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Stranger Danger

“We are a more than welcome here” Commoners Choir

Take a look at the first picture. What can you see? What can you read? This is a prototype for a project I was hoping to deliver in Leeds looking at threshold and welcoming. Working with community groups and churches we were planning to enable locals to design their own welcome mats, aiming at about 400 mats in total which would go on exhibition with an accompanying bring and share community meal. The project focused on the meanings and issues around welcoming, looking at different threshold traditions from around the world. Bread and salt in Eastern Europe, Lai in Hawaii, a white silk scarf in Mongolia, the toran in South East Asia, a cup of tea in the UK. In a post Brexit Britain this felt very much of its time. The picture shows the nine most commonly spoken languages in our country, and includes the indigenous Welsh, which like all our Celtic languages and identities, suffered from huge racist prejudice and marginalisation in the past, perhaps in the same way that other nationalities represented by these nine welcome mats, still do.

The timing of the recent lockdown in Bradford and other Northern towns feels insensitive. It showed a level of ignorance, the worst enemy of harmony and understanding. As someone said on the radio, just imagine that the government did the same to those of us who celebrate Christmas on the 24th December. We would have planned carefully within what restrictions were still in place to see our relatives or friends, we would have bought in huge amounts of food to feed them, some people would have already started travelling. I know of one family of five who have been stuck in a tiny flat for the last five months and who had just managed to arrange an Eid get together with one other family at a social distance in their garden. Imagine having to tell your children the night before their first party or outing in five months that it’s all off. Of course, it’s not the end of the world, and of course, we need to take the Covid pandemic seriously. But, of course, we also all knew that Eid was on the horizon. All that was needed was some forethought.

The second picture shows a toran, a welcome banner which is placed above the threshold in South Asian homes. Although Hindu in origin, it is commonly used by Buddhists and Muslims too. One of my joys over lockdown has been to be involved in the Circle of Friendship: an interfaith group of women from Bradford. We have each been making a toran, using the word welcome in different languages to represent their local community: Urdu, Punjabi, Polish and English. We have been meeting every week on zoom to talk about our sewing but also to laugh, listen and learn with and from each other. We mourned a friend together and shared via video in her funeral. We celebrated an Iftar together and were privileged to be present for the prayers that break the Ramadan fast. We talked about our experiences of frustration, isolation, family tensions and how the pandemic is affecting our everyday lives, we untangled our thoughts and feelings about the Black Lives Matter events. I feel deeply privileged to have learnt so much from these wonderful women, and living in a majoritively white area, this experience has given me much-needed understandings and perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

And this is a concern isn’t it? Many of us live in places where we don’t rub shoulders with people of other traditions, nationalities or faiths. My parents live in South West England as part of a middle class, white, mainly aging population. Their attitudes have appalled me on occasions. I have challenged these, of course, but I suspect some of their thinking comes from the fact that they never have their attitudes challenged by lived experience. They have not met or talked with a Muslim. They do not know what a Gurdwara is. They haven’t chatted in an Asian Supermarket with the shop assistant. Their children certainly did not play with anyone of colour. Also, here in Yorkshire I have been shocked by attitudes I have encountered, even though I live only half an hour drive from Leeds. One work colleague, bearing in mind that we work with some of the most vulnerable in society, talked about “sending ‘them’ all back on the banana boats.’ It is easy to call them ‘them’ because they are ‘over there’: not in my backyard. Because if you don’t know ‘the other’, they become the stranger.

Black Lives Matter brought into sharp relief the need for all of us to hold our hands up and recognise white privilege, inherent white prejudice and to challenge ourselves, others and the system that perpetuates this. And perhaps the first thing we can do is to welcome the stranger, because more than likely they are not a stranger, just a friend we haven’t yet met.

Take time to look at the pictures and consider these questions:

How has the new area lockdown affected you?

Where is the stranger in your life?

How can you get to know the other?

What attitudes or beliefs do you need to challenge?

Meditative Action:

You will need paper (coloured paper if possible), scissors, ribbon or string, felt tips, glue, stapler or tape.

- Cut out enough pennants using the shapes shown in the picture below to spell out the word welcome in your language. In English this will be seven.

- Write the letters for welcome, one per penant. You can use felt tips or crayons to decorate, you could cut out coloured paper letters and stick them on

- Attach the pennants to your ribbon or string using the stapler or tape.

- Hang up in a window or place which is visible from outside your home

- How can you and your home be welcoming?

This meditation is commissioned by Leeds Methodist Mission

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