Is the Catholic Church in danger of losing some of its most active, committed young members or are these young people paving the way for a new season of ecumenism?*

This week I learned of 14 young Catholics who individually plan to attend a service, conference or prayer meeting outside of their own denomination at the weekend.  This is not a one off occurence for a Churches Together initiative but something they do regularly.  Had I been specifically searching for Catholics who practise this sort of ecumenical worship in Britain the numbers would have been considerably higher.

In some cases it involves double servicing on a Sunday, perhaps attending Mass in the morning and a Protestant Church in the evening, for others it means participation in weekday prayer gatherings or teaching nights at an alternative Christian Church to their own. Ecumenism is encouraged by the Catholic Church, but in Britain are the Protestants the ones discipling the younger generations for them?

Amongst those in their teens, twenties and thirties there is an increasing eloquence when it comes to explaining Catholic Church teaching.  With the recent publication of the YouCat (Youth Catechism), the availability of Vatican documents online, and initiatives such as Catholic Voiceswho specifically train people in not only understanding but also articulating their faith to others, there has arisen a movement of parishonners who are confidently doing their own faith study. Some are proficient in Koine Greek and/or Hebrew, while others turn up at Church having prayed through the coming Sunday’s readings in advance.  Although they are pursuing personal study many are turning to the Protestant Church to get their needs met for deeper formation outside of a short 15 minute sermon in an hour long Mass.  They are getting access to internationally acclaimed preachers, discovering a sense of Community during the weekly Protestant homegroup/cell meetings and are experiencing new models of communal prayer alongside their own Sunday service with their parish priest.

The ecumenical insight of this ‘group’ is noteable: whilst keenly aware of their own roots, they are also knowledgeable about what is available to them in the Protestant world. Many could tell you about the latest Protestant prayer movements in the States (e.g. IHOP Prayer Movement), or who the leading Pentecostal evangelists are in Africa (Reinhard Bonnke) or Australia (Christine Caine) – they are reading their books, watching their preachings, getting spiritual food from it, all whilst being able to identify which elements to deliberate over or discard due to theological conflicts with their own beliefs.

These individuals who look to other Church traditions for formation and spiritual experiences to support them are spread geographically around the country, and don’t necessary know one another because there is no umbrella movement which unites them.  They might meet others in the same situation as them (being Catholic but benefitting from attendance at other Churches) at one of the many Catholic gatherings which take place throughout the year such as the Celebrate conferences, 40 Days for Life, Youth 2000 or in their University Chaplaincy, but beyond that the journey is a personal one. They are often readers, Eucharistic Ministers, youth workers, or those providing music ministry and catechisis for a parish. But is their turning to other Churches a sign that the Catholic Church is failing to meet the needs of the very people who keep it going at a grass roots level, or an indicator that there is a new move afoot of Church unity which will be characterised by greater tolerance, respect and understanding?

There was recently a Leadership Conference at the Royal Albert Hall which saw Christian leaders from all walks of life gather (around 4000 of them).  Although it was run by the Anglican HTB Church, they had a Catholic stream to the event.   Speakers such as Christopher West, of Theology of the Body fame, were flown in, as well as Catholic worship leader Matt Maher, along with ordained hierachy from France. This Protestant Church in London even has a global movement called Catholic Alpha which seeks to serve the needs of Catholic parishes worldwide in discipling their congregations in the basics of the faith.

They are not the only Protestants who are providing prayer and formation for the Catholic Church. In America the ‘One Thing’ conference taking place at the end of this year (which it is estimated will draw an attendance of around 25,000 young people) has a Catholic track supported by the Catholic University in Steubenville.  It’s founder Mike Bickle is sensitive to the needs of Catholics having grown up in the tradition himself.  Although now departed from the Church of Rome, he is said to encourage Christians from all backgrounds to read the lives of Catholic Saints such as St John of the Cross to learn from their prayer lives. So are Protestants doing a better job of providing for the needs of young Catholics than the Church herself?

