There are certain things you plan into your life, and plenty that you don’t or can’t. There are people you never expect to meet or connect with but do, and there are people you try to find and yet still miss.
Friendship is rarely a pre-planned relationship. It’s often most easily found with those who are most like us and share our life experiences.
And yet, in the face of such odds, I am trying to find friends in my town who are different to me. I guess all we can do is keep putting ourselves into contexts that are different, hoping that friendship will spark somewhere.
In pursuit of this hope, a couple of weeks ago we arranged to visit our local mosque, on National Visit My Mosque day (Sunday 5th February). Yes, National Visit My Mosque day. Who knew that was a thing? It started in 2015, and I stumbled across its existence somewhere on social media about a week before. I live in a town with a massive Muslim population, mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and probably the majority of them live in one particular part of the town. It seems logical to me how ghettos like that grow – when you move to a new country you choose the neighbourhood where you know people. But then it gets so big that that in many ways it becomes self-sufficient with its own micro-economy and schools and community centres, and it gets harder and harder to meet people whose culture and ethnicity is different to your own, even though you’re in the same town. So. The chance to visit a local mosque, at their invitation, seemed like a brilliant opportunity. Maybe I would make a friend.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and all four of us went. Some friends, another family with small children, joined us. The Mosque in question, the only one in Luton which had opened up for the day, was actually a converted end-of-terrace house. It wasn’t dissimilar to a church hall, apart from the things up on the walls. There were girl guides (a Muslim branch), small children running around, an urn of tea and a plate of biscuits, and then, more unlike a church, curry. It was hard at first to get into conversations (I was perhaps overly cautious about launching into conversation with the older Muslim men, given the varying attitudes towards women’s roles in Islam, and then the women were all grouped together, chatting away amongst themselves) but then I found someone who was very chatty, a man around my own age. And I found out a lot. It turns out that studying a paper on Islam for GCSE Religious Studies doesn’t tell you everything about this ancient and complex religion.
Some of the things we talked about felt familiar, with many parallels in my own faith – the denominations, the evolving interpretation of Scripture, even the differing levels of reverence afforded to Mary in Christianity and the prophet’s mother in Islam. There were many differences too. Some things also sounded a bit batty, but to be honest that made me reflect on the battier elements of my own Christian faith. I enjoyed the conversation, and I was grateful to be invited into their faith community, even for a couple of hours.
A few days later we invited our neighbours round for drinks. We’d planned to do it in the run up to Christmas but had been thwarted by a chicken pox scare, and then the neighbours had seemed genuinely disappointed that we’d cancelled, so we picked another date. We had five households join us from the street – two of which have lived here more than fifty years. One of our neighbours speaks very little English and we were really touched she came. Another neighbour, an Irishman, baked scones for the occasion. I probably ate more than anyone else, but then that’s always been a gift of mine. It was a late night, and the beginning of new friendships which proximity will hopefully help us to feed.
So, small steps, and the challenge is to keep taking them even when they feel small and awkward. All encouragement welcomed…by