Being among people as ourselves

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Being among people as ourselves: a lay pioneer’s journey in mission with Pagans

by Emma Moreton

As I think about the subject of spiritual but not religious it seems quite fitting that I am in a field alongside a couple of hundred other festival traders setting up their pitches for The Sussex Faerie Festival.

My stall, The Henna and Hat Lady, specialises in handmade Steampunk, Gothic alternative hats and headdresses and bespoke henna tattoos. Tomorrow, in excess of 2,000 people will arrive with wings and glittery faces ready for a weekend of music, friendship, creativity and probably a fair amount of alcohol.

Among the traders offering handmade goods there are a multitude of spiritual readers and experiential workshops with shamanic drumming, wand making and the like. On arriving at the festival we were handed a bunch of Magical Times magazines and Faerie passports. On flicking briefly through the magazines there are articles on “Spells and charms”, “Old craft for a new generation”, “The Wise woman”, “My tribe”, “Animal totems and the gemstone kingdom”, “Your inner therapist”, “Sun magic”, “Healing plants of the ancient druids”, “Chakras – our emotional centres of being”, “The art of living a magikal life”, “Magical power words”, and other such titles. These titles indicate that there is a search and a hunger for meaning for there to be more than the everyday realities most of us live with.

There is an undeniable gulf between that which is viewed as “religion” – in very simplistic terms meaning the structured institution and culture of church and Christianity – and “spiritual”, which is less bound by rules, rigidity and traditions, more inclusive, tolerant and “alive”.

A druid friend of mine who runs a local Grove [1] responded to my asking him his thoughts on what it means to be spiritual not religious: “To put simply? To me, religion is organised like a church, mosque, etc. There are leaders and an established set of beliefs that you follow. A spiritual path is perhaps more fluid. As a Pagan on the Druid path I consider myself on a spiritual journey but I have no religion. You can be spiritual and not religious. You can also be religious and spiritual. They are not exclusive. Spirituality is your journey and how you follow your beliefs. Religion is a set of beliefs.”

Bridging the gulf

Working with people of other faith paths and spiritualities requires great sensitivity and authenticity. It involves being willing to dance in the gap between worlds that struggle to connect and loving people as friends. Our friends who may describe themselves as spiritual not religious can be very suspicious of “the institution”. We have spent hours listening to people talking about their historic struggle with “church” and it seems most people would discount the Christian faith in terms of not being spiritually alive, vibrant and inclusive. There is rather large a gulf to bridge here.

If we are looking as Christians to meaningfully engage with people who are on other faith paths the key is connection. People want to know they are respected, heard and valued as they are. For example, with Pagans it is rare to hear anything being imposed. This is mainly due to there being no written creed or rules as such. It is much more about togetherness and various threads of belief and practice being woven together to form an inclusive and diverse picture.

People have a very sharp radar as to whether someone is genuinely interested in them and offering friendship and connection or whether they looking to impose something on them as an evangelistic target. My husband and I have worked for over 30 years with people who may roughly come under the umbrella of “Pagan”. This word can incorporate a broad range of spiritualities and faith paths. For ease, I will refer to “Pagan” unless specifying a particular group.

Our journeying and connection with the Pagan community in the UK tends to raise two reactions. The first (most common one) is the eyebrow raising and brow furrowing among certain Christian groups and individuals who look at where we go, who we hang out with and how we look, and come to certain conclusions. The second group, however, are those who look on and ask how we do it and how to connect with a group of people so outside of the church. Our response is that we are not going into anything with an agenda. We genuinely love these folks, we want to hang out with them and it is a mutual friendship.

When we were at Bible College (about 26 years ago) there were various courses on evangelism. It was quite noticeable that most of these courses would present a formula or programme which would maybe use a set of questions or something similar as a tool to engage people to talk about God. I have to confess this always felt very alien and uncomfortable as our gut feeling is that connecting with people is about actual real relationship. I can’t bear it when I get religious door knockers or am accosted on the street by people either putting the fear of God and hell in people or trying to convert me. They don’t want to know me, or want to hear from me.

