You've Got To Have Faith

London's Oxford Street is the scene of an annual Christmas shopping frenzy. Can spirituality have any place here? Surprisingly, Clare Dwyer Hogg and Andy Sewell find God is alive and well in the thronging heart of consumerism
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The Independent Online

Christian evangelist, Phil Howard, 50

I think Christmas has totally and utterly lost its way. Jesus' message was, "Feed the needy, don't be greedy."

If you haven't got a spiritual side in your life, you'll just be self-centred because the flesh wants to profit itself. This Christmas I'll be out there preaching, I'll hopefully also be spending time with my girlfriend who is coming over from Eastern Europe.

I don't really believe in giving presents, I think we should look after the needs of the world first, instead of buying someone a gift for £200, say, who doesn't need it. Let's think about the kids who are starving. I did give gifts to my girlfriend last year, though. It was the first time I'd had a girlfriend in 12 years, so I bought her some small things, they probably cost less than £50.

Before I found God, I built up a successful timber business - the profits now fund my full-time evangelism. I was going to casinos, I had women, wine, song, was having fun, going out with the lads and having a laugh, all the normal fleshly desires. Then one day you begin to question why you don't feel so great on the inside. God starts to shine in his meaning, and you see a greater challenge: to go out and change the world for him and make it into a more loving, caring place.

Other religions that don't take Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour are wrong. I have acquaintances from other religions, maybe what you would call friendships, but if you don't agree, you can't really walk the same path.

Designer, Ava Maria Khan, 37

Christmas for me is about magic, snow, happiness, peace and family. The commercialisation is part of it too, to be honest. I like to give and receive presents. It's part of the occasion. I don't really know how much we spend. The children might get a bike or a computer. It's about what they want. It might cost £100 or £900.

I do believe in God. I'm originally from Germany, a Lutheran, so I go to church throughout the year. But I come from a religious family so it wasn't really a conscious decision I took.

Builder, Mohsan Mahmood, 28

I'm not sure why Christmas is celebrated in Christianity, but anything to do with religion is good because all religions want to be peaceful.

I definitely believe in God. Once, I went into the mosque - I was going out with a girl - and prayed that I'd get married. I came out, lost my job, my woman, and my dad kicked me out of home. I said, "Fine God, I'll be a bad person." Two years later, everything I'd prayed for happened. I realised that I hadn't been ready for marriage. God knew, and made me ready. Now I am married to her.

God is all-forgiving, merciful, all-compassionate. Christianity and Islam are different only because we believe Jesus was a prophet and they believe he was the Son of God. Politicians don't understand this.

People say troubles today are about religion - that's just an excuse. You're not even supposed to cut down a tree if you're Muslim. Killing people, slicing their throats? That's disgusting.

Tour guide, Carol Wheeler, 58

Christmas has all changed since I was a kid. Then it was very family-orientated. We didn't have a lot but we believed in Father Christmas and were never short of food or presents.

When I got married and had children, I tried to keep up the values. It's not just presents, or eating yourself until kingdom come.

I don't have much time for God, but I do still believe. I was brought up in a very religious household. We were told that God sees everything: that he knows exactly what you're doing, and whether you're good or bad. We were kept on our guard. It was quite scary because we knew he was watching us. It's funny - somewhere along the way, you lose part of your religion, but as you get older you start remembering and get into it again.

I believe you don't just die. There's an afterworld. I've had experiences when my mum and dad died and when my sister died. And now I know that there's a God. I didn't think like that before.

In my job you come across a lot of different religions. We sit and talk about things. I respect them and hope they respect me. Remember, it's the same tree, just different branches. It all boils down to one thing: there's only one God.

Businessman, Andrew Jones, 55

People are always thinking about what they're going to buy and what they're going to do, but that's not my idea of Christmas at all. For me, it's just about being a normal everyday Christian.

Personally, I believe in a divine being, but not God as we necessarily perceive him to be. In actual fact, I'd think of God as erring on the side of an alien.

There is one passage from the Bible that I try to work by: do unto others as you would have done unto you. I think that's key.

