This morning I did something I haven’t done since I left South Ribble: I led a school assembly. But this time, I was not going into a Methodist, Anglican, or Catholic school, but into a Muslim school in Blackburn. I have had little, if any, contact with Muslims. I may have met one or two while at the University of South Carolina, but I’ve never spent any real time with them. I certainly haven’t been the only Christian in a group of Muslims before. When asked why, I simply say I haven’t had the opportunity to meet any (I don’t think there is a lot of Muslims in South Carolina) and since being in the ministry, I have lived in the ‘Christian Ghetto’ where I don’t meet many outside Christianity, much less anyone of another faith. My anxiety levels were up, but not for any of the reasons I just mentioned. I feel quite incompetent when speaking in front of primary school children! I simply don’t often get the opportunity and I feel as if I talk over their heads. So, I get nervous.
On a suggestion from Maggie, our friend and sometimes commenter on my blog, I used the Christian festivals to present the Christian faith. April helped me map out my talk (and removing my big theological words for ones that primary school children could understand). I focused on Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Advent, giving a summary of each of the major points of Christian belief. I did not go into the Trinity, but focused on Jesus as God’s son. I took with me a wooden cross, three palm crosses, and my chalice and paten (it is Maundy Thursday, after all!). I dressed in my preaching gown and brought my stoles that correspond to the colours of the Christian seasons and festivals.
I arrived at the school at the school in plenty of time. I waited in the office while the deputy went to find the head teacher. A few curious passers-by peaked in on me, got a few questions from one of the adults with a pleasant conversation, and then three year one (Kindergarten age) boys popped in to see who I was. They seemed delighted I was there and wanted me to come to their classroom. I said they would have to talk to their teacher and they dashed away. It was a great welcome.
The junior school kids (year three to year six, or 2nd grade to 5th grade age) were assembling in. As I set up, already the questions began coming at me. Was I from America? Was a priest? What’s my name? What’s that cup and plate? What is that cross made out of [the Palm crosses from this past Sunday]? I tried to answer them, and asked them some questions. I got dressed into the robe and stole and they told me they like that better than just the suit. Then the deputy head began the assembly with a ‘call and response’ opening in Aramaic. It was beautiful to watch. Even though I couldn’t tell what they were saying, it was amazing to watch them take this early step into learning their faith. After that, I was introduced and came forward. I asked the group if they were doing good today and most said yes while one little boy said shouted, ‘No!’ I asked why not. He said, ‘It’s parent’s night!’ The other kids and I laughed and I thought, ‘Well, they are definitely children like any other.’ Not that I was surprised.
I went through my talk, asking them what they already knew about each of the festivals and most of it had to do with the popular notions of cultural Christmas or Easter. They were all very interested and rarely am I listened to as close as that. I asked them about fasting and they told me about fasting during Ramadan. I then tried to explain the quaint notion of fasting in Lent without making it sound like the western church has more or less given it up! Unfortunately, I went over and could only answer a couple of questions. They wanted to know what chocolate eggs had to do with Easter (I gave the ‘new life’ answer). When I got the same about bunnies, I said that had nothing to do with Easter and was a ploy by Cadbury’s to sell chocolate. By the end, I was enjoying myself.
Then the head came up and she asked would I stay for the infants (the younger children). I nervously said yes, and she said, ‘They really want you to talk to them.’ I just needed to make it shorter. So, I did. I talked about Jesus and Easter and the bible and they listened, too. Then they got to ask questions, which I had more time for this time. They asked some really good questions. One little boy asked, ‘How do Christians pray?’ I said it was different for all Christians, but we all have the Lord’s Prayer in common and explained that it was a prayer Jesus gave us when his disciples asked him how to pray. Then I gave them the words. Another child followed up and asked about positions when we pray. I said there is no standard some kneel others simply sit. I saw the head place her hands together, and I quickly said that when we are young, we are taught to put our hands together.
For both groups, I put a Methodist spin on things when I showed them Hymns & Psalms and said Methodists believe singing is very important and that it is one of the ways we learn about God. Then, I broke out into ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today!’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. The head teacher said that will be what the kids will always remember – me singing!
At the end of each talk, I told each group that I didn’t know much about Islam and that maybe sometime they could teach me about their faith. They all said they would.
After the assembly, I had coffee with the head and a few staff members as we spent the time sharing. They told me it was the best Christian talk they had heard, and I was quite relieved. We discussed many things, talking about faith in Britain, the misunderstandings of each other’s faiths, and how the school is trying to teach the children about being open to other religions. I shared with them how I thought it was so beautiful the way they began the assembly with the opening, which led to a great discussion about Christian and Muslim approach to prayer.
We ended our time by scheduling a time for the children to come to my church and see what it’s like. I think we all agreed we would like to keep up this relationship, and perhaps I will be invited back to their classes. It simply was a wonderful experience and one I enjoyed with the children and the adults.