My husband, Glyn, and I previously spent around 14 years overseas as mission workers. We loved our work in the at risk sector with vulnerable and marginalised people, we loved our neighbourhood and joining in with community life, we loved living and being there as ourselves and attempting to immerse ourselves and join in. We didn’t love evangelistic strategy meetings with our mission agency teams, or evangelistic tools and the focus being often on “people becoming Christians”. Please don’t misunderstand me! We want people to know Jesus, we want to see individuals and neighbourhoods impacted and transformed. It just felt uncomfortable for us doing this in any way other than friendship and the long haul of learning about people and beginning to share life together. It sometimes felt we were there to impose something rather than being organic and demonstrating the love of God through simply living it out. Of course we had conversations about faith and Jesus, but these would come about as an overflow of friendship and connecting. There was no short cut mission plan. It was the long haul of knowing and being known – person to person.

I love how it is expressed in The Message “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1:14). Incarnational mission, the way of immersing yourself as fully as possible into the cultural context you are in. Jesus came on a mission, with a message – absolutely. How did he do it? By moving in, moving among, being one with, sharing life, one of the community. He impacted people by demonstration – how he spoke, how he interacted, how his relationship with his Father overflowed and breathed on to those around him. The religious authorities hated him because he was with the people rather than outside of the people. Unwieldy, unruly, unpredictable, unholy according to some, because of the people he spent time with and the things he did that rubbed the rulers up the wrong way. There was no professional distance between him and humanity. He was in touching distance, close enough to share jokes and break bread, draw with his finger in the dirt, have his feet rubbed by a woman’s hair. In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness” (GNB). This fullness of life wasn’t something to be imposed but was demonstrated by Jesus to those around him – in the present moment. Fullness of life was being with the people, healing, sharing life, miracles, hearing the stories, being present and engaging with all humanity from the heart.

I wonder if what challenges and sometimes unsettles people is that we seem too close, too involved and we look too similar to those we journey with and love. It would be easier if there was a bit of distance, if we looked less like those we are among and if we were evangelising and sharing the gospel in programmes they knew, rather than being friends and sharing life with them. But for us, anything other than friendship, mutual conversation, back and forth listening and respecting, and willingness to break down barriers and walls is not authentic friendship. Over the years we have seen various teams come in and do some intensive outreach mission and then leave. While it is well intended, when you are journeying with a fragile and often misunderstood and vilified group this can leave a trail of emotional and spiritual mopping up and apologising needing to happen.

Tracts and trust

A few years back we were at a local event which was marking “Lammas”. [2] It is often celebrated by the Pagan community in creative ways and this event was open to the public, and along with music, beer tents and stalls included a Lammas ritual. Some local Christians view this as a “dark” event and describe it as dodgy, demonic, Satanic or evil. This is sad as people hear what is said and see disapproving looks. They get offended when they are branded as evil. On this particular occasion my husband and I were working on my Henna and Hat Lady stall and a couple of ladies came by and threw a handful of evangelistic tracts at us showering everyone in the stall in a confetti of bible verses and the like. We apologised to our stall customers and caught up with the ladies to gently suggest they perhaps think about a more relational way connect with these folks as people.

Another example would be an event which happens once a year in the UK. It is reported to be the largest gathering of witches and Pagans. My husband and I go along to this event with our stall and love being there as we have done this for years and got to know many of the people who attend. There is however a bit of a joke at the beginning of each event and it is “what are the Christians going to do this year on our way in?” Basically, every year there will be a group of Christians that line the entrance to the event. Over the years they have shouted warfare type prayers, offered tea and soup, given out Bibles, handed out tracts and last year is was chocolate bars wrapped in a tract. Our friends inside know my husband and I are “Jesus people” and many of them said to us, “Why don’t they just come in if they are wanting to talk to us?” Another person said, “This isn’t about us as human beings – this is about being branded and judged. They aren’t doing this anywhere else, are they?” This kind of practice ends up highlighting the gulf between, rather than bridging the gap.

Going back to the question of how we do it, I think the answer is remarkably simple and not spectacular. It is about being among people – as ourselves. There is nothing flashy, no formula, no set of questions or pocket full of tracts, just being Jesus people and wanting the overflow of that to spill out in beautiful non-contrived ways to other people. Hosting spaces and making ourselves people of hospitality in every setting is so key whether at a festival, event, in the pub, or, hopefully, in our churches.

