affects how we meet the Other in others, and recognising the fragility of life enables us to be neighbours: our shared vulnerability shows us Jesus Christ. Our common fragility helps us meet each other eye to eye, but also lets us see Christ. Human fragility, as well as dignity, is our inheritance and our hallmark. In our service and diakonia therefore, we must remember to boast “only in the Lord” (1Cor) and that God chooses the foolish to shame the wise.
A Post Script: later that night, after a good dinner, David is seen wandering back to the hotel along the canal. He comes across a church with an open door and light inside and reads on the Noticeboard that ‘St Andrew’s’ is an ANGLICAN church ! “Must take a look”, he thought. On peering inside, he sees a flickering red light above the altar, but suddenly out of the darkness from the left, a woman hurls herself in front of him, barring the way. “NO MEN!!” she cries. “But I only want to say a prayer”, the pilgrim from Possilpark replies, crossing himself (a little ostentatiously) to emphasise the point. “We’re running a prostitute Drop In Centre”, she then explained, more calmly. At which point the supposed prostitute escapes amid the altercation and lights a fag, disappearing down the street. Diakonia undone! Good questions for Possilpark – does it need a Church, or is it just about diakonia of service? Well it exercises my diaconate, but I won’t be appearing in a green clerical shirt, by the way!