Why Me? Talk No. 3

A talk given by Jessica Connell on March 8th, 2015, at St. John the Baptist, Holland Road.

It is an honour, albeit a rather daunting one, to have been asked to contribute to the Why Me? Talks.  A personal reflection of my journey into faith.

On reflecting on my life with faith, I felt the best place to start was at the beginning...

I was born in London, just down the road from where I stand now, at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, Hammersmith.  Soon after I was born, my parents moved from London to the countryside. I had an idyllic childhood growing up in Laurie Lee country in the heart of the Cotswolds. Unlike my children who are growing up in London, I was given total freedom from an early age; weekends and holidays were spent with my younger sister, planning great adventures, regardless of the weather.

My sister and I were introduced to the church from a very early age by our parents who upheld strong Christian values, and dutifully christened us both into the Church of England. I remember being fascinated by the stories in the bible and the concept of an ancient world which had come before, that yielded such wisdom and teachings....I remember being given a bright yellow Good News Bible with a rainbow on the front cover  to take along to our controversially named Sunday School known as the ‘Saturday Club’. This bible was a prized possession; I remember feeling so proud of my bible and ever so grown up and responsible for owning my very own copy.  I remember leafing through the rice paper thin pages, flicking between the various books and pretending to whoever cared to listen that I knew the differences between them.

I enjoyed going to church: singing the hymns, saying my prayers and most of all, being part of a wider community of farms and villages all united by faith.  

I became very aware of the power of faith in God when I was seven. Tragically, one of my closest friends, was killed in a car accident. Sophie was being driven home from school by her nanny, the car swerved off the road and into the River Severn. To this day I remember the moment my mother came to tell me that Sophie had died.  She broke the news by telling me that Sophie had gone to a better place, where she would be looked after by Jesus and the Angels, she would be very happy, and that we should pray for Sophie and her family. This event had a profound effect on me; heaven was a place where very old people had gone, or the cat; suddenly I was faced with my friend being there too.  Wherever there was? It was, and still is a big question to answer.

I have always struggled with the idea of heaven, not in a sense of disbelief but like most people, keen to have a deeper understanding of its presence in a temporal sense? 

At the time, I remember regularly praying with my friends in the school playground asking “Jesus and the angels” to look after Sophie. We took great comfort in our playground prayers and in the words that had been taught to us in our Assembly as we recited the Lord’s Prayer each day. The familiar rhythm of the Lord’s prayer alleviating our sense of grief.

When I was 11, I was sent away to a girls boarding school, Hatherop Castle in Gloucestershire.  I was thrust into a regimented daily routine marshalled by a number of rather terrifying women, who seemingly found most of us at the school an inconvenience and irritation. I was really homesick on the first night but I remember being comforted again by the familiar words of the Lord’s prayer during the School service the next morning. These were words that I knew, these were words that I found great comfort in, I felt that I wasn’t alone.   

My next school, Fettes, marked a real turning point for me.

My house mistress, Mrs Weekes, was married to the school Chaplain. Where others in the past were quick to react negatively to my rather nonchalant attitude towards education, Mr and Mrs Weekes demonstrated that they believed in me.  As a confused teenager, they guided me through a difficult period of transition from immaturity into adulthood. They gave me the courage and understanding to have faith in God, to take bold steps forward and never to be afraid. Their message was simple, and I remember being guided to one particular passage in the Bible which I still draw great inspiration from today; MATTHEW Chapter 7 vs 7-8.

I remember first putting this to the test. I had held a lifelong fascination of Ancient Egypt but was unsure whether this interest could be developed. My great grandfather had been involved in the digs at Knossos in Crete, Archaeology was in my blood and I had long since been fascinated by the power struggles of the ancient worlds that feature so prominently in the Old Testament.

I asked to study Theology at A level and thanks to the Weekes’ encouragement and my galvanised belief, my results allowed me to go onto read Egyptian Archaeology and Egyptology at University College London.
At university, I spent most of my time during the day on the campus boundary, in the back corridors of British Museum surrounded by religious artefacts and deities of a dead civilisation.

It was whilst at university, via the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, I was given the opportunity to travel to Israel to join a dig in  Southern Galilee. The BSA in Jerusalem were excavating an unknown site, which during the dig, was revealed as being the potential location of the City gates of Jezreel dating back to 1200 BC; as detailed in 1 Kings Chapter 21.  I spent a summer immersed in the dust and dirt of Southern Galilee, uncovering biblical architecture. Having studied the parable of Naboth’s vine yard only a few years before, I was utterly captivated by the idea of being connected to a place and time that existed in the texts of the bible. 
This feeling was magnified tenfold when I travelled south to Jerusalem.  

Within the bustling streets of old town Jerusalem there is an intoxicating energy that overwhelms the senses.  A powerful charge of Christian fellowship as pilgrims unite to walk along the Via Dolorosa, the proposed path Jesus trod carrying the crucifixion cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is identified as the place both of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  Walking through the streets of Jerusalem it was difficult not to feel connected to the scriptures and the experience reaffirmed my faith in the Holy Trinity. 

By the time of graduating there weren’t many positions in the world of Egyptian archaeology available.

However a position at a television production charity in West London called Youth Cable Television or YCTV as it was known then became available, and so began a career in the world of television. My ambition? To eventually make documentaries on Egyptology.

Youth Cable Television, was a charity that was partially supported by the Prince’s Trust. It was a youth charity which taught kids from within the local area all aspects of television production.  --From writing scripts to directing and editing their own projects; the aim, to provoke and nurture creativity, and provide young teenagers with a voice of their own.