I feel this is beautifully expressed by Henri Nouwen:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. [3]

The people we journey with are usually spiritually open and we have some great conversations about experience and share stories of things that happen. People practise their spirituality in different ways and so it is not unusual to talk about the supernatural. The work of the Spirit makes sense in this environment. I often get words of knowledge for people. I might be sitting at a festival and it is like I get a nudge and God says, “See that person over there? I want you to go and talk to them”. I will simply approach them and say, “My name is Emma, I am a follower of Jesus and he talks to me and sometimes gives me something to say to people. Would you like me to tell you?” Nobody has ever said no to date, and normally the response is quite profound as it will be something quite specific and personal. After a conversation, and perhaps praying for the person if they want me to, I would say something like, “The reason this has happened is because it is important for you to know that you are known, loved and your life matters to God”.

People are always watching. My husband and I are frequent visitors to our local pub where we have built friendship with the locals and staff. We don’t go in shouting about our faith or anything like that, we go there to chat, share life and have a nice glass of Sauvignon. Last week, however, one of the bar staff came up to me and asked if she could talk to me, I said of course. She said, “I didn’t know who else to talk to as it sounds so strange but I think I can say this and you won’t think I am crazy”. One thing my life has taught me is that very few things are weird or crazy! She disappeared and brought back a pair of shoes. She said “I was bought these to wear for a wedding and when they arrived I put them on the bar. Someone told to me that it is very bad luck to put new shoes on a bar as it causes a curse. I felt very cold when they said this and have worn them twice and am now afraid as really bad things have happened”. By this point she was quite distressed and shaky and we had a little crowd of interested regulars. I said to her “I don’t think you are weird or crazy, but you are definitely afraid. It says in the Bible that at the name of Jesus every knee must bow – in heaven, and on earth, and of those under the earth. That means Jesus is the authority and has the name that is above and bigger than anything that may have attached itself to these shoes. So, if you want, I can pray in the name of Jesus for you and these shoes.” She did and the locals bowed their heads too as I prayed. And then they picked up their pints and carried on chatting and I sipped my wine. Being Jesus people is about being ourselves. People notice, listen, watch and make their conclusions about who we are. It is also very important that we listen with intent to what people are saying. Were the shoes cursed? Had bad things happened because she put them on the bar? No idea. It was clear however she was afraid and this mattered. If I had said, “Well that’s just silly – of course your shoes aren’t cursed!” that would have dismissed her fears and probably shut the door on her feeling able to talk to me again. The shoe conversation enabled her to open up about her anxiety and other factors. It is so important to respond to people where they are at, not to discount another’s experiences or feelings and to always respond with openness and compassion to make sure they feel heard and taken seriously.

Stones, drumsticks and the supernatural

I would like to finish this article with a very recent story. For me it is in story and experience that I am learning about God’s heart for those people who may think of themselves as outside of the institution. I think in God’s eyes they are very much “in”.

There are times when something happens that you can’t easily put into words. I have related it to a couple of people and tried my best to describe it, but so far it all feels unsatisfactory. However, because memories fade and the moment of wonder can become misty, I am going to attempt to share it because I don’t want to lose it. My only concern is that it sounds about me – it isn’t. This is simply my account of an experience that I happened to be a part of and, God willing, a bigger story!

Thursday 20 June was Summer Solstice Eve. Myself, my son Sam and our drumming group (along with about 15,000 other people) descended upon Stonehenge. We stayed on Stonehenge campsite which is just down the road from the stone circle. It was full of people there to celebrate the solstice. There was a party/festival atmosphere with a lot of the usual “accompanying factors”, but all very chilled and good natured. Around 9pm the free public service buses arrived at the campsite to transport all of us to the stones, about 10 minutes away.

On arriving at Stonehenge we all piled out of the buses and made our way to the stones. There were very strict entry rules – we were frisked twice, and no blankets or sleeping bags were allowed unless you were wearing them as an outfit! No alcohol was allowed to be brought onto or sold on the site – a very good thing in my opinion, as it could have been very messy in terms of revelry and risk with so many super-hyped people. The clouds of weed though were something to behold!

