Onward Christian soldier?

In this blog I respond to the challenge that my Christian faith might impede my ability to fully carry out my job.

And to set the scene here’s a bit of background information. For the last 7 years I’ve served as a Cultural Specialist in the Army, so religion forms big part of our studies and training, and the question of faith was often brought up, which I actually think is a really good thing. Yet I’ve been asked if being a Christian gets in the way of me carrying out my job, as my role requires me to work with Muslims. I’d say I get about as animated over this question as I do when I’m asked if me being a woman gets in the way of me doing my job! So I thought I’d share my experiences in order to answer the question.

As I’ve served with the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit for 7 years, but have only been a practicing Christian for the last 3, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to give an account from both perspectives, which I hope leads to a much more rounded and balanced answer.

To begin with let’s tackle the question of gender because I believe the two questions are inextricably linked. This question is one that friends, family and colleagues seem very curious about. Even with a basic understanding of Afghanistan’s complex and fascinating culture, most people are aware that it is a patriarchal society, and therefore being a woman and working in communities could prove challenging.  So has being a woman had a negative impact on my ability to carry out my role? Not in my experience.

In fact, I personally found that being a woman opened doors to situations that would have been firmly closed, had I been a man. I had access to ‘the other 50%’ of the country that my male counterparts could not have contact with, and was invited freely into homes. I could sit and chat in a very informal and relaxed way with generations of women and their children. In doing so I was able to build positive relationships with their husbands and brothers.

And as for their husbands and brothers, I experienced very little tension or resistance arose due to my gender. In the 18 months I spent living and working in Afghanistan, I can name only a handful of men who found working with a young female officer a difficulty.  My overwhelming experience was that it encouraged conversation and led to relaxed and less charged interactions that were peppered with humour and intrigue. I think the positive relations I built were helped, not hindered, by being a woman. I give this starting point because it’s impossible to give a perspective of a Christian in this context, without first highlighting or at least mentioning, that I am also a woman.

 

The question of faith, and what impact it could have on relations with foreign nationals, was first on my radar many years before I deployed to Afghanistan. At the age of 19, I traveled to Sri Lanka as a volunteer after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. During my stay I made the mistake of being open about my then-atheism to the extended family with whom I was living. My Muslim hosts were disturbed when I told them I didn’t believe in God, and so I quickly changed my story. I said I’d misunderstood, due to the language barrier. Should I have lied about believing in God? This is a good question that could be argued at length, but isn’t dealt with here I’m afraid.

What I learned from the situation, was that if the topic of religion came up, and I was dependant on good relations with my hosts who were Muslim (and did not share a common language), it was better to claim to be a Christian than to try and explain my atheism.

They could happily accept that I worshipped God differently, but what they could not accept or understand was that I believed God did not exist. This lesson would prove useful in the future.

Years later, and still an atheist, I was serving on my first deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. My job would bring me into daily contact with local villagers. I was reminded in training that among other things, I was never to bring up religion in conversation with Afghans. The few times it did come up, usually initiated by interpreters who I worked closely with, I stated that I was a Christian, then moved the conversation on. In a culture that was seemingly so saturated and influenced by religious structures and customs, perhaps it was a shame that I’d been trained to avoid the topic. But then, I also wouldn’t have wanted to get into any bigger lies about my fictional faith.

Short video of my role in Afghanistan 2008/2009 found here

In 2011, whilst studying Pashto (one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan) in preparation for my next tour, I was keen to understand Islam better. I was fascinated by this religion and the different ways in which it was practiced. At the time my curiosity only extended as far as what others believed, and never led to me questioning what I believed. If I’m honest, I thought religion was either a learned behaviour that was followed simply to avoid exclusion from the in-group, or it was a crutch that people needed to feel their lives had meaning.

I had a respect for the commitment of the faithful, much like I had a respect for anyone who commits themselves, such as marathon runners or musicians. But I never questioned whether it could be true.

This changed in 2012 at the beginning of my second operational tour of Afghanistan when I had an out of the blue encounter with God in a shipping container and shortly after, became a practising and committed Christian.

So, now that I was a Christian, was there any impact on my work during my second and third tours of Afghanistan? Overall I believe it had little effect, but what effect it did have was undeniably positive. It’s certainly conceivable that the positive experiences I had were only made possible because I spoke Pashto and so need’t concern myself with interpreters missing the nuance of what I was trying to convey (always a risk no matter what the topic of conversation). Also, I spoke from the perspective of a woman. Did this mean the conversations felt less threatening? Perhaps it allowed the men to explore what my faith meant more freely .

