Thursday, 17 March 2011

Talk given at Church of England Diocesan Interfaith Advisors Conference, 16/3/11

Reflections on Caring for Converts

I first came across the Guidelines for the Care of Converts when I had the immense pleasure of meeting Dr Wharton and Guy (Wilkinson) last November.

"'Caring for converts?' I thought. 'Concept!'" An obvious one, once you think about it, but it doesn't seem to be thought about often.

Why is that? One of the first things that came to mind was a quote from the leader of a workshop I attended recently: "There is no object, there is only process." The reason we don't consider care for converts very often is that we see the conversion as an object, the finishing line - in the same way we see a funeral as the end of our need to support the bereaved - in both cases, we see it as time for them to move forward on their own.

But we forget that conversion - like grief - is a process, not an object. Conversion, true conversion, does not end at baptism and welcome into the Church. Conversion is a person living a story making a journey of faith. Nor is the new convert alone in this - we are all in the process of conversion, of taking steps on our spiritual journey every day, whether or not we attend church, read the Bible or meet for fellowship. How we treat the harried salesclerk, the hapless waiter, those with whom we share our lives, are all part of our conversion. To quote Kahlil Gibran, "Your daily life is your temple and your religion."

So what does this mean for the guidelines I received from Kate last month? I believe it means that we start these guidelines from the underpinning principle that we are supporting a process rather than achieving a goal - which means we may approach it from a different angle, use different language and so on. The tension - and possibly, the paradox - here is that as we support the process and draw up the guidelines to do so, we cannot predict how the process will unfold.

Well, that's all nice and woolly as a flock of sheep, isn't it? So how does that translate? When I first read the guidelines, I really felt for Kate. I could sense her overwhelm and how much she felt she had to try to do. I wondered if what might be needed was a step further back to ask the questions 'What are we trying to do?' 'How are we trying to do it?' - to give a thread which will help create a coherent whole. We need to define what we mean by conversion, support and care.

Here were some ideas I had along the way:

1. We are supporting a process, and not a natural one, at that. It is one which begins with a huge change/rupture for the convert, which will require specialised support: possibly of those who've been there, those from their own background, but equally likely, specialised psychological support.

2. The question we must always ask as we draw this up/work with converts: "For whom are we doing this?" It is very easy to see the convert as a point on the religious scoreboard or to get invested in their journey and think it is ours. It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that we are walking with someone on THEIR spiritual journey, not forcing them on a path that we feel they should follow. Rachel Remen's differentiation between attachment - which leads to imprisonment - and commitment - which leads to freedom - is helpful here. We may be COMMITTED to the convert's spiritual journey. We may NOT be ATTACHED to how that journey unfolds. Every time we answer that question, the answer must truly be, "For the convert, to support their journey to God."

How do we do that? Tom (the previous speaker) brought in Transactional Analysis; I'm going to mention Carl Rogers, whose core conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence are essential here. No matter how the convert may act out - and they will - or what they say, it must be welcomed with love, understanding and honesty.

3. ASK them what they need. Let them lead and take responsibility, for it is only in doing so that they can make the faith their own and come to maturity.

4. Relationship. The Christian God, a Trinity, lives in eternal relationship of love, hospitality and self-knowledge. We've touched on the first two, but the third is very important: we must always be aware of what's happening with us, and not put it on the convert. If we get very angry or upset, we need to stop and reflect and think about how much is about the situation and how much is about us.

Conversion takes place in relationship, and it may be a good idea for the guidelines to consider what a healthy relationship looks like.

5. DON'T PIGEONHOLE. We can draw common themes or make guesses - but don't assume. Listen to their story. Remember that those who tend to be happy in the culture/family they're living in probably AREN'T GOING TO CONVERT - if they're comfortable, they're not going to ask the questions necessary for change.

Don't assume people want family connection - I didn't.

It's good to have an outline of what we know about various cultures - South Asian, Iranian, North African, etc. - but remember that within those communities, people have unique experiences. Don't immediately shower them with people who share their ethnicity - they may recoil. I would have told you where to go, how to get there, and given extremely detailed directions. Sometimes people don't want family - sometimes they need a monastic or desert experience to heal from their family.

6. Support is not always warm and fuzzy, sometimes it's confrontation in the desert. We've talked about God living in an eternal relationship of love, but let's not forget that the Father sent His Son to die and that the Son asked for the chalice to be removed from him and that at the end, He asked, 'Father, why hast thou forsaken me?'

Appropriate challenge and conflict do not rupture, on the contrary, they drive intimacy deeper.

One of my favourite forms of support is that of the rabbi who turns away the convert twice before accepting her. In that way, he is more certain of her sincerity and motivation. I often worry that we as Christians grasp: we grasp as soon as someone is thinking of converting; grasp to hold someone in 'our' church; grasp to force them onto a path that looks like one we recognise. The problem with grasping is that it is about fear, and fear drives out love, which is the ONLY way to support a convert's journey.

By leaving room for the Holy Spirit, by creating space through challenge - even though we LOVE that they are throwing themselves into our church activities and slagging off their old religion - we allow for healthy growth. If we say 'no' to a potential convert because we sense that their desire to convert is not about God, but about getting back at family/renouncing their heritage, we allow space for a TRUE 'yes' - in God's time, not ours. Those of you who have read The Shack will remember Sarayu's love of fractals and wild growth - and her tendency to put them everywhere. In my experience, the Holy Spirit rarely works in a straight line.

So, to close - where to go for these guidelines to make them generally helpful, but not specifically stifling? At the beginning, definitions and principles need to be made explicit: conversion, care, support, process, relationship: getting the underpinnings right will get the details right.

Then draw them out by asking questions: what does a healthy sponsor/convert relationship look like? What possible forms could it take? When do we worry? When do we say 'no'? How do we respond? How do we challenge? What does care look like? What resources do we have?

I almost feel that these guidelines - like my talk - need to be a book: Converts' stories, principles drawn, good practice, FAQs, resources. But that's just me. Somehow we need to offer concrete help without dictating how all journeys must unfold: and I suspect the way to do that is to draw from experience to offer ways forward, and seeing the theology emerge from the experience rather than having the theology drive the experience. Yet we must always remember that, as we draw from experience, we must respond in the moment: for our God is not 'I was' nor 'I will be', but I AM.