My Faith Journey – Craig Brown
The Petone Baptist Church stands on Buick Street in the town where I grew up. It’s an odd-looking building; progressive extensions have been made to the building that appear to have been added without considering that which already exists. As architectural fusion goes, it leaves a little to be desired.
I first visited there at the age of five at the urging of my best friend, Lance Juventin. Lance had established that if one attended Sunday School, there was a delightful old lady that would hand out smokers to the children when they left.
Now a smoker, for those of you that may not know, is a small pink, cinnamon flavoured sweet which came in a Fisherman’s Friend-like tin and which cost about 1 cent a pop back in the mid-70s. To me, that was enough of an incentive to get me out of bed and pitch up for my first exposure to the Christian faith.
It was a short-lived experience, Lance soon took a dislike to the early morning routine and although I persevered for a few more weeks on my own, I wavered, soon enough ceasing to go.
Throughout my childhood and teens, I had sporadic exposure to the Church. I learnt the Lord’s Prayer at 8 as part of my induction into Cubs. Occasionally I would stay overnight at the home of my buddy, Steven Taylor, and after what was always a splendid breakfast, we would be ushered off to the Catholic Church where, following the food theme, I would take communion because I wanted to see what it tasted like. Mine was, as you will have established already, a faith not entirely associated with the teachings of Christ, rather, the rumblings of my stomach.
My parents weren’t Church goers; though I mistakenly took this to be an absence of faith. What I didn’t know is that they had both been regular attendees at Church in their past. My father, schooled in dour Presbyterianism as a child and young man in Scotland, my mother until the birth of their first child, a regular parishioner at the local Anglican church.
I learnt of my father’s faith when I was around 10 years of age. I answered the door to friends of my parents, the Barnets, who had arrived unannounced and asked if my parents were in.
They were and I wandered into the living room, leaving the Barnets on the doorstep to announce their arrival to my parents. I discovered my parents deep in conversation and being well schooled in politeness, I allowed them to continue their discussion without interrupting. Eventually they noticed me and they asked what I wanted – I mentioned the Barnets were on the doorstep and my father leapt up realising they’d been stood there for some time.
When they had left, my Mum and Dad sat me down and taught me a lesson in hospitality – never leave anyone on the doorstep; always invite them in. It was noted and at the next opportunity, their words echoed in my ears and I ushered the next unannounced set of guests that arrived into our house.
Two hours later, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses left, my parents sat me down again and explained to me that in future it would be better to leave people on the doorstep and to interrupt their conversation.
What I discovered from that experience too, was that my father could draw on his theological learnings to actively debate with our visitors. My mother would anecdotally relate that for much of the two hours they were with us, it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were desperate to get away, but that my father wouldn’t let them, actively challenging their doctrine and belief. How much of that is the truth or folklore, I don’t know, but it made for good copy.
My father died when I was 13, so I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss faith matters with him at the point when my religious curiosity began to evolve, but I did have the chance to explore the topic with my mother.
At 16 I spent a holiday with a friend and his family at a Christian holiday park, El Rancho, in Waikanae. Whilst we didn’t get involved in any Christian activities when we were there, we did discover that some of the more interesting girls were active in the youth group. The youth group extended its outreach to the wider Wellington region and to keep in contact with the girls, we found ourselves signing up. Suffice to say, God uses hormones in mysterious ways.
Our involvement led to the occasional outreach visit at one of our houses and when hosting at our house, I sensed that my mother wasn’t entirely comfortable with the programme and its leadership. I discussed her concerns with her later, which are somewhat incidental to this tale, but what it did lead to was an understanding of my mother’s faith.
I learnt that my mother had been a regular Church goer at the local Anglican Church from her arrival in New Zealand in 1959. She would attend weekly, quietly entering just before the service began and would leave, without fuss, at the end. She continued to do this until the birth of her first child in 1962. My oldest sister, who would have taken the name of Tracey, was still born. The reason for her death was never made clear to my parents; at the time, communication and transparency within the medical profession left a great deal to be desired – in fact, my mother was denied sight and touch of her new born, a pain that I don’t think ever left her. As you can imagine, that left her bereft; seeking answers where none could be found. She turned instead to her faith, hoping to find comfort and care from the Church she attended. What unfolded only added to her pain. Her quiet, weekly attendance had gone unnoticed and in what was an unconscionable act, her local vicar refused her an audience in her hour of need, not recognising her as one of his parishioners. It profoundly affected my mother and she ceased all Church visits. Faith for her would become an entirely private province, one that she kept between herself and God.
Her story had an influence on me too, creating an agnosticism that I would carry for the next 15 years. Future visits to churches would be for weddings and funerals, until that is, I met Alex. Alex’s parents have always been active church members and when visiting them for the occasional weekend, Alex and I would join them at their local church in Upavon, which represented a quiet reintroduction. We were married there in July 1998, and I confessed to the Reverend Don Sloggit, that I was an agnostic – I felt somewhat hypocritical about taking my vows in a Christian service and not coming clean about my leanings. To my great surprise, Father Don laughed. “Happens all the time,” he said. “You’re just the first to admit it.”