Soul Survivor is an annual summer camp for young people in Britain, once again being one at which tens of thousands are in attendance. Testimonies pour in of lives changed and faith renewed as a result of the experiences of prayer, preaching and praise.  The man at the helm (Mike Pilavachi) had some of his early years formation in a charismatic Catholic prayer group in London.  Far from being anti-Catholic and trying to draw young people away from their Catholic roots, provision is being made at the camp to enable them to fully participate in the summer events programme.  For a number of years now Mass has been provided for those who require it as an alternative to the Protestant Communion service.

There are many lay movements in the Catholic Church which provide formation and prayer experiences, some of which have been alluded to in this piece, but perhaps the Catholic Church owes some gratitude to the Protestants who are giving some of their key workers the input they require to inspire and encourage them to keep going in their roles as evangelists and disciplers in the Church?

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

*Please note that this post is not based on statistical research but rather on obvservations I have made on what I see as a growing trend among Catholic young people. .
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My husband and I have been married for just over a year but some Christians believe that the sort of ‘solo dating’ we took part in prior to our wedding day is to be discouraged and frowned upon.  But what is it that we were doing wrong?

Before walking down the aisle we enjoyed one another’s company either on our own or with others.  We would sit in coffee shops chatting about our hopes for the future, take walks along the river, pray together or join our friends at Christian conferences.  From the start we agreed to a few guidelines for our pre-marital state, drawing on the wisdom of those we’d heard speak about this season of relationship – overall our aim was to keep God at the centre during this period of time.  I was surprised to learn that in some circles our behaviour would be seen as inappropriate because only group dates or accompanied ones are viewed as acceptable prior to marriage.

Far from being a fringe opinion held by a few strict parents to prevent their youngsters getting pregnant out of wedlock, it seems that the idea of group dating is held to be best practise in a number of Church communities, particularly in America.  If there is need for a couple to meet away from the crowd (perhaps to discuss marriage?) then it is expected that either a parent or responsible Church adult be in tow.

There is alot of negativity surrounding the concept of dating among American Christians with slogans such as ‘dating may cause heartbreak’ being used, but I have realised that their culture of ‘boy meet girl’ is vastly different from the British one.  Our approach to dating is probably more akin to what those in the States might refer to as ‘courtship’, namely that if a couple are dating they choose to be exclusive (not seeing multiple people at once), attempting to discern whether they are to be marriage partners in future or not.

Over the years I have heard stories of those who chose to save their first kiss for their wedding day, and of others who got engaged just a few weeks after meeting one another.  Some Christians say that it is a beautiful sign of commitment, love and purity to save your first kiss while others laugh it off as idiotic.  Some would call it irresponsible to get engaged too quickly while others would say that dating for too long can be unhealthy, yet both sides would profess to be Christian.  These tales serve as a reminder that every Christian couple is different.  Is it therefore possible to have one set of baseline ‘rules’ for everyone or could Churches simply offer guidelines to safeguard their congregations and then allow them to adapt the suggestions according to their circumstances?

I opened up the question of dating guidelines to the female listeners of the radio show I host and have summarised/compacted/edited their thoughts into ten points below.  Are these suggestions wacky or wise?

A Christian Woman’s Guide to Dating:

1. Stick to enjoying one another’s company in places where no overnight stay is required. Going on holiday just the two of you could place you in a compromising situation and also might not serve as the best witness if you are hanging out in one another’s rooms.  Single room supplements are expensive anyway!  If you really want to holiday together then find a group to go with, ideally made up of some single people so that it doesn’t get really coupley.

2. If you are alone together in a home or even if there are others around, then to protect yourselves from being too close physically keep the door open at all time regardless of which room you are in – it doesn’t matter whether you are in the kitchen or the bedroom, the same principle applies. (Some also suggested that you never lie down together anywhere.)

3. If kissing is full on then it can be unhelpful, so show respect to your potential future spouse by limiting physical expressions of love.  You will have all the time in the world to express yourself physically after marriage so ditch the ‘try before you buy’ mentality.

4. Hold off any physical expression of love for the first few months of dating.  Often a relationship gets clouded by and guided by the physical so focus on learning about each other without that distraction so as to build a healthy foundation.  If you break up after a couple of months there will be less heartache if you have not been physically connected.

