THE Revd Jemima Prasadam is a priest who likes to talk, but her style is less to preach from the pulpit than to build a community by chatting to anyone of any faith she meets on the streets.
After 20 years honing her skills in the tough multi-cultural, inner-city Birmingham benefice of Lozells, she is polishing them in retirement in the leafy west-London parish of Holy Trinity, Richmond, where the clergy refer to her as their “special evangelist”.
Mrs Prasdam makes a point of speaking to anybody, whether she is waiting in a bus queue, at a coffee shop, or buying a pint of milk. It might start with a comment on the weather, or a smile for a toddler, but often the talk turns to matters of faith and there is always a word of support or encouragement — and, occasionally, an invitation to church.
“I don’t know if I have talent for striking up conversations; I am just being myself,” she said. “Jesus talked to people, even about the most mundane of human things. The Church seems to have lost that; I don’t know why. Yes, we have monumental buildings — and I love that and the glory that is there — but the Church is also on the pavement and in the shops.”
Born in southern India almost 80 years ago, she emigrated to Britain in 1975, and, in 1987, was the first non-white woman to be ordained in the Church’s first tranche of female priests. When she was appointed to Lozells, some gave her less than a year to survive the parish’s social tensions. Dr Sentamu, when Bishop of Birmingham, came to marvel at her ability to get all sides on board and build a caring community. He dubbed her their “Auntie Jemima”. Locals called her the “Bobby on the Beat” because she was always out on the streets.
“I don’t go out looking to talk to people, but I am ready to do it,” she said. “I don’t pass anybody without saying ‘Hello’, and when I leave, I always say ‘God bless you’. Meetings happen on a daily basis, but often only last as long as it takes for the bus to arrive.” One Christmas she pinned greetings cards to her jacket, which, unsurprisingly, sparked a series of conversations.
“There is no set pattern: it is spontaneous. People are perhaps reading a newspaper. I ask is there anything good, and they usually come out with something. Some people are very British and reserved, but most people are prepared to talk. They often say they are not religious, but I say we are all spiritual beings and they agree; so I simply tell them that weak and simple people like me call that God.
“Some people come across as angry; they have been let down by their faith or are too busy at work. But many accept my invitation to come to Trinity Church. Last week, seven people came at the same time. They included two Hindus, one Japanese woman, an Irishman, and a Scottish woman. Many of them come again. I am not proselytising or recruiting: I just invite them to come along.”