On the plane ride home to London I sat next to an older Portuguese couple. They had been married for fifty years, and did not see their inability to speak English nor my inability to speak Portuguese as any good reason for us not to chat. They gave me a home made sandwich, tried to buy me a coca cola and seemed quite disappointed when I told them I didn't drink the stuff, bought all three of us coffee, and as the plane was landing, the older woman in the couple was holding her husband's hand, and then reached out to hold my hand too. I couldn't tell her, of course, that I'm a nervous flyer myself. Both because of the language barrier and because I was trying to keep her calm and comfortable, saying things like "Estas normale" when the plane dipped from side to side, which she seemed to understand although I'm not sure if that sentence is correct in any language. The couple sat next to me were not just polite, or friendly, or even kind - they were loving - to a stranger. And at a moment when, suspended in the air, I was feeling very vulnerable indeed, I couldn't think of anything but how beautiful and warm they both were. My first indication of this beauty, of this seemingly endless capacity for warmth, came as the plane was taking off, and the woman made the sign of the cross. She then pointed at me and motioned that she was making the sign of the cross for me too.
Yesterday Thomas introduced us to Eugénia Quaresma from OCPM - a Catholic organisation for migration. Eugénia, like the couple I befriended on the plane, is clearly a practicing Christian, and an incredible person. As Thomas said to me after the lab, he was interested in introducing us to a religious person who he admires, and who faith is a source of strength for the tremendous empathy and work she does. It was important for him to expose us to an individual like this, who was doing very good and inclusive work, very unlike the image of religion that non-believers can frequently have. A topic that frequently came up during our final group conversation at CityLab Lisbon, was the takeaway that faith is very personal, and those who discuss it publicly frequently seem to be doing so with the aim of converting non-believers. Eugénia, however, was much more interested in spreading the message of integration and acceptance of refugees, than in preaching to us from the bible. She answered our questions about the relationship between occasionally problematic Catholic doctrine and the integration of immigrants with a lot of grace and intelligence. And she suggested that the most radical policy that both governments and citizens could employ in the face of the refugee crisis is... hospitality. It's nothing new - just as hospitality is a fundamental tenet of Islam, it resides in the bible too:
Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God. —1 Peter 4:8-10
During that final conversation, one of the Citylab artists, Ahil Ratnamohan, told us about his Nigerian Christian friend, who commented that Europeans, whether we are believers or non-believers, are to his mind "good Christians." He pointed out that a huge deal of Western society is informed by the Judeo-Christian ideology, from taxes being an offshoot of tithings to the legal system taking a perpetrators repentance into consideration when sentencing them. Just as Zizek suggests that we are not even able to dream outside of Capitalism in his film A Pervert's Guide to Ideology, there is a question around whether or not Christianity leaves an equally big ideological footprint on our conscious and unconscious behaviours, and what the shape of that footprint might be - where its tread leads us backwards, and where it actually leads us forwards.
It is not my intention to wax lyrical about religion. I hold fast to my general feelings about the dangers of organised religion, and particularly of a non-secular state. I was challenged and inspired by the lab in Lisbon, I enjoyed the freedom and breadth of conversation that could really only be possible in a secular context. But I did find beauty where I didn't expect to - not simply in the form of cathedrals or stained glass windows, but in the thoughts and behaviour of certain believers. I experience it firsthand on the plane ride home. Hospitality, kindness, generosity, the love of neighbour (literally, as I was sat next to this couple on the airplane) are qualities that are so gentle, so beautiful, they seem to shine with the best of life. Are these qualities possible without religion? Of course they are. But they do take effort to maintain, mental exercise, and emotional stamina. In the case of a person like Eugénia and the work her organisation does, the emotional stamina required to keep going must be extreme. As Thomas pointed out, when she tells you where she feels all that strength comes from, it's hard not to admire the infinite resources she finds in faith.