5. Pray together.  If you can’t pray together when dating and offer your relationship to God then there’s not much hope you’ll do it when married.  Let God be the glue.

6. Be confident that God has the perfect husband (or wife) for you.  That way you won’t get tempted to date someone for the sake of it out of fear that no one else will come along.  This could mean that you avoid marrying someone who is second best and not quite right for you.  Be patient – easier said than done though!

7. Pray for your future spouse even while single and know that if you haven’t been asked out by someone yet it’s not because there is something wrong with you, God is just preserving you for the right person.

8. It is ok to dress to impress, particularly if you are a woman, but please cover up.  Eventually you’ll get wrinkles and sag, so if the relationship is founded largely on physical attraction what will hold you together when you are old? You want a man to date you and marry you for who you are inside not because you reveal too much cleavage, shoulder and leg, inticing him physically.

9. Introduce one another to your friends.  Living in an isolated bubble can go horribly wrong.  You want your future spouse to get on with your friends, but also if the relationship doesn’t work out you need your friends to support you, so if you neglect them and spend all the time with your dating partner you could come unstuck.

10. If you are pretty messed up at the moment it’s probably not the best time to get into a relationship.  Let God sort you out a bit rather than thinking a relationship will fix you.  To be a gift to another person requires getting as whole as you can be so you can be a blessing rather than a burden.  Only God can meet your needs, a man cannot!

So there you have it, all the suggestions rolled into ten top tips.  What do you make of the listeners’ ideas?

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

At which Christian event would you see a Pentecostal pastor sitting with a Catholic priest, a young trendy man in a skinny tie chatting to a gentleman in a bow-tie, and a lady in an evening dress conversing with a Bishop from the Coptic Orthodox Church?  Yes, it’s the Christian New Media Awards ceremony!

This year on World Communications Day, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the importance of us embracing the world of new media as Christians rather than getting left behind:

“Attention should be paid to the various types of websites, applications and social networks which can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning, as well as making space for silence and occasions for prayer, meditation or sharing of the word of God. In concise phrases, often no longer than a verse from the Bible, profound thoughts can be communicated, as long as those taking part in the conversation do not neglect to cultivate their own inner lives.”

Back in 2007 I stumbled across an underground world.  It was the year when Twitter was pretty much unknown in the UK and Facebook was in it’s infancy, predominantly being used by University students.  I had started writing a blog which mainly consisted of simple daily reflections from a faith perspective composed during the morning commute.  Writing the posts was not particularly life transforming but the people I met through it were.  My eyes were opened to a movement of Christians around the world who were encouraging, supporting and even counselling one another through the medium of the internet.  After several months I came to realise that there were a few Churches and Christian organisations who had a dominating presence online through use of blogs and websites – they knew the importance of using new media to reach young people and even unbelievers with the Gospel message.  However there were many who were stuck back in the 90’s with primative websites (if they had a site at all) and I was determined to do my bit to change that!

The original concept was to hold a ceremony at which those who were doing a great job in the digital world in the UK could be both encouraged and commended, mainly because no one was giving them any recognition.  The dream was that anyone who was lagging behind in the area would then be inspired to take advantage of the opportunity presented by new media, having seen the way that others were modelling it as a tool for witness or discipleship.  After a few months of working out the logistics the ‘Christian Blog and Web Awards’ were birthed (now the Christian New Media Awards).  The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, attended the first gathering along with around 100 other people for a three course meal complete with live music and an awards ceremony.  During his address the Bishop nicknamed the event ‘The Bloggies’, something which has stuck to this day!

Next Friday, 19th October 2012 marks the 6th awards ceremony at Skinner’s Hall in London where the entrance gate reads ‘To God only be all glory’!  I have seen the embargoed list of winners and runners up which I think contains a few surprises.  The judges have made their decisions but whether we agree with the outcome or not, hopefully greater unity between believers will occur as well as greater emphasis upon new media as a method of spreading the Gospel.

Only the finalists make it to the black tie event but a new addition in the last two years has been the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards night, and anyone can attend that!  It’s an inspiring gathering for digitally minded believers who come together to share ideas, theology and more.  (You can book on here: www.christiannewmedia.com)

New media is a gift if used wisely.  We have the ability to influence thousands of people through a tweet or a video but may our aim be to point people to God and glorify Him rather than glorifying ourselves. “To God only be all glory!”