YCTV was a brilliant organisation that gave underprivileged kids in the local area an opportunity to step away from the intensity of their everyday lives.

A lot of the kids would come in and talk to us about the pressures of growing up on some of the roughest estates in the borough and the challenges they faced in speaking out amongst their peers, standing up for their beliefs, and for many, the difficulty of living within an abusive or broken home.

What the charity offered was a bridge amongst communities, where it didn’t matter what you looked like, where you came from, or what religion you followed. The studios were a neutral territory, where everyone was encouraged to respect one another.  I remember running one workshop with a group of 14 year olds. Their task was to create a report around the subject of respect. The eventual product ended up as a 3 minute recorded statement or ‘shout out’ about equality. Their message; that everyone is born equal, everyone is born to love, do not feel ashamed, be proud and be confident in yourself, have belief and respect in one another. Their work was honest and written with intense purpose. As young teenagers these kids were keen to have a platform to express their views and that is what YCTV offered.

As adults we have to be accountable for our influence over the younger generation, we are all born without fear, without prejudice and without hatred and we must strive to support and protect our values in life.  All too often our minds can become polluted with insecurities which in turn fuel fear which can lead to hatred and jealousy. What I found inspirational about that workshop, was the unanimous heartfelt desire amongst those kids to have the courage and faith in God to breakdown restrictive barriers and to one day influence a world challenged by these ideals.  

Jesus teaches us in MATTHEW Chapter 6:v 25
 “not to be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink... nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

After working with a number of broadcasters and production companies as my career developed, I remember arriving in LA on the 26th August 2001 with the hope of furthering my career in the US. A few weeks later the world changed forever with the events of 9/11.

Being thousands of miles away from home in a country that was reported to be ‘under attack’, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief and loneliness, I remember trying to call home and not being able to get through on the account of the lines across America being jammed. It was unfathomable to me how man could have caused such suffering in the name of God, echo’s of this sentiment are still very prevalent within our lives today. Having since worked on documentaries about that fateful event, I have often heard the question, “Where was God that day?” It is a difficult question to answer, but perhaps summed up as follows “God gave man free will.  Because of this, there is good and evil in the world” but even at our darkest hour extraordinary acts of courage and faith triumph over adversity. That night in Los Angeles, and across America, candlelit vigils were held on many street corners as people gathered for reflection and prayer, turning to God and using the power of their faith to connect. Out of such darkness came the light of human compassion. 

By September 2004, I had returned to the UK, and was about to be married. In 2007 my daughter was born and in 2009 my son was soon to follow. It was around the time of Martha’s birth that I came across St John the Baptist’s Church.  

I was walking past St John’s on a Sunday evening in late August, the door was open and I was immediately drawn in by the familiar ebbing sound of a church organ that rose above the heavy din of traffic on Holland Road. I sat right at the back of the church, where I hoped I wouldn’t be noticed. As the evening Eucharist drew to a close and the processional hymn began, a shy part of me wanted to get up and quickly head out the door, but I didn’t move as I felt a familiar sense of peace wash over me, an embrace that dissolved the tension of a busy day gone by. Fr Michael Fuller welcomed me into the congregation and the St John’s community responded by making me feel a part of their family. The weekly service I attend at St John’s has been hugely important in keeping my faith and love in God strong. The Sunday evening Eucharist within the stunning, now grade one listed building of St John’s,  offers an opportunity for reflection and contemplation ahead of the busy week ahead. - It was of great importance to me that both my children were christened here.

To return to my earlier point- IT WILL BE GIVEN; SEEK, AND YOU WILL FIND; KNOCK, AND IT WILL BE OPENED TO YOU. Thanks to the courage revealed to me by the Weekes when in Scotland and by following my faith, and also my love of Egyptology, I have now found myself in a place in life that allows me to utilise all of these.
 Nowadays, my busy weeks centre around my current job at the National Geographic Channels and ferrying my darling children around London. I am Head of Production for the commissioning team at the Channel here in the UK.  The average week involves being able to follow my love of the ancient world by working in collaboration with documentary teams and experts from all over the globe; such as Palaeontologists, archaeologists , scientists, Historians, explorers, religious figures and Egyptologists. The Channel reach spreads across 179 different countries around the world and our programmes are broadcast in 55 different languages. The Channel prides itself by upholding authenticity and the mantra that you learn from day one is that ‘we strive to produce programming that is 100% factually correct’.  Working at the Channel I am more aware now of a sense of a global community that ever before. 

On the subject of religion, the Channel recognises a wide spectrum of faiths across the globe. Christianity and the subject of religion is of interest to our viewers and over the last year we have seen the Channel produce a number of documentary films that explore the subject.  Titles such as ‘Jesus decoded’ and ‘The secret lives of the apostles’ have all had good ratings and one eagerly anticipated production, ‘Killing Jesus’ is set to be broadcast globally and will air over the Easter weekend here in the UK.   

As for the question of ‘Faith’. I read a poem recently and one line immediately stood out for me. “In life there are fears that will hold us back from what we want, but we must learn to fight them with the courage from within”.

Faith to me is having courage to be open to the constant love of God that is within us that I can turn to in every moment of everyday and feel the truth that connects us all. As St Francis said, WHEN THE HEART IS PURE, LOVE RESPONDS TO LOVE ALONE.

Holland Park Benefice