In praise of 'bus stop theology'

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

What lessons can Christians learn from a London rail worker honoured by King Charles for talking 29 people out of taking their own lives?

Maybe something about the power of conversation and being willing to 'stop for a chat'.

Rizwan Javed, who works for the Elizabeth Line at its Ealing Broadway station, helped to save each life over a period of eight years by being alert and approaching vulnerable individuals in difficult situations. He was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours.

Rizwan was alert, and willing to engage people in conversation. Training from charity The Samaritans, who work to ensure fewer people die by suicide, played a key role.

Anglican priest Jemima Prasadam's style of talking with people has been described as 'bus stop theology'. She put it into action on the half-mile walk from her home to the church in Lozells, an inner-city area of West Birmingham, with high unemployment and poverty.

Her engaging approach is featured in 'Stick with Love', a recently-published book by Arun Arora, Bishop of Kirkstall in northern England.

In an interview, she explained: "I don't go out looking to talk to people, but I am ready to do it. 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.

"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."

Chaplains in schools, hospitals, shopping centres, football clubs and numerous other places spend much of their timing talking and listening. It's a vital way of helping and, if people wish, opening up conversations about faith.

But we are living in a society where conversations are being closed down. People who might have chatted on the bus or train, are now deeply involved with their mobile phones. Social media often provokes arguments and conflict rather than real engagement and conversation.

Supermarkets are phasing out staffed checkout points, so that elderly people and others who live alone are deprived of those conversations that can make a difference to their day.

Christian doctor Richard Pile believes that loneliness can have a major impact on people's health. In a Tedx talk, given in St Albans last year, he spelled out the health risks of isolation and suggested that doctors check for signs of loneliness when they assess patients.

Jesus asked questions – and responded to the answers – as a vital component of his earthly ministry. His deep conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 begins with him asking for a drink. His post-resurrection dialogue with the disciples walking to Emmaus in Luke 24 springs from Jesus asking them a question.

A key part of the success of the Alpha Course over many years comes from how it encourages people to talk, to ask questions and engage in meaningful conversations.

Maybe we, as Christians and churches, need to be looking out for more chances to start conversations, to give people the opportunity to open up about their lives. 'Drop in' groups for older people, toddler groups for isolated parents or carers, walking groups that anyone could join are just some ideas.

In our busy, rushing-around world, there are many people out there who are just longing for a chat.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK and a former communications director with the CofE.