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My Pentecost in Birmingham

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In Our Time

By Gertrudes C. Samson

The Sunday Feast of the Pentecost in 2023 fell on May 28. What is the Feast of Pentecost some people might ask? As described in that Sunday Gospel Reading in John 20:19-23, it is the commemoration of that late Sunday evening, 50 days after Jesus’s resurrection, when Jesus Himself stood among His disciples greeting them “Peace be with you.” Jesus said “Peace be with you” not just once but twice, and at the second time He said “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Then He breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit.” To me, those words of Jesus in the Gospel reading “peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you” is a commemoration and affirmation again of my being missioned here to Birmingham, Britain.

Lit candlesAs I pondered that Pentecost Sunday at the Catholic Church, I realized that after being sent here on mission in a multi-cultural and interreligious community of Birmingham, as a Columban lay missionary with a team who promotes dialogue and good relationship between people of different faiths, I now live the spirit of Pentecost differently in my everyday life.

After almost thirteen years here on my mission in Birmingham, I am now very much at peace in being with people of different faiths to whom God sent me to know, serve, and love. Just this year during the period of Ramadan, our Columban Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) team here in Birmingham were invited to several mosques of different denominations to join them in their “Iftar” meal which is the Muslim breaking of the fast.

People of other faiths also invited us for other occasions, gatherings, ceremonies, workshops, and seminars. At Fatima House, this year too, we also had a joint celebration of Muslims Eid al-Fitr, Sikhs Vaisakhi, and Orthodox Easter. Like when I visit other places of worship, I also bring some friends from other faiths to our Catholic Church.

One of the Surprises of the Holy Spirit

My fiancé Kush, who was raised as a Hindu when he was a child, was with me at that Pentecost Sunday Mass. Like me he does not mind visiting other places of worship. His Mum is the same. I saw a photograph of her lighting a candle inside a Catholic church when she was still able. Kush even queued for a blessing from our parish priest during the communion as he usually does when he goes to Mass with me.

Upon entering the church, Kush always touches the ground with his hand and touches his hand to his head like he does when entering any place of worship. He said, “The act of touching the threshold of a place of worship on entering is symbolic, to receive with humility the dust from the feet of our fellow worshipers so that we may impart the wisdom of their spiritual journey on us too.” This is one of the surprises of the Holy Spirit for me too. I never thought I would meet my fiancé through the Interreligious dialogue (IRD) in mission.

After that Sunday Mass at the Catholic Church English Martyrs we both traveled a few steps to another place of worship in Sparkhill, the Sikh Temple Guru Nanak Gurdwara, to join their Community Meal called langar. Then in the afternoon we went together with his Mum to the Hindu Temple Shree Laxmi Narayan Mandir to attend the celebration of the inauguration of the completed Mandir “facade” of the Hindu Temple.

Joining people of other faiths in their gathering and celebration is now part of my everyday life both in relation to my ministry with the Columbans and in my personal life with Kush and his family.

Kush is a British citizen and grew up in my mission area. His Parmar family, whose ethnicity is from Gujarat India, migrated to Birmingham from Kenya, East Africa, where he was born, when he was 7 years old. And so, my mission which is interreligious dialogue, intercultural living, and reaching out to asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants is part of the day-to-day reality that he grew up with, and many of his friends are refugees and migrants themselves. In fact, he mentioned to me that his best friend at the primary school was a refugee from the Vietnam war and they are still in touch with each other. In that sense I realized that Kush was immersed in the area where I am missioned earlier than me, as early as when he was child.

Welcomed and Respected

Kush and I are both chaplains. We are both part of Multi-Faith Chaplaincy of West Midlands Police in Birmingham. For many years Kush was a volunteer for Samaritans who respond to calls for help to prevent crisis or do crisis management.

Wherever we go, people naturally gravitate to us. An example of this is when we went to the Registry Office for our marriage license inquiry. One of the staff suddenly came to our room asking if there is anyone who can speak Urdu and Kush gladly volunteered to be a translator and help the person in the other room.

He was also a volunteer for the Missionary of Charity Sisters of Mother Teresa when they still had their convent in Birmingham, and so his Mum visits their convent with him and they also visit their house. His family was familiar with Catholic missionaries in the past before they even met me and my co-lay missionaries from Philippines, Rose and Jayjay, who introduced us to each other.

I am welcomed and respected both as a person and a missionary by Kush and his family, relatives, and friends. He is happy and thankful that I have faith because it is what brought our lives together, although he describes himself now as non-denominational with his own Vipassana insight meditation practice.

