"He is so mild, but very courageous"
Howard Grace, 71, is from Newbury, England. An atheist in his early life, he now describes himself as a ‘free thinking Christian’ and attends a Quaker meeting house. He has worked with the organisation ‘Initiatives of Change’ (www.iofc.org) for much of his life and travelled extensively. He spent several years in South Africa at the heart of the Apartheid era. In 1980 he fell foul of security police there, returned to the UK and retrained as a teacher at the age of 40. He returned to his old high school as a maths teacher and later went on to develop a nationwide programme for school Sixth Forms (16-18 age group). He talks here about his friendship with Musa, a Nigerian Muslim.
As a teacher, I don’t think education is just about getting yourself a good career, but about something deeper: What are you going to give your life for? That came through in my spirit as something important to address. So 16 years ago I stopped formal teaching and have facilitated about 800 sessions in schools, helping young people to think about what’s important in life, and about how people of different beliefs relate to each other. I suppose since the bombs went off in London in July 2005 I felt a real conviction that the whole Muslim-Christian-Western relationship needs to be addressed, hence gearing the programme to that particular angle.
For a couple of years my main team mate has been Musa, a Muslim from Nigeria. I’ve been to 60 schools with him. We’ve been using a film called the Imam and the Pastor, which he was a consultant on. It’s the story of Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, two former leaders of militant groups involved in conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, and their amazing reconciliation and peace-building work. We play a section of it to the students and ask them what strikes them. This has led to some wonderful discussions.
Musa was a young journalist in Nigeria during one of the first conflicts in Jos in 2001. One day he was sent out to cover a story, and encountered a Muslim mob attacking a Christian girl in the street. They were going to kill her. So, in schools, I asked the students, “What would you have done? As a journalist, your job is to report, not to get involved. You could get a dramatic picture of this which might have a really big impact around the world. Musa, what did you do?”
He then tells them how he dropped his camera and note book and intervened, saving her life. But in the process his arm was broken and he was very nearly decapitated. And for the next two years, he was traumatised. Such a nice fellow. So mild, but very courageous. From then on he became greatly committed to playing a part in reconciliation and community building, and decided to explore the role of the media in this.
It’s that commitment and sincerity that really struck me. I sensed in Musa someone who was really serious about these issues, given that this was the subject of his PhD. He’d really changed his life’s direction. That’s what I value about him; it’s not so much about the ideas he holds, but that he is a person who is motivated in a positive and committed way by his beliefs.
Occasionally, students asked how Musa and I could work together, believing different things as we do. I answer that I believe that people reach out to the Divine on two levels, with the heart and with the mind. In our hearts we all experience the struggle that contrasts emotions like hate and fear; with love, forgiveness and selflessness. We use our minds to try to understand where these things come from and how they operate. A Christian, Muslim or Buddhist may come to different beliefs but it is on the heart level that people like Musa and me, and anyone, can find common cause whilst respecting each other’s differences of belief.
In getting to know Musa I was also interested to hear that he had been in discussions amongst fellow Muslims about whether non-Muslims can go to heaven. I was glad to be able to reassure him, with a twinkle in my eye, that similar discussions don’t go on amongst Christians!
You can read Musa’s story about Howard here.