©Maria Rodrigues-Toth

p.s. Video from the awards and podcasts from the conference will be available online afterwards. Watch this space!

“When are you two going to get married?” can fast turn into “so when are you starting a family?”, but for many people their dream of becoming a parent never becomes a reality. Although technically you won’t be tested for infertility until after a whole year of trying for a child, questions can arise even after 6 months.

Mags* is in her late twenties.  She got married young.  Her and her husband decided to wait a few years before starting a family, but they were met with a brick wall when the time came.  A number of years has now elapsed.  She is confused but clinging to God.  On the one hand she blames herself for waiting and not being open from the start, on the other hand she can’t close the chapter marked ‘baby’ because she doesn’t know whether one might unexpectedly come along down the line.  She is walking into a future marked ‘unknown’, secretly hopeful but not wanting to get her hopes up too much so as not to put her life on hold whilst waiting.  She admits that sometimes she cries herself to sleep over the situation.

It is not just married couples who go through the challenge of wondering if they will ever become parents, single men and women are faced with the same query.  Katie* always dreamed of being a mother, but she has now gone past the age of 40 with no sign of Mr Right on the horizon.  She is bubbly, dynamic, faith-filled and beautiful, yet she has come to accept that if she ever has children it will have to be through adoption.  Katie says there is nothing wrong with adopting but that she has had to go through a painful grieving process in order to reach a place where she accepts that her bloodline will probably stop with her.

Young girls grow up often assuming that it is their right to be able to have children if they want to, so chatter takes place about the number of boys and girls they would like to have.  Some women pick out potential names for their desired dream team only to discover that Prince Charming hasn’t come along in time or that the life she hoped to have with him isn’t unfolding like the fairytale she imagined.  There are people who tell me that their first child came along ‘too quickly’ or their baby was ‘unplanned’.  When I hear these claims I am reminded of those at the opposite end of the spectrum who are hitting disappointment month after month when signs of the woman’s monthly period arrives in place of a positive pregnancy test.

Increasingly couples labelled as infertile (unless a miracle occurs) are coming into my path.  What many of them have in common is a sense of guilt for being upset about it.  We know that God can come through with a miracle even after a long wait – Abraham and Sarah are classic examples of that with her becoming pregnant when she describes her womb as being ‘good as dead’ – but when the life you thought you were going to have doesn’t come to fruition it can be challenging.  Perhaps we need to create a culture within our Churches where we tell people that it is ok to grieve, whether that be for the loss of a loved one or the loss of fertility, rather than thinking that because we are believers we need to have it together all the time.

Everyone goes through struggles during the course of their life, many of which are unknown to the people around them, but the question we can put to ourselves during those dark moments is whether we will allow the tough experiences to crush us or make us.  Will we let God use the hard stuff to mould us into someone more compassionate with an increased capacity to receive His love or not?

A thought:  If we have God then we have everything we need.

A prayer: Lord, we ask you to be the strength we need in our times of weakness. Be with all those who are hurting or suffering in secret this day. Give us your heart of compassion and use us as a channel of your healing love. Amen

Resources:

1. HTB Church (sorry if you are not in London) run a course called ‘Waiting for Children’. The course title is one of hope and expectancy rather than closing a door because of a label you have been given. If you or anyone you know is in that place of waiting or struggling with fertility issues perhaps take a look:

http://www.htb.org.uk/whats-on/courses/waiting-children

2. There is also a book written by two Christian women who had different outcomes to their fertility journey. It is called ‘Just the two of us?’ by Eleanor Margesson and Sue McGowan:

                                                          Just the two of us?

