MEET THE ACKERLEYS
Being trendy has changed to style-totalitarianism in recent years. Sometimes, the subject of fashion crops up with young people on retreat. They constitute a huge, important, independent purchasing sector in our consumerist society. They are educated early to have an obsession with possessions. Growing in faith should politicise them in the broadest possible way, helping them to know the society they are part of and to bring a questioning Christian gaze to bear on it, discovering its plusses and its minuses, particularly helping them to become mature young adults who can identify the influences in their lives and sort the chaff from the wheat. It’s getting harder every year as the means by which they/we are influenced become more powerful, sophisticated and insidious. We are being taught to consume voraciously from an early age. It’s very hard to kick the habit and it’s very hard to accept that we can be like sheep, that in a society and an age that boasts of being the most advanced ever and the most unfettered, we lack individuality, we wear uniforms.
A few years back when Adidas introduced a new style of track suit, we were told by a girl on retreat, “I would never be friends with anyone who had just one stripe on their track suit bottoms. I just couldn’t be.” Some of her friends protested. A week later, more did. Another school group thought that wasn’t right; you could be friends with someone who carried only one or two stripes. It was the person, not the clothes that mattered: “Take Emma,” said one girl, pointing behind me to a one-striper I hadn’t noticed. “She’s only got one stripe, but that’s not her fault. It’s her Mum’s.” The pressure’s there all right and it’s sometimes very hard to appreciate just how strong it is and how left out the one-stripers can feel.
Let’s bring some balance to this assessment of young people. There is much that is positive. Young people do question and do know what is really important in life. We have auctions occasionally, auctions with a difference. Those on retreat have to imagine they can buy a happy adult future. What will be the ingredients creating that happiness: popularity; a good job; wealth; health; adventure, etc? They are all on sale at our auctions and the bidding always prompts good discussion. Time and time again, the highest bids are for items to do with good relationships, especially a close, loving family. Acknowledging the fact that our society is damaged by many broken families, disastrous relationships, we dwell on the fact that a close loving family is not something we can romance out of thin air. To create such a future calls for preparation, dedication and hard work and leans heavily on the understanding in faith that love does make the difference.
We show a video to introduce our auctions. It’s a Channel 4 documentary featuring a well-off family who, for a fortnight, have to live without their designer goods. The individuals in this family all act as if they have suffered the greatest humiliation possible. They feel cheap. To them, the one thing that distinguishes them from others and makes them feel good about themselves is their money and their designer clothes and accessories. The father even states that, if this was to be how he had to live his life permanently, he would consider ending it. He is proud of the fact that he is among the few who are rich and he wants to proclaim his richness through designer labels. It’s very sad and always provokes sharp reactions from our visitors.
None sharper than Carl’s.
He’d been very quiet throughout. No trouble at all but on the fringes even in the small-group work. “Special needs” his teacher said. “Quiet. A good lad.” I think I learned why he had been named Karl (but with a C ) after we’d talked about the video and this had led to thoughts about where we get our clothes, who makes them, what they are paid, about fair trade, business accountability and economic imbalances. The discussion was patchy and through it ran a strong current saying that those issues are nowt to do wi’ us.
Carl, with nervousness, a very red face and a stutter, objected:
“It’s t.. to do with us! As long as people worship clothes and cars and p… power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few, it’ll never be right. It’s all very well saying those at the top will share but they don’t and they won’t. And natural resources have to be looked after and shared. God made them for us all. And people have to have good working conditions and proper wages. Jesus would be shouting at those people, the ones who take the money for doing nothing and who make slaves of children, if he was here now...”
There was a lot more. The stutter vanished. Carl took centre stage for several minutes and his schoolmates watched and listened in awe. The teachers were amazed. We all applauded when he’d finished. I had some concluding words to the session in readiness; thoughtful, neat, adult words, lacking Carl’s passion. I ditched them and simply said thanks to Carl.
Afterwards, I referred him to Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats, and passed him quotations from a few saints:
Feed him who is dying of hunger; if you have not fed him you have killed him.
It would be considered a theft on our part if we didn't give to someone in greater need than we are.
St. Ambrose of Milan
The bread you store up belongs to the hungry; the cloak that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.
St. Basil the Great
The rich man who gives to the poor does not bestow alms but pays a debt.
St. Francis of Assisi
Carl read them slowly. The stutter returned but it was very clear what he was saying: “They’re f…f…***!!!.. ing spot on… spot on!”