It was quite a privilege because our drumming group was the only group allowed to actually officially perform there, as we are trusted and respected by Pagan communities. So once off the bus we made our way to the centre of the stones and drummed. The space inside the stones is actually not that big. It was rammed with people – we were being jostled and bumped and it was quite intense! So many people all trying to get to the centre of the stones. The noise level can only be described as a permanent goal being scored at a football match with drums, whooping, whistling, cheering, dancing and people yelling. After about 30 minutes of drumming, our group battled our way out of the stones and found a place to huddle on the floor for a bit.

We drummed a couple more times outside the stones and re-huddled in between (it gets pretty chilly overnight!). We had been there about four hours when things got interesting for me. Around 1am I felt stirred or spiritually nudged. I got Sam and a couple of others and said to them we needed to go to the centre of the stones. No fuss, no questions, they just got up and came with me. We battled our way in. It was crazily crushed in the middle and deafening. We drummed for a minute or so (our tiny troop of four people – barely audible above the noise!) and then I can only describe it as I heard God saying “Now!” I raised my drumstick and said “Everybody!” I don’t know how, I can’t explain it (neither can the others), but the whole place went silent. Impossibly silent for a crowd of thousands. I hadn’t planned this – it wasn’t premeditated. I opened my mouth and said “My name is Emma and I am a lay pioneer worker in the Church of England. I want to say that I am sorry to any of you who have felt rejected, judged, not welcome in the Church. You are known. You are loved. I am so sorry if this message has become lost. Everyone is welcome, everyone is in.” People cried, cheered, hugged.

Our little group of four then drummed for another minute and then I held the drumstick up again and said, “Everybody!” The whole place went silent again and I said “There are people here who need to forgive parents. Parents who were absent, parents who perhaps didn’t manage to give their best and have left you wounded. Family fractures need fixing. We need to be people of forgiveness”. The whole place then cheered and there were tears. Again, this was not pre-planned at all.

We drummed then for another minute and I again raised the drumstick. It went silent and I said: “Our planet is fractured with division and suspicion of the Other. If we unite, if we allow the stranger to become a friend, if we recognise our oneness in humanity, if we join together – the walls will come down, the barriers will drop. We need to become a prophetic people who live this out. Demonstrate that a better way is possible. Stonehenge is an epicentre of spirituality. This is the very place to start sending out a message of oneness. We are called to be people of Spirit and live prophetic lives. We need to be the change we want to see.” People spontaneously joined hands there were again tears. I can’t describe it but a note sounded from people, around people, it was an amazing resonant noise! As it got louder people started to jump up and down and cheer.

After this our group of four slowly made our way back to the other drummers who were outside. It was a challenge getting out as we were being grabbed, hugged, people shouting, “We are the prophets to the nations!” (meaning them – the crowds). It was surreal. When we got back to the rest of the group, the leader of our group said “What on earth was happening? It went silent and then you could only hear one voice and it was crystal clear around the whole place.”

So there it is. No way of really describing, explaining, understanding how it happened. I am massively relieved there were witnesses who verify the whole account as it sounds unbelievable. I don’t quite believe it myself. One person simply cannot silence a crowd of thousands making enough noise to shake Stonehenge – but it happened. I am very aware that among all the party goers there are also many who may not have responded well to a mention of the Church in the middle of Stonehenge on Solstice Eve! But something good happened and I 100 per cent blame God!

My simple prayer from this experience is that for the person there who needed to know they are known and loved, or that person who has been crippled by unforgiveness and needs to perhaps forgive their parents, or whatever, that they have been met somehow in their place of need, hope or challenge. I am fairly confident that the majority of the “congregation” at Stonehenge on that night were most unlikely to have been in church the week before, so perhaps God wanted to get a word in? Who knows!

About the author

Emma Moreton is a CMS lay pioneer worker and co founder of the charity she runs with her husband “Kasama – Creating Safe Spaces”. Emma works with some key individuals in alternative spiritual communities looking at how new language and theology can be developed to accommodate those who find it hard to “fit in”. As someone often classed as “alternative” she knows well how hard it can be to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in many Christian settings. Emma is also an artist, activist and someone who will rock the boat and throw spanners in the works.

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[1] A term for a group or community of druids.
[2] Lammas is one of the festival sabbats in the Pagan year, celebrating the beginning of harvest season.
[3] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City NY: Doubleday) 71.