I’m a bit worried about this post. I hope I’ve expressed myself properly.
I love religion. There, I’ve said it. I found it fascinating, for example, to visit here recently: http://gurunanakdarbar.org/?option=com_contact&view=contact&id=1&Itemid=49
and I really love this book, which I first encountered as a teenager. It was so interesting for me, a girl in a very devout Catholic world, to read the prayers of other traditions.
I love meeting other people and finding out about their religious traditions and beliefs. If I had the money, I’d love to do a degree in religious studies to learn more about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and lots of other faiths. I also find it v interesting to talk to those who are agnostic or atheist – I think it is good to encounter other people’s opinions and world views, and to challenge our mutual prejudices. I think online and in the media we are constantly exposed to negative stereotypes about many things – and one of these is religion. Narrow minded, ignorant or violent bigots and terrorists claim to speak on behalf of Islam or Christianity or any number of other faiths, and I worry that people seem to accept these self-appointed spokespeople and their skewed take on religion as the final word. A religious perspective, in these terms, would seem to be in direct opposition to any commitment to diversity. Religion is linked to homophobia, misogyny and hatred. I worry that because of this, if I tell someone I am religious, all sorts of bad things will be associated with me. At best I will be seen as unthinking or plain stupid, at worst narrow minded and judgemental and hate-filled. But this, I would maintain, is a form of prejudice too.
I accept that many awful things have been done and are being done in the name of many things – one of which is religion – and there are genuine issues about religious morality and ethics which may seem at times to work against diversity. Diversity isn’t necessarily easy, as I said in a post before. But I’d like to say that’s not the whole story. I think religion and diversity are two words which can go together very well.
I am religious. Yesterday, 18th February 2015, was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. I am a Roman Catholic. My husband, who is a teacher, and my three youngest children, all teenagers, and my 87 year old dad, and I all went to Ash Wednesday mass in our local Catholic church. It was midday, and I didn’t expect there to be many people there. It was packed. Standing room only. I looked about and what I saw and heard really moved me. There were about 500 people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. It amazed me and made me want to write about it.
Yesterday, in church, what struck me was the sheer diversity of people there, firstly in terms of age. There were elderly people, but there were also middle aged workers on lunch break, younger people in their twenties, students from the university, teenagers, school children, toddlers and babies. There were LOTS of children. There were also people in my church from all sorts of educational and economic backgrounds who each have an equal place. There is an MP, but he worships along side a homeless man who wears a fancy dress native american head dress and a kilt and carries a set of bagpipes he cannot play. There are families of Irish travellers, there are nurses, lawyers, building labourers and cleaners, unemployed people, students, doctors and dentists, office workers and university lecturers and shop workers and clerical workers and teachers. There are fashionable and dowdy, fit and unfit, rich and poor. I love this.
The priest who led the service is our young Nigerian curate. He is fantastic, full of sincerity and love. At least a third of the people there were from other countries – yesterday there were lots of families from India, for example. I recognised some of the nurses – male and female- who had looked after my elderly mother when she was ill, and they came with their young children. There were people from Africa and the Caribbean, and the Philippines, and I know there were Polish, Romanians and French. I expect there were Portugese, Italian, German and Irish there too. I imagine a number of the people there were tourists on holiday, and we often have visitors from the United States.
We have a loop system for those with hearing problems in our church, and there are always a number of mobility scooters and walking frames in the aisles. One lovely elderly lady I see at mass regularly drives up to the front on her mobility scooter and promptly falls asleep through most of the service, then she wakes up, gives a beautiful smile and drives off again. A nurse from the Philippines who, after working for years in our local hospital, had a catastrophic stroke affecting her speech and mobility, comes to mass in her electronic wheelchair. I was struck yesterday by a young man with a dramatically stark metallic artificial leg who walked up with his little daughter to receive the ashes. People from the local L’Arche community of people with learning difficulties and their assistants regularly worship in our church. I know of at least two people with a diagnosis of dementia in our church and I am sure there are people with all sorts of hidden disabilities and terminal and chronic illnesses and health worries amongst the congregation – some I will know – some I will never know – but I know that the people there will be praying to God about them.
There is a notice board and post it notes at the back of the church for people to write prayers on. They are left on display so that all the rest of the people can read them and pray too. The subjects are very moving – young soldiers about to go to war zones, asylum seekers begging for refuge, people suffering from cancer, people feeling isolated and lonely, students sitting exams, people who have had miscarriages, or who need a job, or a home, or who are asking for forgiveness. There are thank you prayers too – for work, for love, for health. There are a million plots for a million novels, for adults and, I believe, for children. There is yellow food bank bin at the back of the church. There are envelopes to put money in for overseas aid. There is a collecting box for the St Vincent de Paul Society, which helps families with financial problems. In various parts of the church there are candle stands, and people rush to them after mass (and sometimes, distractingly, during it!). You hear the sound of the money falling in the box, and you look to see someone standing, a candle in their hand, praying. It is unselfconscious and beautiful and often very moving. This is part of contemporary children’s reality – not all children’s – but a sizeable amount.
I don’t want to airbrush this. I know there will be challenges in reconciling the concerns of a literature reflecting many aspects of diversity in our modern world, and reflecting truthfully the values of often very conservative religions, but I think that makes this challenge for writers all the more worthwhile. This is the world in which I grew up and in which I see other children growing up and I don’t have the impression that there are many – if any – mainstream children’s novels being published today which show a positive view of a contemporary child praying within a religious tradition. I’d love to know if there are – so please let me know any recommendations.
I know that on my own journey to publication I have been told by different people to avoid writing books with religious child characters as they would be unlikely to be taken on by current mainstream UK publishers. I wonder if this is true – and if it is, what that says about commitment to true diversity. I’d really like to see more children’s novels published – and write some of them myself – that are set in today’s world and have a positive view of religion – not to try to make non- religious children religious – but in the interest both of creating a world another group of underrepresented children can see themselves in, and in introducing it to others who do not know it. I think, in this world of tensions and misunderstanding and intolerance, that it could be a real way to increase empathy and respect and understanding between those children who experience life as members of a religion, many of whom are from racial minorities, and those who don’t.