Following the birth of Jamie in May 1999, we moved from our flat in Islington and into a terraced house in North London. We arranged a service of blessing for Jamie at our nearest Church, St Paul’s, Harringay. I wasn’t quite ready for him to be baptised, a reflection of where my faith sat and a testimony to Alex’s patience and love.
To my disgrace, I don’t recall ever returning to St Paul’s, and soon after, we had the opportunity to move to the States. We lived in a lovely town, Ridgewood in New Jersey, and Alex gently encouraged me to join her at the local Episcopalian Church. We visited a couple of times, with our two-month-old Pippa featuring in their 2002 nativity, performing wonderfully as the sleeping baby Jesus. Superficially, the church felt welcoming, but in the post-service coffee break, we felt distinctly alone and outside the community and my mother’s story nudged at me, reaffirming my views. Our time in the US was not going to be one that would bring me closer to God.
After two and a half years, we returned to Harringay and started attending St Mary’s Church in Hornsey. For Alex, it represented the rekindling of her faith that she had been seeking. For me, shamefully, it was more about securing a place for Jamie in the local C of E primary, the best school in our area; yet another instance of my faith being more pragmatic than spiritual, but then an interesting thing happened.
In the run-up to Christmas, the Church and school arranged for a lantern parade that would see us process from the senior school to the junior school, ending with a service at St Mary’s Tower, the original site of the Church, that stood alongside the junior school and which is now used on a very occasional basis for an after-school service for the children. Naturally enough, as a C of E school and with active Church involvement, the procession was to be headed by an acolyte bearing a cross.
Now London, as you know, is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and religions. I did a Google search in preparation for today and discovered that in Harringay alone there are 2,570 places of worship. Of those defined, 10 are Buddhist, 19 Sikh, 28 Hindu, 56 Jewish, 106 Muslim and 81%, or 2,074, are Christian. So, it was a little disappointing to receive a letter from the local council asking us not to process bearing a cross as it might serve to offend the wider religious community.
It is strange that my not entirely Christian outrage should lead to my personal epiphany, but I found myself indignant that in a predominantly Christian society, we were being asked not to demonstrate our faith. We Christians and Brits (and I use the latter term loosely) are not the most demonstrative of sorts, preferring often to conceal from, rather than foist our faith on others, but on this occasion, I felt a need to be defiant and demonstrate my faith. A faith, which up until that point, I didn’t know I had.
We did process with the cross, we didn’t upset anyone and we were joined in our lantern parade by a healthy cross-cultural mix – it was, as one would expect, a beautifully peaceful occasion and the moment that my agnosticism slipped from my shoulders.
I can’t say that I adopted any form of missionary zeal as a consequence. I am still very much learning about my faith and recognising that it is far from developed. It has come to me slowly and continues to evolve. It did however, lead me to a late-in-life Baptism, which I was fortunate to share with both Jamie and Pippa on 23 April 2005 and my confirmation followed in June that year.
My journey of faith is a little analogous to those architectural styles of the Baptist Church where my journey began; somewhat disparate, perhaps a tad haphazard, but hopefully sound. It has been a slow journey over many years, influenced and nurtured by the faith of friends and family. It has been strengthened by the community of St George’s; the welcome and warmth that we have enjoyed in our 10 years in Wash Common, exposure to Church and Church activities and the friendships that we have been blessed to form, especially though, by the constant, unwavering love and support of Mrs. B.
My faith is sustained and develops from a growing surety of divine love and an increasing ability to recognise it in its great and simple forms. We live in incredibly troubled times; extremist threats, increasing nationalism and xenophobia, abject cruelty, and a growing divide between the rich and poor are just some of the conflicts and challenges we face today. Yet amongst all these, we witness astonishing acts of kindness and courage from groups and individuals who selfless behaviour gives succour and hope to those that are suffering; the persecuted, the refugees and the impoverished. But I also see small acts of kindness and love in the everyday; helping someone with difficulties to cross a road, others giving their time to the community or simply being there for someone in their time of need. It’s in those times, particularly, that I sense the presence of God and I am reminded of the words of Thomas Paine, which my father had recorded in his journal, ‘The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion’.
To conclude, I would say that what I have learnt from my mother’s experience is this; that we will encounter imperfections as we progress through life and there will be times when these may bring us to doubt our faith or challenge our beliefs. Equally, we may find, that those experiences may act as the catalyst to finding our faith. Whatever the case, it is the patience and love of our God that is a constant and I take comfort from my belief and trust that he will be with me in my moments of doubt and that wherever I happen to be in my journey, he will always be waiting for me.