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Faith in Practice

Reading people

Hannah Kowszun

Dealing cards to people at fairs for pagans seems suspicious to some Christians. But for Andrea Campanaleit's the best way to engage with people whose understanding of spirituality has very little to do with church.

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There's a lot of fear about pagans, witches, people who have alternative spiritualities. I think there's a worry that they'll convert us more than we'll convert them. But I believe that my faith is deep enough and strong enough to cope with being challenged, being stretched. It's not about us seeking to change them, but allowing us to be changed by their spirituality and their experience of the supernatural.

A lot of Christians have forgotten that we have spiritual practices and there is a spiritual aspect to our faith. Spiritual practices we think of as the occult have their origins in a Christian understanding, for instance meditation. These are things that can sustain us and enrich our faith to be a disciple for the whole of our lives.

What I do is outreach to spiritual seekers. About seven years ago I started to see in my friends, who weren't Christians, an interest in spirituality. And as I became aware of it I noticed in that culture there was much more willingness and openness to talk about spiritual things. It came to a head when a friend of mine rang me and said she had had a spiritual experience. Because I was her Christian friend and because I was in church leadership at the time, she wanted me to explain what that was about. I felt like I was completely unprepared for that: the idea that people were experiencing God outside of church and how it might reference Christian faith.

A few months later I heard Yvonne Richmond talk about her experience of researching people having spiritual experiences outside of church. She was saying that rather than seeing it as the occult and having nothing to do with it, there was a hunger and an interest that we should engage with. This resonated with me and what I had observed. She mentioned a group in Guilford called Eden People, who were putting up tents in fairs and offering to pray with people. I knew in that moment that this was what God was asking of me.

Kingston, where I live, used to have the largest environmental fair in London. I knew that God wanted me to go and offer to pray with people and see what would happen in that space. It turned out another church group had been in contact with them; they had felt the same thing. We got together to prayer walk the site and persuade a few more people to join the team.

On the day of the fair I remember thinking, 'What have I done?', not really knowing what to expect but having other people looking at me as if I knew what might happen. Colin, the guy from Eden People I had heard about, was also there at the fair on the invitation of the organisers. I asked him whether anyone would come to us and he just said to wait and see: we had queues of people who wanted to talk and pray with us all day. We had Hari Krishnas to one side, mediums on the other side and a guy with a healing gong opposite us. It is quite fearful walking into that environment when you have been brought up with the attitude that this is of the devil. It opened my eyes: these were people who were searching and yet this was a place where Christians weren't.

One of the more controversial aspects of what I do is use cards. They're not Tarot, rather they have Bible stories on them and bits of scripture. For a lot of Christians because it's on a card they think there's something demonic about that. For me it's contextualising our scripture into a form in which that person can receive it, because that's how they experience the spiritual. In my experience it's a fantastic tool to speak about and introduce them to God, as a God who cares about and who matters to them. They get to take the card away and I'll see people a year on who show me the card they've kept in their wallet for that time.

For people who come from that seeker background setting foot into normal church would be too big a jump. Going to the fairs is very much a one-off encounter. I want to engage with people the rest of the year, so what are the other connection points? I set up Sacred Space Kingston and we started doing art exhibitions, using that as a way of introducing spirituality and entering into conversations. Since then I've worked with the interfaith forum and I'm currently working in partnership with the YMCA: I've developed a meditation course and the idea is to meet people at events, then invite them to the course. I already have a missional community of mature Christians, most of whom still go to their own churches, and my hope is that they will disciple the spiritual seekers who want to explore Christian faith and practice with us in the future.

I'm currently on the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course. For me it's been quite healing because I've had a lot of problems with church: people understanding who I am and what I'm trying to achieve. Doing this course gives me a credibility, gives me a place. The course has given me a theoretical framework for what I was doing quite instinctively. It's provided me with a community of people that understand what I bring, affirm that and encourage it, rather than seeing it as a problem or something to be avoided.

I don't see myself doing anything radically new or different. I want to use the experience I have to train other Christians to engage with spiritual speakers and encourage people to step out. There must be loads of other Christians out there who have these kind of feelings but don't have the space or confidence to try sit. If we're serious about seeing people engaged with the Christian faith we've got to be willing to take some risks and make mistakes.

I think I wasted a lot of time trying to explain to people what I wanted to do and get them onside. When I actually went ahead and did it, they got it.

Andrea Campanale was talking to Hannah Kowszun