franciscan - September 2002
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002
by Janet Bonney
Janet Bonney, a paid Community Worker with whom the brothers work on the Ley Hill estate in Birmingham, shared some of her story and reflections in an interview:
My Mum was brought up to be sort of part of the church, so when we were old enough, although she didn’t actually go to church herself, she encouraged us to go to Sunday School. It didn’t figure very highly in my life. When I was about seven, we moved house to an estate where there was a new church and my Mum started going then. I always thought it was more for the social side of things, but we didn’t really discuss it.
Then when I was barely twelve they were talking about confirmation classes. So I went along, and I don’t remember anyone challenging me about why I was there; they didn’t examine the faith at all. But I became confirmed, and carried on going until fourteen or fifteen when I drifted away for a long time. My Mum died when I was nineteen, and that shook things a bit. But then, I got married, got divorced, got married again, and that mother-in-law was church-going; very, very committed, Mothers’ Union, all that. So I started to go with her and continued with my two children, until they got restless and, when they wanted to do other things on Sunday mornings, we stopped.
I don’t think that I ever felt anything much more than the do-goody bit, which I did feel, that it felt right to go to church, that it was the done thing. I was quite close to my mother-in-law and it was nice to share something with her, and do something that made her pleased. It was more than just to please her – it was good to share something with her that mattered to her. It wasn’t just about getting brownie points. Because it mattered to her, it mattered to me.
But I used to get frustrated at the people because, at the time I was involved, I was also involved in community activity. Church was meant to be about caring: caring for neighbours, and it used to annoy me that the people who were at church didn’t want to get involved. I knew a lot of the people who went to church, and they would come out and be ‘slagging off’ everyone else that they sat in the pew with, that sort of stuff. Whatever sort of values people seem to believe, I don’t see them transferred. There are a few individuals, but I don’t know whether it’s just coincidence that that’s just what they’re like. Maybe they’re the people that do things, and church going is just one of the things they do. I think people have got lots of different reasons for going anywhere haven’t they? I like to be part of a group of people together. I get a buzz from it – a group of people gathered to do something – for a carnival, or for a meeting, or at a do at Barnardo’s or St Clare’s House. So I’m sure people get that from going to church. I don’t know what people really believe.
So on those odd occasions when I’ve been with you brothers in Chapel, it’s a bit like being with Grandma. I care about you, all of you, and it matters so much to you. Partly, I want to share in that and, partly, I value it because it makes you do what you do, and I think there must be something in it, something that I’m missing. I think, ‘What’s that something that they’re all part of and I’m not? Is that ever going to happen for me?’
But I think that I just can’t understand faith. We have this joke about it being fairy stories, and that’s what it’s like to me, because I just can’t get to that stage. A lot of the Bible is so unbelievable. It doesn’t just puzzle me. It amazes me that people believe it. Then some people say that some of it’s just picture language, but why is it there anyway then? Why take any of it? How can you believe any of it?
I can believe that throughout history there have been individuals that have behaved in a way that have made people think, ‘Yeah, that was a good way to be and I’d like to be like that person, and we ought all to behave in that way.’ But I can’t get to thinking that it was something ‘up there’ that made them behave in that way. Isn’t it just a character trait? I’m an agnostic I suppose. I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t believe,’ but I can’t find a reason to say ‘I do.’
I had a conversation with a visiting brother once about it, and I was saying, ‘How can you believe in something when you can’t prove it?’ And he was sort of saying if people get comfort from it, that it helps them through life, that’s OK. And I can see that. But then you’ve got the greatest con artists in the world that do that sort of thing, don’t they? I can see how it supports a lot of people. I always think of it as something for – I don’t want to say weak people – but, you know what I mean, the people who need something to support themselves on. And it surprises me then when thinking people – and strong people – have faith. But I’ve never really talked to anyone about why they believe. I do find the teachings of Jesus attractive. I think he was a really good bloke; the care for those less fortunate, that sort of thing. A lot of the people he helped were the people who weren’t particularly ‘good people.’ If it’s that sort of belief that makes you live the life you do then good, but you can do that without believing.
I suppose I would feel differently if I could make sense of the nonsense – if there is a sense. Last Christmas Eve when I was unsure whether to come to the midnight service or not, and I hadn’t been to things for a long while for all sorts of reasons –well I felt it was unfair to be with the other people there, with them thinking that I’m sharing what they’re feeling, what they’re believing, when I’m not. If you went to a classical music appreciation group and everyone was supposed to be there because they were learning classical music and then somebody was listening to Eminem through headphones, you wouldn’t feel they should be there would you? I suppose in the end I went hoping to feel something of it – just to feel the ‘something’ that made it feel right to be there. And I didn’t. f
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