Also a book by Rosemary Morgan called ‘Living With Infertility – a Christian Perspective’:

rosemary

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

*Real names have not been used

Are you happy?   If you had to fill out a form right now and tick the box that best reflects your state of mind what would you choose:

1. Yes, I am content 

2. I am partially content

3.  No, I am not content

Recently I came across a survey which stated that 99% of people in a particular life situation claimed to be happy – a shockingly high figure!*  So who are this group of seriously happy people?  At first I wondered if stay at home mums were the happy bunch, enjoying the satisfaction of rearing their children themselves rather than leaving them in daycare.  Then I remembered that those who have family around often score more highly in polls for contentment levels, but it turns out that neither of my considerations were the category of people whom this questionnaire had been targeted at.  The group under scrutiny had been adults with Down Syndrome, and nearly all of them had said that they were content with their life.

José Omar is in his twenties and hails from Venezuela.  Although he was born with Down Syndrome he has forged a career as a musical conductor, reaching the point where he is taken seriously enough in the profession to be allowed to conduct the Children’s Symphony Orchestra for his country.  That is more than some musically talented young men without DS achieve!  He is happy with his life.

Until last week I knew very little about the capability levels of those who are born with this condition, but as October is Down Syndrome awareness month I thought I would try to understand it a bit more.  I was humbled and surprised to discover that many adults with DS live on their own, hold down jobs, graduate with academic qualifications, do all their own housework and even get married.

A campaign was launched in America called ‘WE’RE MORE ALIKE THAN DIFFERENT’, highlighting that those with Down Syndrome have dreams and aspirations just like anyone else.  [The video at the end provides a brief but moving compilation of stories.]  It is not all about career success though.  Many adults and children with Down Syndrome have a unique ability to bring joy to an entire room full of people in a way that those of us without DS would struggle to do.  One lady who is involved in raising awareness said,

I wish that parents would stop giving up on the kids and assuming that because they have a disability that they can’t do things”.

Powerful words.

On average around 75% of women who discover that their child could be born with Down Syndrome terminate the pregnancy**.  I wonder if raising awareness of how happy many of those with DS are will see a shift in society’s attitude towards them, giving them the opportunity not only to live but to show the world just how capable they are.

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

* I acknowledge that no survey is fully accurate but they can very often give us an indicator or guide of a trend.

** Of 9 hospital-based studies conducted in 6 American states between 1995-2011, selective terminations for Down syndrome ranged between 60-90%, with the average at 85%, so figures vary dependant upon state and country.

A group of teenage boys were shocked when they viewed the before and after shot of the girl at the top of this post – they couldn’t believe the impact that some make-up and hair straighteners could have on someone!

It is encouraging that young girls are increasingly becoming aware that the images they see on billboards, in newspapers or on magazine covers are vastly different from how the subjects look when they get out of bed in the morning, but I am concerned that the focus of our attention has been exclusively on girls to the neglect of how our airbrushing culture is impacting young men.  Youth-workers, teachers, parents and campaigners on self esteem issues are to be applauded for the roles they have all played in getting the message of body image out into the public arena but I believe another step needs to be taken.

Not all the young men growing up in today’s world are ignorant of the transformation tools available to women, but I think we owe it to them to ensure that these husbands and fathers of the future are made aware that the models they see (or avert their eyes from) on the side of buses are largely computer generated.  Why?  a) so that when a wife begins to sag, increase in wrinkles and lose her natural hair colour the husband is still content in his marriage because he loves his wife for who she is inside, b) so that when a man is looking for a wife he doesn’t have the unrealistic physical expectations of an airbrushed woman and c) finally, because a woman wants to be loved for who she is when she gets out of bed in the morning, not just for who she can become after a highly skilled make-up artist has done their work or the computer has airbrushed out any perceived ‘imperfections’.

The Dove Campaign* went a long way to explain the message of how a woman can be turned into a supermodel with a few studio lights, some foundation, blusher and eye shadow, thrown in with a bit of airbrushing, but once again the target audience was predominantly women.  Whilst the slogans such as, ‘talk to your daughter before the beauty industy does’ are important, where are the campaigns which say ‘a woman is for life not just for the Christmas party’ or ‘a woman is beautiful even when she wears no make up’ which are targeted at boys?

If we care about the next generation of men let’s inform them that while a girl may look beautiful on the outside, if you marry her she won’t always look glamourous.  While physical attraction is important, what will last for a lifetime is a woman’s character.

