The lounge bar at the Scarborough Arms was almost empty and I must have been deep in conversation for I hadn’t seen him come in. There he stood, all 6′ 4” of him, a hooded figure with a long flowing robe, towering over the barman who he seemed to be questioning. Open-mouthed, my first impression was ‘the return of the Mummy’ but as he turned around to exit his gentle expression spurred me to ask him what he was looking for. In a few words he explained he was one of a group of six Muslims engaged on a peace pilgrimage, walking from place to place, meeting people and trying to spread the message that Islam was a religion of peace. With only a support vehicle to carry their luggage they were relying on people’s good will to find shelter and somewhere to unroll their sleeping bags each night. Intrigued, I jotted his name ‘Suleiman’ (‘like the wise son of King David’, he laughed) and his mobile number on a beer mat and told him I would ring him back if I found somewhere for the next night.
Well, the local Methodists turned up trumps and I was able to visit and meet all six pilgrims the following afternoon in the cosy space of the vestry, and it was a visit that did not disappoint. The first lesson was one of welcome. They all rose from their places on the carpet to greet me and introduce themselves. Then they found me a chair and quickly served me tea and a plate with biscuits, nuts and lychees which they showed me how to peel. Before I could produce the box of chocolates I had bought on the way, they beat me to it and presented me with their box together with a copy of ‘The Quran made easy’. I was truly the honoured guest.
Next to sink in was the seriousness of their project. Pilgrimage for me conjures up well organised trips in summer weather to places such as Lourdes and Rome, where devotions and prayers are sensibly balanced by good food and comfortable hotels. But here were these men all in their woolly caps and an overcoat to cover their pyjama-like shalwar kameez, braving the winter weather not for a week but for the four darkest months of the year. All had come from the same mosque in Birmingham. They had all left family, friends and work. Suleiman, the big African from Gambia, was a chaplain in the Children’s Hospital. Yusuf, a real ‘brummie’, was a civil engineer with his own company: he reckoned the four month trip was costing him about £10,000 in lost earnings. Another who turned out to be 79 years old left me wondering how he coped with sleeping on the floor. They all burst out laughing when I asked if there was a ‘snorer’ in the group: there was evidently more than one.
Somebody must have been keeping an eye on the time for after a while we halted and I sat quietly while they took up positions for one of their five daily prayers: ‘God is the greatest’. I had noticed earlier during the conversation how several were running beads through their fingers and when I asked them how they prayed they told of the litany of the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God. Another time someone produced a bottle of ‘holy water’ from Mecca. Next day as I joined them for a couple of hours on their walk to Rotherham, I was struck again by their dedication as we began by praying for all the people we would meet, those who would welcome us and those who might be hostile (not unlikely in the light of the recent scandals involving Pakistani men). There was also a childlike simplicity in the way the group accepted reminders about good behaviour while walking, ‘waiting for the little green man’, giving way to oncoming pedestrians.
Making my way back home after saying goodbye it struck me that these men of a different faith to mine were effective channels of peace. My Methodist friends had welcomed them as genuine pilgrims, they had been given free coffee and met local people in Tickhill parish rooms before starting their walk, a Catholic parish priest had offered them his parish hall for the next night … They were certainly sending out positive vibes. As for me, I was still faced with preparing my homily on the awkward readings for the Third Sunday: what to say about ‘those who have wives should live as though they had none …. those whose life is buying things should live as though they had nothing of their own …’ And what about those first disciples in the Gospel who go off leaving their poor father in the boat? How counter-cultural, how impractical in this day and age! And yet, not impossible: for I had just met some people who had done it.
For further information about Interfaith in our diocese, please contact Deacon Andrew Crowley at firstname.lastname@example.org.