The Flags that Welcome the World


Posted by in May's Magazine

To sing Bambalela, an Africa chant meaning never give up, with people from all walks of life feels to Sally Fraser like a certain kind of blessing 

I don’t think we are going to have Cape Verde,” says my husband. “This gentleman is from Cape Verde, I don’t think there will be a flag for him.” It is Saturday evening, and we have a hot date at church, asking people where they come from on their way out of Mass and pinning flags to a display. It is part of the preparations for our International Mass and Supper party, where we celebrate our ‘unity in diversity’, which this year seems more important than ever.

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“Look in the box” I say. “I am sure Nuala will have made one, she surprised me with Azerbaijan the other day”. Nuala is an incredible volunteer who has made hundreds of flags including many, many hand-drawn saltires, a civil servant by day and paper-cut crusader by night. And lo and behold, to husband’s astonishment and man-from-Cape-Verde’s apparent delight, there was indeed the right flag. Oh happy day. God is good, and Nuala is amazing: you come half way round the world and your local church presents you with a cut-out flag to put on their wall to say how welcome you are. 

“Lots of people are from Goa, but we don’t know what language they speak and I don’t want to put my foot in it” I tell Fr Martin. “They can probably speak Portuguese,” he says. “But that is because of colonisation,” I say. “I don’t think that’s the right tone: we will celebrate diversity by reading scripture at you in the language of your oppressors”. 

“Well then, we ask them”, says Fr Martin, and of course he is right. That’s how you do diversity and sensitivity: you communicate openly and directly, and now I am the proud owner of the Konkani Catholic Bible App.

We try and get as many languages as we can into the service. Some readings, some prayers, some songs. One way or another, every one of the 27 languages we had represented in our parish made it into the Mass, even if it was just a Eurovision song-contest style welcome, thanks to a team of linguists devotedly studying you-tube language videos. “We are still struggling a bit with Mauritian Creole” I was updated at one stage. And then there is the singing.

There is always something very powerful about singing in harmony. Using connection, listening and co-operation to produce something beautiful is almost certainly a metaphor for so much more. But to sing Bambalela, a chant from Africa that means never give up, with men and women from all walks of life and with an age range of nearly sixty years, feels like a certain kind of blessing. And not for the first time, I am struck by how moving it is to pray in different languages for the same thing – something mysterious, unfathomable.

But we are people of flesh and blood and fellowship as well, and there is an important potluck supper to be had. I avoid the rush to the buffet, because church buffets can be brutal at the best of times but this one is always the most amazing you have ever seen or tasted. And also I know, that in a biblical style scenario, the best dish of the night will probably be the one a man called Eric from the Alsace rolls up with a bit later – something that will probably contain unexpected sprouts that you like more than you think.

And this year he doesn’t disappoint, with a side of spiced pork belly that makes my heart sing. I greedily devour a slice then head back to the table to get at the bones, which is where Eric finds me gnawing on a spare rib. I am a bit embarrassed, but we know we both get it, we are people who like meat with lots of fat and bones, this is soul food indeed.

I paint faces. I always love painting faces. You don’t quite get to notice just how lovely kids faces are until you paint them, all such completely different shapes and sizes. Big cheeks. Big eyes. I will assess a kids’ bone structure at twenty paces to see if they would make a better tiger or a butterfly. On this occasion I was doing flags and I loved to see children decide they wanted a saltire on one cheek and a St George’s cross on the other. Or one Polish one Union Jack, If only we could all take such a non-binary approach, we wouldn’t get in such messes.

Amidst the belly pork and the flags and the singing and the face-paint I get the odd glimpse of something else, a sense of something more than the sum of its parts

And amidst the belly pork and the flags and the singing and the face-paint I get the odd glimpse of something else, a sense of something more than the sum of its parts. He is our peace, he has broken down every wall, we sang one Sunday, and to me that is what it’s all about. Because I don’t know much for certain but I know that wherever there is division He cannot be, and He will break down walls wherever we will let Him. Usually starting with the ones within us that lead to all the others. We are celebrating that, in song and stovie, in prayer and pork fat.

And if you asked me – which you didn’t, but if you did – what my faith means to me and what my work meant to me or what I like about it, I would say that its something to do with the hope which lies in not knowing the consequences of actions, not dealing in things that can be measured.

To have faith is to believe that somehow, even if we don’t understand it, the barriers we take down in one corner of the world might lead to peace in another, that every heart left slightly less broken can cause ripples through the universe we can’t possibly understand. That every celebration of kindness and goodness contributes to a change the world so desperately needs, and that somehow, sometimes, can be enough. It has to be.

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