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No stranger to kindness

by
17 February 2023

Imran Boe Khan reflects on identity and finding blessings in unexpected places

Alamy

SINCE my wife embarked on the path towards ordination, and I have been recognised as a priest’s-husband-in-waiting, I have become something of a pivot between the clergy and my fellow parishioners. I have fielded everything from desperate, late-night calls about where to find donkey masks for a children’s service the next morning, to requests for advice about how to delicately set up a “chance romantic encounter” between a parishioner’s daughter and a young curate.

While my increasing presence at the church means that I have a fighting chance of locating donkey masks at a moment’s notice, I find myself woefully ill-equipped in scenarios of the latter variety.

Although there are all sorts of subjects that, I know, I will never master, I feel that — since my wife began following her calling — opportunities are being presented to me for my own learning and growth. While I am blessed to be among people who are innately hospitable, so fellowship was bound to occur (I simply had to be present), as a man of colour, in a town and religious community where I am statistically more of an ethnic outlier than I would be in many places in Britain, I am aware that my “otherness” sticks out.

I am someone for whom the acquiring and maintaining of material possessions has not been of interest. I often walk to church — regardless of the weather — in a bright T-shirt, khaki shorts, and trainers, with my daily needs (glasses, water bottle, packed lunch) in a carrier bag, and am regularly mistaken for someone who has travelled for longer than five minutes to get there. Although I enter the doors on almost daily, the volunteer welcomers always — with charm, kindness, and hospitability — give me a welcome leaflet and offer me a tour of the building.

Although this offer isn’t extended to my wife (who is often separated from me by a well-meaning lead welcomer), there is no offence to be taken. The unfamiliarity of my ethnic identity and my dress encourage friendly people to welcome the “other”, and this ethic of welcome is a vitally important part of the Church.

 

BEING strange in a familiar place takes some getting used to. Once, as a five-year-old in a suburban Church of England primary school, I was given a standing ovation in morning assembly simply on account of the colour of my skin.

My exuberant head teacher had asked every black child in our whole-school assembly to stand up. My peers gave me encouraging shrugs and, in a matter of seconds, my head teacher and I were the only ones standing in a room of 300 people. Clearly, this was not the Church of England’s strategy towards integrating those who might feel alien and strange; but it was the idea of one person who wanted to receive and love someone, and to teach others to do the same.

I tell these stories with fondness because the active agents in them are people who are embracing xenophilia: “loving what is strange or foreign”. With hindsight, perhaps my old head teacher may feel that she should have trodden more carefully; or perhaps she proudly tells any family member or friend who cares to listen about the time she taught hundreds of students to cherish the unfamiliar.

When my parents occasionally tell the story of the time when their prodigy of a son received a standing ovation in his first week of school, their retelling is almost entirely accurate but for their subtle alteration of making the applause due to mathematical achievement rather than skin tone.

The experiences of daily welcome leaflets and a standing ovation for my skin colour are memorable because they are unusual. Most of my church interactions have been with the many people who have sought to understand me on my own terms rather than sharpen the distinction between host and guest and put me firmly in the latter category. If the sojourner is understood as one who is displaced, it is easy to assume that someone we perceive as unfamiliar is bound to that other place, when, actually, they may have been present but unobserved in the very physical space that we have ourselves been occupying.

Many people in my congregation have shown me what it is to be loved and welcomed in the manner beautifully articulated in Leviticus: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19.34, NIV). I have been shown a spirit of mutuality and fellowship which has taught me about Christian unity and opened my mind to the transcendent.

 

DURING the pandemic, lockdowns affected my ability to work as an online tutor. We were caring for our two young children in a two-bedroom flat with an internet connection designed to promote madness in its users. My wife called me a “digital nomad” as I walked the streets trying to find a decent internet connection, but, since I can’t drive, she would kindly park her car outside any location that I found with free Wi-Fi. I’d prop my laptop on the steering wheel, log into Zoom, and set about teaching primary- and secondary-school English.

When a local friend discovered that I had been teaching from my wife’s car, she offered me the use of the internet at her family home. When there were functions in her house, or her two teenage boys needed the sanctuary of their rooms, I would log in to her Wi-Fi from the front steps of the community centre across the road. The users of the community centre were very gracious, even apologising for the noise generated as they parked. They were active in dissolving the boundary between host and visitor.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes about how the movement from hostility to hospitality towards the stranger marks a crucial shifting of the human soul and precipitates spiritual growth. As Michael Walker points out, such hospitality is not exclusive to the Christian and Jewish teachings of grace: it is also present, for example, in the Hadith, where men and women in the early Islamic communities extended gracious hospitality to paupers who had arrived at their doorsteps in search of physical or emotional sustenance. I have taught on my fair share of doorsteps.

As word spread about the lady offering me her home and Wi-Fi, other charitable people moved to support me also. I was reminded of Galatians (6.2): “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.”

My students made fun of the ever-changing backdrop to my lessons: “Oh, you have a new set-up, sir”; “Sir, I’ve seen this room in MTV Cribs”; but it occurred to me that I was teaching them the value not only of literary devices in their writing, but also of community and fellowship — and not simply the practical benefits, but the emotional and spiritual ones, also.

The Vicar of Haydon Bridge, the Revd Dr Benjamin Carter, once observed that the right covenantal bonds within a community could lead us to the right relationship with God. I felt deep mutual bonds with my community.

During breaks between sessions, I savoured my forays into the kitchens of my hosts — not for the Hobnobs and custard creams that were offered, but because the brief chats with my hosts reaffirmed the covenant that we have with God. I learned about their lives, and what I could do to support them.

 

ROWAN WILLIAMS describes the love of neighbour as a “radically kenotic affair”, in which we grapple with our desire to self-serve while struggling against our neighbour’s desire to do the same; but I felt, during these times, that a genuine and deeply interested benevolence meant that we were mutually engaging with one another’s reality. This was intensely liberating, as it underlined for me the divine connectedness into which I had been baptised.

My head teacher’s cringeworthy and, frankly, terrifying call for applause for the colour of my skin, like the welcomers’ daily offering of a visitor leaflet, is part of the broader project of serving one’s neighbour. I was never really a pivot, but someone blessed to be in a position to witness the dissolution of boundaries between “self” and “other”. And I am still learning, as I stumble — with my carrier bag and trainers — into unexpected lessons in unlikely classrooms.

 

Imran Boe Khan teaches Interactive Storytelling at Bournemouth University. A winner of the Thomas Hardy Award, he lives in Christchurch, Dorset, with his wife and two young children.

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