“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised..” -Proverbs 31:30

p.s. A mother contacted me after reading this to share that she has now shown the image at the top of this post to her sons who are 12 yrs and 15 yrs old.  They have chatted about the two photographs, serving as a reminder that education begins in the home. Thank you for reading.

©Maria Rodrigues-Toth

*

Image
If you watched television footage around the time of Gadaafi’s death you would no doubt have noticed an incredibly brave woman in the thick of the Libyan civil war. While many journalists maintained a safe distance from the fighting we saw reporter Alex Crawford in a bullet proof vest and helmet keeping us up to date with the story as it unfolded. Afterwards we learned that her children sat at home watching on TV, texting her throughout the story and making fun of how grubby she looked due to lack of showering! Alex went on to win awards for being a voice back to Britain. However few realise that this multi-award winning foreign correspondent, who this year was awarded an OBE by the Queen, only landed her dream job in recent years. After applying for numerous posts around the world and not securing any of them apparently a close friend suggested she get the hint and abandon all pursuit of her dream job.

As many young people this summer receive their A, A-S level or GCSE results, not forgetting degree grading, it can be encouraging to hear stories of how people made it in spite of their failures. Winston Churchill failed at school yet went on to become Prime Minister and I have a friend who didn’t get high enough grades to study Medicine so took a year out to retake but has gone on to work as a surgeon. Peter messed up when he denied any affiliation with Christ three times, but in spite of this still went on to lead the Church of his time. The question is not whether we fail but how we respond to it.  Will we let it make us or break us?

Don’t give up because you could be one step away from your breakthrough!

©Maria Rodrigues-Toth

Rebecca’s* parents tried to drown her in the bath when she refused to marry the man they had lined up for her.  She was grabbed by the hair and had her head dunked below water, leaving her gasping for breath. A violent wrestle saw her set free but she knew she had to escape her childhood home, so Rebecca ran away. She could have ended up in the hands of traffickers, pimps, paedophiles or drug dealers but angels must have been guiding her because she ran into the hands of local police officers who offered her protection from the family members who were trying to track her down.  When I heard what had happened I was surprised to learn that this had taken place in the UK.

The conflict all began when Rebecca had refused to marry a man she didn’t really know and certainly didn’t love. She explained that forced marriages are happening regularly in this country but that many of us British citizens are oblivious to it. Recently news of a young girl being forced into marriage hit headlines, highlighting that many minors are being paired up with men much older than them whilst they are still of school age.  It is estimated that around 8,000 women a year are forced into a marriage against their will in Great Britain, but if they rebel the consequences can be disasterous.

Rebecca recounted how at a young age she was taken on holiday and introduced to a man old enough to be her grandfather, who barely spoke English.  He was considered to be a potential suitor but much to Rebecca’s relief the match did not go ahead. It was when her parents made a second attempt at finding her a husband that she found herself threatened with death for refusing to consent.  The man in question was the same age as Rebecca and living in the same country, but she didn’t want to marry him. The words ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ littered our conversation as she tried to explain how a child’s failure to comply with their parents wishes results in the family being shunned by other members of their Community.

David Cameron made a bold move recently when he spoke out about this issue saying, “Forced marriage is abhorrent and is little more than slavery. To force anyone into marriage against their will is simply wrong and that is why we have taken decisive action to make it illegal”. It is a pivotal moment in history when our Prime Minister announces his desire to criminalise the practice of forced marriage in England & Wales, following Scotland’s lead.  2012 will be an historic year if the plans go ahead.  The goal is to protect ‘victims’ of the practice and could see some parents imprisoned for making their children enter wedlock with consent.

Freedom to choose who you want to marry is a beautiful gift, but sadly one that many people don’t have. It is universally accepted, regardless of race, culture and religion, that it is wrong is to force any human being to do something against their will, so may we care enough to be moved to spread the word about the proposed new legislation (to ensure that it becomes a reality) and pray:

Lord, we pray for an end to the violation of the human rights of all people. We pray for all those involved in the process of making forced marriage illegal – grant them wisdom as they implement new laws to protect the vulnerable.  May all men and women have the freedom to choose who they marry. Amen.