One night I joined a patrol who were setting up a covert look-out on a cow shed (those not on sentry duty could sleep inside on the straw with the mice, which did feel rather Biblical). I was there to chat with the locals who would start gathering at dawn the next morning, once we made our presence known. It was on this morning that I was chatting to some youths who were asking me to recite the Kalima, the Muslim profession of faith. Explaining that I could’t on the grounds that I was a Christian, we got into a long and lively discussion about the differences and similarities between our faiths. Mostly these teenagers and young men wanted to challenge the fact I worshipped three Gods, and I found myself trying to explain the Trinitarian nature of Christianity in Pashto, a topic we hadn’t covered in the classroom back in the UK, testing my vocabulary somewhat!

Before long a crowd had gathered to hear about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and they tried to grasp how this was not polytheism, which I confess I did a poor job of conveying. As the weak winter sun warmed us up, and we shared what boiled sweets we had, I felt certain that it was a positive experience. It brought together a lot of local people (dogs and goats) who were sharing their faith and asking me about mine (not the dogs or the goats). It may not have built relationships any quicker or stronger than if we had been discussing livestock or irrigation methods, but I learned that for me, as a Pashto speaker, woman and Christian, discussing faith was not off-limits.

I began to realise that my steadily growing faith in the winter of 2012 and spring and summer of 2013 meant I was much more relaxed about Islamic customs than I’d been in Sri Lanka or on my first tour of Afghanistan. Often the Afghans started shuras (meetings) with a prayer. Previously I would have joined my Army colleagues in feeling rather awkward, not knowing where to look or how to sit or whether to close our eyes and what to do with our hands. Is it offensive to join in? Is it offensive to not join in? Finally as a Christian I felt at ease during prayers, letting the beautiful Arabic words float over me as I prayed silently to myself in English for safety, security and a fruitful meeting, and we all finished by saying Amen (pronounced Amin in Arabic).

When my role in Afghanistan came to an end, I retrained as a Balkans cultural specialist. And whilst studying Bosnian at the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture, I bumped into an old Pashto tutor. In the past we’d had many in-depth debates about religion, before I believed. So I told him I’d found God in Afghanistan and had become a practicing Christian. He smiled and said ‘Good, now we need to get you worshipping the right God.’ We were close enough for him to tease me about this, and I felt that now that we were both committed to our faiths, we had one more thing in common.

My language training continued in Bosnia and Herzegovina where I spent last summer living with a local family in the capital Sarajevo, and studying in a local language school. During my stay, my host family would be observing (to some extent) Ramadan and then Eid, and the country would mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in which over 7,000 men and boys were killed. The victims were almost exclusively Muslim, and the aggressors were almost exclusively Christian. The conflict raged for several years during which time an estimated 100,000 lives were lost on all sides, however in places like Srebrenica who lost so many of their sons, and Sarajevo which was under siege by the Army of Republika Srpska for 1,425 days, the undeniable feeling amongst the predominantly Muslim population is that they were the victims in a war that should never have happened. The factors leading to this conflict, and the many perspectives of what happened is too great a topic to explore further in this blog, but suffice to say that on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, I was aware that I was a Christian.

Despite this backdrop, to my surprise I found that my faith was not an area of tension whatsoever. Perhaps this is because the war was far more about power and domination of one peoples over another, than it was about the different ways in which people practice their faith. Not being Bosnian therefore, my Christian faith didn’t matter at all to the locals. My host family, who were only cultural Muslims- that is they took part in big religious holidays that brought their families together, just as my own family observes Christmas, but wouldn’t consider themselves as practising- found my faith a curious thing. They were intrigued to have a ‘devout’ Christian staying with them but we didn’t spend much time talking about religion, as they had little to say on the matter. We had much more in common when it came to films, music, wine and pets. Their family’s experience of the negative impact of being labelled this religion or that, was devastating, indeed they were lucky to still be alive at all. It’s unsurprising that we didn’t talk a great deal about religion.

eid-meal

Sharing a meal together for Eid with my host family

At school however, I did. I had classes on how Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam were practiced in Bosnia. I visited mosques, synagogues and churches. I had lunch with a catholic priest, dinner in an orthodox church beer garden and attended religious festivals. I could fully engage in conversation with all three faiths and both denominations of Christianity because not only had I spent time studying them, but also understood what it is to have a relationship with God. This does not make me superior to my colleagues who don’t, but rather it opened up a conversation theme that I felt confident in engaging with on a really personal level. I think it was this that led to much quicker relationship building. Of course, like in Afghanistan we could have talked about other subjects and still built positive relations, though in Sarajevo it would have been Baklava and football rather than livestock and irrigation methods. In this case religion added another string to my bow.

