We don’t have a Justice & Peace group in our parish, though there are plenty of parishioners pursuing just and peaceful ends – those involved, for instance, in SVP, CAFOD lunches, the Fairtrade stall, the three parish overseas projects, Christian Ecology Link: in addition we have our priest’s encouragement for the work of Pax Christi.
I had heard from others outside the parish about the annual conference of the National Justice & Peace Network, and this year decided for the first time to go along. It takes place – and has done for 35 years now – near Derby: I don’t know that city at all, but it turns out to be not much more than an hour’s train journey from Cheltenham, and the conference organises a bus from there up to the village of Swanwick: The Hayes Conference Centre, in suitably peaceful, tree-lined grounds of its own, must be one of the best appointed in the country. It was amply big enough to accommodate the 300 or more who came there this weekend.
The 2013 conference theme was “Breaking open the Word: a call to faith in action.” Megan McKenna's name is new to me notwithstanding she has an international reputation and has written many books: as the keynote speaker, she gave four discourses. Each lasted more than an hour, and she talked to us standing up and without notes – remarkable considering she is no Spring chicken, as I’m sure she wouldn’t mind my saying, and that she had just flown in from New Zealand. But the words "speak" and "talk" don't really fit Megan. She is above all a storyteller; and when she is not telling stories, she declaims – almost performs – the scriptures. (“What you read goes to your head, but what you hear goes to your heart,” she maintains.)
"Listen to me, you who pursue justice!" was the title of her first discourse, opening up Chapter 55 of Isaiah. This led into a study of “Today this scripture comes true” – the account of Jesus’ return to Nazareth in Chapter 4 of St Luke’s Gospel. Her other two talks centred round the Transfiguration and the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (or more likely the 25,000, as she believes). I can only echo the words of a review of her most recent book: Megan “has used her gifts of insight to help us take a fresh look at the role of the Gospels in contemporary church life. I found her observations very challenging.”
Megan McKenna aside, there was in addition a choice of 15 workshops. Pax Christi explored scripture for stories of security that don’t depend on war and violence. Progressio launched a quest for the Church’s role in assisting women in fragile states. Church Action on Poverty explained their work amongst parishes to highlight the unfair prices demanded of the worst off for daily essentials. CAFOD led a scriptural reflection on food and hunger. The Jesuit Refugee Service ran a workshop on asylum issues and Gospel values. Housing Justice outlined parish and diocesan action to assist those affected by benefit changes. The St Columban Missionaries looked at the impact of rising sea levels on (in particular) island communities… and there were more than 30 stalls of allied organisations in the exhibition hall.
There was also the chance to witness an exotic Eritrean Coffee Ceremony: this attracted much attention, not just for the delicious bread (almost cake-like), popcorn and gingery coffee. We were treated also to a stately dance, accompanied by deep drumming. Of the dozen or so gaily dressed Eritrean children, one clutched a Roses tin lid, his personal frisbee, and absolutely refused to yield it up. And in the Conference Hall afterwards, we were reminded that, if these good people are able to get any work in their home towns (Sheffield, Leeds etc.), it is at the most demeaning level – they do those jobs British-born people refuse.
During meals (the food was provided on LOAF principles), I found myself in many different conversations – with a grandfather looking after his 4-year-old grandson whose father was in prison; with a young lady recently recovered from nervous illness; with a senior Sister, working for justice via the internet; with a recent graduate, giving his time to answer the conference’s technological demands, and many more. It was also good to catch up with three of our Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link speakers from the past, Frank Regan, Ellen Teague and Tom Cullinan.
Next year’s conference runs from 18th-20th July: the theme is, “Called to life in all its fullness: accepting the implications of our baptism.” Try it!