Today Rebecca is a radiant, smiley woman, so until she opens her mouth to share her story you have no idea of the trauma she has been through.  Her difficult background is now bearing fruit as she uses her new found Christian faith to support other girls who have disobeyed a family call to marry someone, sharing with them the power and healing in forgiveness. Whilst most of the focus on forced marriages is on the plight of the women who are subjected to it, Rebcecca is keen for us to acknowledge that many of the men involved are also in a vulnerable situation.

If you or someone you know needs help please visit this Government page: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/when-things-go-wrong/forced-marriage/information-for-victims

*name changed

©Maria Rodrigues-Toth

Imagine reaching 5 years old and being taken to a secret destination by your mother, whilst other children in your town or village are tucked up in bed.  When you arrive at the assigned location you are made to lie down.  A stranger or other family member holds you in place as a searing pain hits you down below.  The woman who brought you into the world has either cut your private parts or sewn them together.  She holds no surgical qualifications but performs the act anyway, perhaps using a sharp piece of glass or a knife.

Female Genital Mutilation is happening in 2012 but is closer than you might think – in fact, it could be happening in your own street!

Sammy* is one of the estimated 100,000  ‘survivors’ thought to be living in the UK (far more per square mile than in the US where it is estimated that 230,000 have been through FGM).  With water in her eyes she explained to me that the procedure she went through could have been fatal: her childhood friend died as a result of haemorraging.  Hearing how Sammy herself was held down by her mother, as her aunt sliced her with a razor blade in Somalia was shocking to listen to.  The procedure took place in some bushes and she reported that she felt like she ‘was going to die’, such was the pain.  The graphic details she gave of having to push material onto the wound to halt the bleeding when she was pre-school age, not to mention the consequential inability to stand up after the practice had been carried out, was almost too much to absorb.  In Somalia the average age for FGM is just 5 years old but in some places it is even younger.  I couldn’t help gulping as she told about me what she has endured.

Not long into our conversation I got the sense that the UK is probably not immune from such a practices and, sadly, my hunch was right.  It seems that as we go about our daily routines of school runs, commutes to the office and shopping trips, we are passing girls who live in fear of FGM happening to them, as well as those who have already been ‘under the knife’.  A researcher told me that it is estimated around ‘2,000 girls’ went through FGM in this country last year alone.  Apparently the trend used to be that parents would fly their daughters to African countries to get them ‘done’, but as the Government caught wind of it and tried to prevent such trips being made a new strategy was adopted.  Over the past years it seems there has been a rise in the number of families clubbing together to pay to fly someone over to perform ‘cutting parties’ at which the girls are lined up to be on the receiving end of FGM.  This is something which could be happening in the house next door to you!

The expert I spoke to told me that the practionners are not all flown in: some families attempt to carry out FGM themselves but she added (as if it were common knowledge) that, ‘it can also be done in Harley Street for a fee’.  It is worth clarifying that FGM is illegal in the UK, but as no prosecutions have been made here, London is now seen across Europe as the place to send your daughter to be cut rather than Africa because there is no fear of getting caught.

Whilst some girls will be dealing with the common challenge of monthly period pain this summer holiday, other young teens will be using the time away from school to experience and then recover from something which can only be labelled as a traumatic violation of human rights.  Sometimes a hole no bigger than a grain of rice is left, and the woman is expected to both urinate and menstruate through it!

What are we Christians doing about it?  Are we even aware that there are girls in our local schools, perhaps attending the same sporting activities as our own children, who live in fear of an overseas circumcisor turning up?  As believers our call is not just to gather together to pray but to impact our Communities practically, to be a voice for those who are unable to speak out.  If there are women on the streets where we live who are in fear of being taken to a ‘cutting party’, what is our response?  May we a) be moved to intercede for them & b) spread the word.  Let’s be the change together!

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ ..- Matthew 25:35-40

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*Name changed.

Since writing this post I have been informed that BBC2 Newsnight will be broadcasting a programme on this issue 23rd July 2012

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

I wasn’t sure what to expect when a reminder popped up on my computer screen saying that it was just 15 minutes until I was due to interview Zee*, a former sex worker.  She was probably anxious as well, wondering how she would be received, having experienced extensive verbal abuse from local residents during her 10 years working on the streets, not to mention one incident of almost being killed.

