Toowoomba has been at the heart of controversy over the provision of state school chaplains, with local resident Ron Williams driving the national legal case against. What a huge delight it was today therefore to hear from two local state school chaplains, speaking of the joys and deep challenges of their work. One had returned to school this year to help the school community face up to the murder of a child and mother from their midst. The other spoke of the challenges of walking with young people in the face of terrible scarring, self-harm and suicide. Sure, pastoral care workers also contribute immensely and heroically. Yet the chaplains contribute vital extra resources and dimensions in these situations, and in so many other, thankfully, less crisis relationships. This all takes place in an increasingly underfunded and undervalued state system. To hear their stories is therefore to rejoice in the ways in which, through school chaplaincy, many young people are helped to find their worth and purpose.
It was also encouraging to hear Scripture Union leadership reflect on how the legal case (back in court again on new grounds) has not only helped better law, but has also built much better understanding and community communication and ownership (including by MPs from across the mainstream political spectrum). On a wider level, school chaplaincy has thereby been a key issue in helping Australians, with various religious commitments and none, work out together how to live in a secular state without privileging any specific viewpoint, including that of secularism: not denying our communities the positive benefits of religious-based care, compassion and commitment, yet not opening the door to proselytism or favouritism. It is a case study in becoming a more post-Enlightenment society: no longer seeking to prevent long-gone 19th century battles of sectarianism, but enabling the energies of all, and encouraging every group (religious, agnostic and secularist) to value each other's contributions and to exercise appropriate self-restraint in the public realm. In my opinion, there is much more to explore, especially in terms of providing first-class education (rather than patchy provision of instruction) into different religious and secularist lives and outlooks. It seems very odd, and a significant loss to our shared community self-understanding, that Australian schools typically provide so little in helping children and young people understand what their different fellow Australians believe and live by religiously and philosophically. Perhaps we can all begin by valuing our school chaplains even more as part of the answer rather than as part of the problem?
No wonder Jesus so enjoyed meeting and eating with those who shared different spiritual journeys and diverse moral and religious viewpoints. It is both great fun and enriching in many ways. A recent meal with friends from our local Toowoomba Baha'i community was a beautiful example of this. Not only was the food and company delightful but, among other things, I was given fresh perspectives on the often fraught distinction between evangelism and proselytism.
Unlike some 'progressive' Christians, I have never had a problem with evangelism as a core part of Christian life. Just as birds sing and dogs bark, what are Christians to do but share 'the faith that is in us'? Whilst I have met some people of other faiths who have had legitimate concerns about how some Christians seek to evangelise, they too tend not to have any real issues with evangelism as such. Instead they are supportive when they hear that many Christians have taken great pains to distinguish what is proselytism from what is (even very lively, energetic and challenging) evangelism. What I had not properly realised, until my Baha'i meal, was how others can help Christians with constructive approaches to evangelism through their own experiences.
My wonderful hostess not only cooked a gorgeous meal but also spoke briefly about her experience as a Baha'i 'pioneer'. Before she ever came to Australia, she had left her native Iran with her immediate family to settle in Liberia, sharing her life and faith there as a natural part of the local community. In doing so, she had responded to the Baha'i challenge to leave home to journey to another place (often another country) for the purpose of passing on the Baha'i Faith. Steering clear of words like 'evangelist' or 'missionary' (the latter because of its associations with narrow and more bigoted forms of communication), this is what is meant by 'pioneering'. Clara and Hyde Dunn were just such pioneers when they came to Australia from the USA in 1920 and began the Baha'i Faith here. Today, there are therefore Baha'is throughout the world, adding their loving energies to community, not least in Queensland (from where the logo above comes - a witness to the creativity of a Brisbane-based Baha'i creative artist).
What was magnificent to me was the way in which my dear friend spoke so movingly of the people and place to whom she had given her heart. It expressed so beautifully the joy as well as the challenge, and heartbreak (on leaving), of a true bearer of 'evangelion', good news. I was also struck by how much we all might learn from appreciation of such journeys and conversations across faiths and cultures. For at the heart of Baha'i pioneering is a deep respect for those whom they meet, reflecting the consideration and restraint that is lacking in proselytism (in whatever faith). As, the Baha'i Universal House of Justice expressed it in 1982:
It is true that Bahá'u'lláh lays on every Bahá'í the duty to teach His Faith. At the same time, however, we are forbidden to proselytise, so it is important for all the believers to understand the difference between teaching and proselytizing. It is a significant difference and, in some countries where teaching a religion is permitted, but proselytising is forbidden, the distinction is made in the law of the land. Proselytising implies bringing undue pressure to bear upon someone to change his Faith. It is also usually understood to imply the making of threats or the offering of material benefits as an inducement to conversion. In some countries mission schools or hospitals, for all the good they do, are regarded with suspicion and even aversion by the local authorities because they are considered to be material inducements to conversion and hence instruments of proselytisation.
This, and other reflections on pioneering by Baha'is may have value for Christians too, as we grow out of our history of deep lack of respect for even Christian difference and live in a world of continuing conflict of ideas. Of course it will not end the terrible persecution of Christians by others but it may add light to our own efforts to be bearers of light not heat. Jesus himself called Christians to be salt and yeast: qualities which enhance but destroy a good meal if they are not applied with care. In which regard, my fabulous hostess that evening showed the way with her marvelous Persian rice. 'What's the difference to ordinary rice', I asked. "Oh', she said, with a typically beautiful smile, 'its just a little thing I add': but no, I thought, not just a little dill, but a wonderful touch of love.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.