By
Howard Grace
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29 March, 2018

Seeds are sown

Nearly fifty years ago, as a young man, I spent two years in India doing voluntary work. Much of that time was spent with Indian university students. These were often intelligent, well-educated young people. What struck me though was whether, in the future, they would use their abilities and training primarily to just have a nice life for themselves or in some way to serve others and the community. What inspires this deeper motivation?

Some years later, as an Advanced-level mathematics teacher in a UK Comprehensive school, I also became responsible for Sixth Form Current Affairs. Once again I became aware of the importance of motivation and purpose in the very able young people I was working with.

Stepping out

In 1995 this awareness led to my stopping formal teaching to be free to develop a programme in Sixth Forms all round Britain, doing interactive sessions to provoke thought about purpose in life and motivation. This was under the umbrella of the NGO, Initiatives of Change. During the years following that the focus was on small teams of younger people who spent the autumn and spring terms together. Countries represented in these teams have been Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Honduras, India, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, UK, USA, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

Purpose

We used themes such as ‘Moving Out Of Your Comfort Zone’, ‘Being My(better)self’ & ‘Freedom isn’t Free’ to focus the inner struggle which we all experience. Rather than talking about specific subjects like ‘drugs’, our themes aimed to create a broader context from which all issues could get a perspective.

Our teams facilitated about 800 sessions in Sixth Forms, often with groups of about 60 to 100 students for an hour. We went to tough inner-city state schools and to privileged independent colleges, interacting with some 50,000 students.

Focus of sessions

As an example, a few years ago, two people aged 18 and 20, from Latvia and Russia joined us. They told the sixth formers, “We have had momentous changes in our countries since the fall of the Soviet Union and are now looking at what sort of society we would like to build. We are attracted by some things we see in the West, but are interested to see the impact of your society on you. Would you recommend your society in the UK for our countries to aspire to?”

We also often quoted someone as saying, “In the West, in the UK we have everything to live with but nothing to live for.” After asking the students if they agreed with this statement (some did and some didn’t) we then asked, “What do you live for if you basically have all you need? Is it ‘more of the same’? Or is it something else?” And “Why is it that in our society, when many basically have what they need, there is so much depression, drug taking or even suicide?” Questions like these prompted deeper thought, and enabled discussion on what the students felt is important to them.

Our sessions were ‘interactive’, not prescriptive, in the spirit of enquiry which is needed to get the modern generation involved. Teachers commented on the importance of questions like these which enabled ‘lateral thinking’.

"The sessions finished with a brief time of silence to reflect on these questions. Teachers often remarked about the effectiveness of these, as much for themselves as for the students. One teacher said of the whole session, 'You were speaking directly to me.’

Beyond Satisfaction

In the five months starting in September 2006 I was joined by Chris James (Australia), Roshan Gul (New Zealand) and Vlad Oleatovschi (Moldova). Much of the present atmosphere of society, such as advertising, appeals to self. But does this really satisfy? And does this limited purpose address the needs of our times? So the theme of discussion was: Beyond Satisfaction.

A highlight of Roshan’s sharing was her holding a candle which was lighted when positive experiences were shared and extinguished for negative ones. This also focused the need to not be blown around by outside influences but to be true to the light from within. That gives a deeper sense of fulfilment.

Joint Muslim/Christian action. ‘Raising a generation of trustbuilders.’

Following the London underground bombings, Musa Aliyu (Nigerian student), Amina Khalid (Somali refugee) and I facilitated sessions in about sixty Sixth Forms. Our theme was “Raising a generation of trust-builders”. We wanted to present a different narrative to the divisive one which had been generated by the bombings. Musa led the sessions and started by asking why the students thought that two young African Muslims and a relatively old English Christian would want to work together to visit schools like this.

When Amina was introduced, she shared something of her experiences as a young person in Somalia, growing up in a civil war zone. For instance her uncle was shot dead by a neighbour who was an 'enemy'. Also at the age of eight she was playing outside with her four-year-old cousin, when he was shot in the arm in front of her. Her family had ended up as refugees in London, where she was sent to school at the age of 13, hardly speaking any English. She was bullied and racially abused, partly because of wearing a headscarf. She went to four different schools, and had a torrid time. She asked the students for feedback on what she should have done in that situation, try to fight back or to walk away? Questions like this led to some thoughtful discussion.

Overall perspective

It is clear that schools greatly appreciated the contribution we made to the education of their students. However, to my mind, that is less than half the value in doing this programme. It has been a wonderful training vehicle, towards gaining experience, for those of us involved in teams giving the sessions. As well as fostering our presentation skills we are forced to think deeply about the topics we discuss. It also challenges us to live what we talk about. I know from my own training to be a teacher that the most valuable part of the course was when we trainee teachers were sent into schools to put into practice what we were supposed to have been learning. The Schools Programme fulfilled that role for us participants.

My main focus in life has now changed to bridge-building in a wider context than schools. But I still sometimes get invited to facilitate sessions in Sixth Forms and value the opportunity to have this interaction with the younger generation. This currently involves sessions around the film Beyond Forgiving, of which I’m the executive producer. The film features the remarkable personal journey of a commander of the South African liberation struggle against apartheid and the mother of a young woman killed in one of the massacres he ordered. See ‘Beyond them and us’, Progressive Voices 22, September 2017.  

Is it Christian?

Sometimes people have asked me whether this schools programme is Christian. I wonder sometimes what Jesus would have done had he been facilitating school sessions in the twenty first century. When he lived, two thousand years ago, it was largely accepted that people believed in, and had a particular image of, God. So, his mission was basically to challenge/inspire them to obey God. In the present day, the great majority of students don’t think that way. So, would Jesus primarily try to persuade them to ‘believe’ in a particular perception of God. Or would he engage in a way that inspired them to be true to their deeper inner leading, with integrity and compassion? That is my aim. People can judge for themselves whether that is obeying God, or makes it a Christian programme.

To me this is a fundamental question for Progressive Christians to ponder if we wish to engage with young people, many of whom are turned off by attempts to convince them about religious beliefs.

Originally published on Progressive Voices.