A smiley, small-framed, youthful looking woman met me in reception.  She seemed a little nervous, but was very accommodating and polite.  After a short time we found ourselves discussing the gritty reality of what happens when you have an addiction to heroin, the drug which took this former school governor onto the streets to sell her body, resulting in her regularly being arrested and having to live in bin sheds.

When I asked, she couldn’t work out how many men she had ‘serviced’ during her stint as a prostitute but estimated that it would have been ‘hundreds, probably thousands’, grimacing to herself in disgust as she tried to count.  She has been through a lot in her decade as a prostitute and considers herself to have got off lightly with ‘only 20 rapes’ and some ‘broken ribs’, suggesting that she could have had it far worse.  Many of the girls who worked the same streets used to call her ‘mum’ because she was older than them.  Hearing about 16 year old girls, who are of an age to be sitting GCSE exams, hanging around our cities ready to jump in a car with a man was sobering.

When Zee still lived in a home (rather than in garages or behind dustbins) her only daughter was taken from her because she had allowed groups of drug takers into the house.  She quickly qualified the statement by reassuring me that the ‘druggies’ were never in the same room as the young girl.  It was a situation far removed from the life Zee used to have when she had a daily commute into the city wearing a suit.  Casual drug taking had spiralled out of control and heroin was ruling her every decision.

Deep remorse was conveyed through her eyes as she told me how she had let her daughter down.  Recently Zee celebrated a year of being clean but, even so, she still sees no signs of her daughter being willing to reconcile with her.  Their only form of communication is an occasional letter.  She seems to accept that the pain and hurt takes time to heal, constantly repeating the phrase, ‘God’s will, not my will’ during our chat.

As our conversation unfolded she littered the interview with references to prayer and theological concepts like free will, so I asked where that understanding had come from.  When Zee was working nights a group of women from local Churches had been out on the streets offering support to people like her.  Rather than holding placards of condemnation or lining the women up for stoning, these believers had offered free drinks, snacks and toiletries.  What was their motivation?  To show these ladies that they are loved and that someone cares about them.  It was a night when free goodie bags were being handed out that Zee told me she had chased after the women to get one, and it was then she got told that God loves her.  That encounter was one of a series of encounters which helped her get her life back on track.

Not all sex workers are in the industry because of drug addiction.  Tessa* was groomed from an early age by her father to make money for him, and was sent out as a teenager to hang around on street corners to attract attention.  Others have been tricked into thinking that they are being given a good job only to find themselves caught up in a network of traffickers.  Zee was her own boss, reporting that it was ‘easy enough’ to get started once you knew where the red light districts areas were.  She shared how she began by having some boundaries in place, such as only allowing herself to be with a man in a car, but desperation for drug money quickly caused her to let her guard down.  Going into clients homes was dangerous and risky, so if a ‘customer’ refused to pay she explained that she would put up a fight for a short while before running for her life – forsaking her £20.  I learnt that if you are in this industry getting beaten up is to be expected as part of the course.

Did she find the experience degrading?  Zee’s honesty with me was humbling.  She quietly explained, almost whispering, that her self esteem was rock bottom and that she dislikes her body.  Only now the emotional and psychological wounds are starting to surface in her life because previously she had been numb to what was going on because of the drugs.  She admits that she is on a journey, attending Church regularly, and praying that ‘God’s will, not my will’ prevails, but that the process of recovery will take time.

As Christians we are called to stand against injustice, to protect the vulnerable, to be a voice for the voiceless, to house the orphan and bring hope to those in despair, but to do so with love.  Jesus demonstrated this when the woman who was caught in adultery was jeered at and threatened with being stoned to death for her act.  His response was profound and controversial: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  (John 8:7).

Prayer: Lord, may we see others through Your eyes, may our words and actions be driven by love and a desire to see all people living life to the full.  Amen.

Inspiring quote: “Prostitution does injury to the dignity of the person who engages in it, reducing the person to an instrument of sexual pleasure”. (2355 Catechism)

*Names changed.

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©Maria Rodrigues-Toth