More recently, I’ve been on secondment with 4th Infantry Brigade, engaged as a Community Liaison officer working alongside Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in North East England. Whilst the community engagement skills and experiences I’ve built up in the Army have been well employed, it’s actually what I’ve learned as a practising Christian that has been more helpful. My role is essentially to build strong relations with communities who may know little about the Armed Forces, or may have misconceptions or negative perceptions of it. The environment can be a challenging one, and yet feels very familiar. Telling the ‘army story’ to those who may at first have little interest or preconceived ideas is much like telling the Jesus story. Christians call this mission and evangelism. Safe territory for me then.

I took a module in Mission and Evangelism whilst I was studying theology at Cranmer Hall, gaining both practical experience and knowledge of theories and practitioners. Perhaps the most famous is the Apostle Paul. Paul had persecuted the early church and Jesus’ followers, but then he became a Christian whilst travelling to Damascus after an encounter with Christ. He then began spreading the gospel message to those who had not yet heard; primarily in foreign lands around the Mediterranean such as Corinth, Thessalonica and Macedonia. He was a master of communication and adaptability and was a traveller par excellence. Paul was undoubtedly a ‘Cultural Specialist’. Rather than imposing the cultural norms and practices of his homeland upon the foreign nationals he engaged with, he learned from them. Paul watched and studied them, finding out their customs and desires and he used this to build relationships in order to be more effective at delivering his message (Acts 17:16-34).

I admire Paul’s persuasive and intelligent approach to letter writing which formed a large part of his influence campaign, and how he used cultural knowledge to endear himself to his target audience (even though this was not always successful). It’s now hard for me to tell whether practising my faith and my interest in mission and evangelism impact more on my ability to work with different cultures, or whether my experience as a cultural specialist makes me naturally more at ease with mission and evangelism. Perhaps what is more important, is acknowledging how complimentary the two are, and the extent to which the transferable skills can be employed.

Being a practising Christian with a heart for conversation and listening to others has been an entirely positive experience for me, and rather than limiting me or causing problems for me whilst carrying out my role as a Cultural Specialist, it has aided me in finding common ground, and in understanding my target audience on another level. I’ve found that engaging people in conversations about their faith and mine has been a platform on which to build relationships, rather than it being an obstacle or area of conflict. Though intuitively, I do not make my faith the base from which to begin conversation. However if religion is brought up, I am honest about being a Christian and seek to engage on the commonalities, not the differences, in the same way I would with sport; if I knew I was talking to a football fan I would not focus on how superior I consider rugby to be, rather I would talk about our shared love for ball games.

Whether it’s communicating the message of Salvation, or security in Afghanistan, or what the role of the Army is today, the Apostle Paul’s approach to engaging with foreign nationals is a pretty good one; gaining knowledge of and respecting other people’s customs is an important part of appealing to one’s hosts in order to communicate your message. I absolutely think that being a Christian is compatible with working closely with other people and cultures who do not share this faith, but may have their own. The assumption that the two are incompatible is shortsighted, just as the assumption that a woman cannot engage effectively in a patriarchal Muslim country is shortsighted. What matters is the extent to which the individual shows respect and looks for common ground, and sees beyond differences of gender or faith.

Forays in Fellowship

I was recently thinking about how much my life has changed from this time last year (Facebook Time Hop helps!) and felt the urge to explain just what a huge part one small group of women in Oxfordshire who call themselves Pitstop, have played in my life.

I joined Pitstop (it didn’t really have a name at the time, I used to call it the Wednesday Morning Ladies’ Group) just after Easter last year. I had recently become a Christian whilst serving in Afghanistan but because I came to faith on my own, rather than as part of a friendship group or family, I found myself yearning to be around other Christians. I began attending services at my local Anglican Church back home, but because I was stationed at Shrivenam and was on a language course at the Defence Academy, I was only able to travel home about once a month. I didn’t feel part of a Christian community, I wasn’t familiar with ‘Christian ways’ and my early experiences as a Christian had all been worshipping in tents or outdoors in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I didn’t have any Christian friends and I was worried I was beginning to bore my non-Christian friends by banging on about Jesus too much. I needed a safe place I could explore my new faith.

I looked online and found that a group met just outside camp on Wednesday mornings, so I adapted my study routine to accommodate this and turned up one day and introduced myself. I had never been around such a big group of Christian women before. I’d been around Christians in church but since we spend most of the time facing forwards and listening to the Vicar or singing hymns, there isn’t exactly loads of scope for interaction when you’re a newcomer (and there’should only so much coffee you can drink afterwards).

