So how was Ramadan for you this year? Mine was a good ‘un.
One of the hi-lights was a meal at a favourite, local, Asian restaurant to celebrate my wife’s birthday. We accidentally timed our visit to coincide with the breaking of the fast.
Even though the Nawab is a huge converted cinema which must be capable of seating at least 200 people, the place was heaving and we had to queue for ages to get to the buffet. Not that we minded. This place is always a great venue for people-watching and on this occasion the hustle and bustle, the noise, the aromas, the sheer sense of life would have made queuing even twice as long a treat rather than a chore.
My other Ramadan hi-light also included food. This one made me think. One of the people who lives on our street rang our door bell at tea time. Now, since leaving the pastorate I’ve gotten out of the habit of having meals interrupted by unexpected callers. However, this particular interruption was more than welcome.
“Hello, I live round the corner – I think we’ve said ‘hi’ once or twice. I wonder if you would like to receive this gift? It’s part of our custom to share food with our neighbours when we break our fast during Ramadan. There’s some chicken curry, rice, and dhal. Hope you enjoy it.”
And very good it was too. What struck me though wasn’t the free meal but the simple act of neighbourly kindness and community-building done for unashamedly religious reasons. It gave me an idea.
I was reminded of a custom to which my colleague, Paul Beasley-Murray, introduced me when I was assistant minister at Altrincham Baptist Church back in the 80’s. Paul and his family used to host special teas on the Sundays of Advent. Members of the church were invited round to a candle-lit manse for generous portions of cinnamon toast and other seasonal goodies.
“What if”, I thought, “we were to revive this custom and give it a bit of tweak? What if, instead of inviting friends from church we were to invite people from up the street, the ones we nod at or with whom we exchange smiles but without ever becoming neighbours in the proper sense of the word? We could ply them with goodies, light up the joint like a German Christmas market and have some suitably seasonal music on in the background.”
At the very least it would make for a series interesting social occasions. It would be great fun trying to mix up the guests: our Muslim visitor from round the corner with the Hindu family from across the road and the hard-partying students from two doors down – we could even ask the Baptists from next door.
It might help to make our little corner of Manchester a bit more neighbourly; a bit more than just a place where we sleep and form where we travel to work; a bit more of a community. And who knows, this being Advent and all, the conversation might even turn to Jesus.
But what really struck me following our neighbour’s visit was not so much the idea of engaging in a spot of community-building and perhaps a bit of evangelism on the side but the importance of the lost art of hospitality.
If I read my Bible aright, especially the Old Testament, being the people of God is meant to include a commitment to hospitality, hospitality which is all about being yourself, celebrating your heritage and identity while making space for others to join in. It strikes me that rediscovering the practice of hospitality would be an important way of helping us get back to being a genuinely Christian witness.
What do you reckon? Fancy having a go? Should I warn Tesco’s to stock up on cinnamon and candles?
My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here for the next four weeks. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here