World Youth Day has come and gone, and Sydney is continues as pretty much the same place it's always been. Yet an image that's stayed with me is of a group led by the gentleman on the right, who were feverishly distributing pamphlets calling for the pilgrims to abandon their faith and convert to Islam.
I can't have looked like good potential Muslim material, because while he and his followers were eagerly thrusting their six page tract at anyone passing by, I actually had to go up and ask for one, which was handed over surprisingly grudgingly. This amazed me, because if I do say so myself I was considerably politer than many people passing by: it doesn't take much imagination to guess the response he received from a large group of young Catholic pilgrims who sounded as if they were from Texas. And to be fair, what sort of reaction did he expect he'd receive by proselytising by the entrance to Hyde Park, at the very heart of WYD festivities?
But despite the spirit in which it was given, I actually read the entire thing; no mean feat given the rather tortured language and tiny print. And it was remarkably like similar leaflets I've received in the past from Christians armed with nothing more than a soapbox, megaphone and and unshakable faith in the certainty of their own dogma. Ok, so the quotes all came from the Koran instead of the Bible, but that was about it. Neither side had taken the time to fairly represent what the other believes, nor, I suspect, would they be capable of doing so - since that would involve making an effort to actually understand them.
Nor did the tract's central argument - that Islam is the only true faith because it's primary text says so - strike me as any more convincing than it's Christian counterpart, that the Bible is an infallible witness because the Bible says it is. If - and it's a big if - you're asking someone to make substantial changes to their life on the basis of how you interpret a particular document I think it's only fair to provide a better argument than that.
Which is not to say I'm entirely without empathy for any street-corner preacher: back in the day I've even done a bit of unsolicited
What I found most fascinating was that a barely disguised undercurrent of sexuality permeated the young Muslim evangelists' efforts in just the same was as it did amongst the Catholic pilgrims. The girls might have been obliged to keep their heads covered (what kind of a deity is so petty as to think anyone is made more virtuous by wrapping stuff around their head?), but nothing could conceal the admiring glances the'd give the boys coming back to base for another handful of tracts.
The girls on the left were in deep conversation with a Catholic leader whose group of kids left him to race ahead and enjoy a little time "off the leash". Somehow I don't think anyone changed faiths as a result of this dialogue, but I did see several of his young charges furtively holding hands while they shared an ice-cream away from his gaze. So nobody can say God didn't use the exchange to bless someone.
By the way, I know the Islamic gear is supposed to be an indication of the wearer's modesty, but I know I can't be the only guy to find the way those long diaphanous dresses accentuate the wearer's thighs and legs as they fall to the ground really sexy. Nor can the the way those tight shirts accentuate the young men's muscular physiques have escaped others' attention. Which in this infidel's theology is part of the way God intended the world to be, and something for which we can all laugh and together offer our praise.