What I found was an eclectic mix of women of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom were attached to the Armed Forces in some way, some of whom brought along their babies or children, and all of whom were welcoming and friendly people. I immediately felt at home there. Over the coming months I ate a lot of biscuits and cake and the occasional breakfast buffet, I drank a lot of tea and coffee and I learned what it means to worship in a community.

There were lots of surprises in store. Firstly, I’d never prayed out loud before, apart from the Lord’s Prayer or other set prayers in service booklets that my local church uses. I had never in my life spontaneously prayed out loud for something or someone. I had never been part of a Bible study group. I’d never been asked to comment on a passage from the Old Testament and consider what it might mean. I’d never sat by a piano in an almost empty church and sung unfamiliar hymns in a group of only 7 or 8 others. To me, all these things were both daunting and delightfully exciting. I so looked forward to Wednesdays.

For the first time ever I felt I could freely talk about Jesus, though to be honest I did a lot more listening than talking- unusual for me. I listened because, as far as I was concerned, I had little to add. I didn’t know the first thing about God, and I certainly wasn’t familiar with the colossally huge Bible. I didn’t yet know the Christian lingo. I was only just learning what fellowship meant and slowly but surely I was learning to incorporate phrases like ‘I feel so blessed’ and ‘Let’s worship together’ into my vernacular. I was also learning not to swear.

One of Pitstop’s greatest assets is that it’s ecumenical- another new word for me! I didn’t know or understand it at the time, but our group was filled with women from different Christian denominations who each worshipped differently and even had differing opinions on certain aspects of theology. But I never really knew who was from which church because we never focused on that, and I was as yet too much of a novice to spot the Evangelicals with their arms in the air. I was denomination-blind. And ater all, we were all there because we were Christians. The differences meant it was like a rich fruit cake of ideas and experiences, rather than a bland, plain scone drawn from only one church tradition.

Within those walls we shared deeply personal struggles and situations and exciting ways we saw God working in our lives.

I learned an awful lot from Liesel Parkinson who taught me not only about characters and stories from the Bible, but also how to illustrate and explain them creatively. One day we walked in and she had used a bundled sleeping bag to represent Jesus lying asleep in the boat as the storm raged around Him and His disciples. Another time we shared loaves and fish in the sunshine as we thought about another of His miracles.

The big moment for me came when Liesel asked if I would lead a study series on a topic of my choosing, as she would be in Cyprus due to her work with the Armed Forces Christian Union. As part of my own Christian calling, I’d already decided to leave the Army and begin a degree in Theology, Ministry and Mission at Cranmer Hall, Durham University, which I hoped would help me understand whether Ordained Ministry was what God was calling me to do (at the time it seemed very unrealistic indeed!). Liesel could see that it would do me good to lead the group over a couple of weeks, so I said yes. As a Captain in the Army I was certainly familiar with leadership, but I’d never tackled a subject area before that was so alien to me. What was expected of me? How would the women respond? Would I pitch it at the right level? How could I teach mature Christians when I knew so little about Christ?

As it happened, my attempt at leading Bible Study and leading worship went well, thanks to plenty of supportive prayers from the group and many late nights poring over books. I was given the opportunity to research, discover and interpret a Biblical theme, work with religious texts, choose hymns, write prayers and think up questions to pose to the group. And all of this in the safety of an intimate group of friends. This experience was a real turning point for me. It helped me to feel more comfortable with what I felt called to do/be in the future, and more prepared for beginning my studies in the much more immediate future.

Since then, I’ve completed my first part-time year at Cranmer Hall, and though I’ve had to postpone my studies (I ran out of money rather quicker than expected), I have recently begun a full-time position working for the Diocese of Durham. I’m running a two-year project called The Generous Giving Project which aims to bring about a culture of change in the North-East in people’s attitudes towards generous giving and money in relation to God. My work involves writing about faith, teaching others about faith, presenting to Christian groups, and occasionally preaching in churches on Sundays. It’s incredible to think that only a year ago I was so daunted at the prospect of leading a Bible Study at Pitstop! Who’d have thought I’d end up working for the C of E?

God has guided me expertly, and opened doors I would never have thought to walk through. I still very much consider myself to be a novice Christian, but I keep being told that, in this job, it can be a good thing. Being exposed to different traditions at Pitstop, plus worshipping in an Anglo-Catholic church at home, and attending a very Evangelical seminary means that I don’t really fit well into any particular church tradition, but rather feel comfortable slotting in to many. Thanks to the support of Pitstop, I could develop and grow as a Christian and see Jesus’ kindness and warmth reflected in the women who made up its numbers. So, a big thank you to Liesel and the team, and a big hurrah for all the other Christian fellowship groups across the land who provide a supportive and safe place to learn about God. Well done you.