Kush is happy for me to continue as a Columban Lay Missionary. He knows that I love serving God through the Columban mission. In fact, he supports me consistently behind the scenes in his own way as I do my work as a Columban missionary and CLM Coordinator in Britain.

I am happy that he practices Vipassana meditation, because I know it continually helps him to be a better person. Sometimes I join him at the Buddhist temple, Edgbaston Vihara Sangha where Kush leads the meditation on Thursday nights. I now integrate meditation in my own practice each day too.

After visiting the Buddhist temple, I prayed and read my “Our Daily Bread” which is a Christian devotional booklet that has scripture reading and contemporary stories and explanations.

I also practice meditation which is to me, as a Christian, is like being still in the presence of the Lord, seated with my eyes closed and just focusing on the breath of life that God gave me going in and out of my nose for at least fifteen minutes. It helps me calm down, think better afterwards, and carry on, especially when the going gets tough in my life as a missionary.

The Spirit Enabled Them to Speak

The first reading of Acts 2:1-11 on the Feast of Pentecost, describes what happened: “When the day of Pentecost came, when all the believers were gathered together in one place. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.”

It also described what happened to the people who witnessed it, saying they could understand the languages the others were speaking and they were left in amazement and wonder.

Many times I find myself in amazement and wonder from how interreligious dialogue is a normal part of our everyday conversations, sharing with each other stories from our faith or moral lessons from which we can draw inspiration.

We are from different backgrounds, but we could understand what we were sharing with each other. These stories were life-giving to us and helped each other to grow and be a better person. Definitely, I can also see the Holy Spirit at work in his life too and hear the voice of the Holy Spirit through him. There were times that I faced challenges as missionary so when he asked me one time how I was, my response to him was, “I felt like I am falling and floating and I do not know if I will continue to float or hit the ground and shatter to pieces”. Kush then offered me words of wisdom saying, “You know why you feel like you are floating? It is because Jesus is holding you.” What he said lifted my spirit that day.

There was a time when all the difficulties that were going on in my life seemed too much and did not make sense. As a response, Kush shared with me, “Ger, there is story about a bookmark inserted into a Bible and the person looking at it thought this seems like a mess of threads that does not make sense. But when the person flipped up, on the other side it says ‘God is love.’” I suddenly remembered that indeed God loves me and was working behind the scenes all the time preparing something beautiful in my life.

There was another time when Kush knew I was feeling down, so he suddenly mentioned the lines of my favorite poem, “Do it Anyway” by Mother Teresa. My tears fell, realizing that I could unexpectedly and clearly hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking from someone who was raised up from another faith, to uplift my spirit.

“Nostra Aetate” (In Our Time)

The Vatican II document, “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Time), is what gave birth to the Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) that we are practicing today. It is the Latin name by which the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” is known. It formalized an expanded attitude of dialogue and respect toward the major non-Christian religions of the world: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

When Fr. Tim Mulroy, the current Columban Superior General, visited Birmingham in 2022, he congratulated me about my engagement with Kush. I said to him, “Father, he grew up in Birmingham, but he is not a Catholic.” He said, “Surely, he is a good man, otherwise you would not choose him.” I replied to him, “Yes indeed, Father, he is a good man,” and I told him a little about Kush’s background.

When Fr. Tim returned to Hong Kong and I greeted him on October 28 by saying, “Happy Nostra Aetate Day,” he sent me a message in reply, “Wishing you and Kush abundant blessings as you pursue the IRD journey together in daily life — and make real the spirit of Nostra Aetate in our broken world.” That message really touched my heart.

Truly indeed, that is the wish of both Kush and I when we entered into a committed relationship. We wished that in some way our relationship would be part of a testimony to show that people, although they may be from different faiths, can also love each other, and even marry each other, and live in peace.

A Long Journey Ahead of Us

At this point in time, Kush and I still have a long way to go when it comes to requirements for the different aspects of getting married legally in Britain, but in a surprising way, I believe that the Holy Spirit is continually facilitating our dialogue in daily life and making our relationship and love grow stronger day by day as we wait for God’s time. We do not know yet when will it be, only God knows. I also still need to apply for British Residency or Indefinite Leave Remain this year. I am encouraged by my colleagues and friends who got married but continue to fulfill, in their own way, the mission Jesus sent them to do. Please keep us in your prayers. May the Holy Spirit continue to journey with us to guide and help us. Amen!

Columban lay missionary Ger Samson lives and works in Birmingham.