Lawyer, Richard Cliff, 35

The pressure to get presents this year has been hideous because I am going on honeymoon over Christmas. I do a lot of shopping on-line which is very easy, I just push the button; they wrap everything, send it out and all I have to do is say, "there you go''. But this year has been difficult: we've had two new additions to the family and I've just become a godfather.

Christmas, for me, doesn't have a religious aspect. I would class myself as a sceptical agnostic - not quite an atheist but getting there. I guess I used to believe in God but when I was about 15, at school, we had to go to church every day and they would say, God is omnipresent and all-powerful. It struck me at that age that, if that were true, then God must be pretty evil because there is so much suffering in the world and he doesn't do anything about it. And if he didn't enjoy the suffering, he couldn't be omnipresent and all-powerful. Either way, the Bible was wrong. In my very black-and-white mind, religion dropped away, and that's how I've been ever since.

I have no problems with people who practise religion in a non-aggressive form, but I have difficulties with fundamentalism in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. I often think perhaps religion was created by man to comfort him in a hostile world.

Video producer, Joe Patricks, 29

Christmas is a marketing strategy to sell useless products. I'm allergic to it. I do believe in God, but I'm not into organised religion. I'm exposed to so many religions that I'm not sure what God is. He could be a big fat server and we're all on a hard-drive.

My proof that God exists comes from when I was 15 and should have died. Twice in two weeks, I was at the end of the barrel of an Uzi. I grew up in the Third World where there was a lot of lawlessness. But they didn't kill me. I thank God every morning that I'm alive. I wouldn't pray to Him to give me things - we're made in His image so we're all capable of looking after ourselves.

Kabbalist, Maya Morella, 35

Every day should be Christmas, if you want to surprise your friends, why not? I believe in God, but I'm not religious. God is everything - inside of us, and the reason why we're here: we're just trying to remember that we're part of him. Jesus was probably one of the guys who remembered best.

I do Kabbala teaching. It's about self-searching and connecting to the soul. I must say it's very hard and deep, a combination of everything from the beginning of time - philosophy, science, religion. Once you're in, you can't get out, because you start looking at yourself and can't blame anyone else any more.

I think all of us have responsibility to face the world and do something about it. When we meet the critical mass of positivity, things are going to be great. Religion is not going to exist any more. We're just going to realise that it's not about dogma, it's about real connection with God. I don't know when it will be, but I think I'll be around to see it.

Student, Lance Ingle, 17

Christmas is a time to be around your family. And to get presents as well, which is good. I don't believe in God. I believe there's something up there but I don't know what. My family isn't religious - they didn't bring me up to believe. I should really be more open to religion, but it's not my thing, to be honest.

Company director, Alistair Wane, 48

I always really, really look forward to Christmas because it's a great family occasion. We have four children, three of them are very young and they get really excited about it. I think consumerism can get out of hand, though, so we try to be pretty careful about that. In fact, sometimes we even keep presents back from the children - we have very indulgent relatives. We don't want the children to develop acquisitive personalities. Two or three nice presents is more than enough, I think.

We go to church regularly so religion is an important aspect of Christmas for us. Carol services really bring the community together.

My religion and my beliefs are very personal, I don't share them with anyone else, including my vicar. But Christianity is not the single most important influence in my life. I don't think one can lose sight of the fact that Christmas is steeped in pagan tradition and I'm perfectly comfortable with that. I like the sense of continuity. *

Carpenter, Pablo Hasan, 23

Christmas is a big, money-spinning idea. The flavour has gone. I've just taken up my religion and converted to Islam. I've studied a lot of religions and that's the only one that made sense to me. I don't want to join a religion where I have to kill people. I want one where I can go to heaven. Islam means peace. It's fantastic. It's inner peace. That's it. Being born and bred in east London I've seen shit and I know what I've chosen is right. I used to be really angry and now I walk around with a big smile on my face.

In my religion, we're taught to show respect to other religions. You have to. If you can't, when judgement comes and God asks, "What have you done in your life?", you're going to have no answers.

My generation are very lazy. Crime, smoking cannabis, all the drug scene. It doesn't bother me. I used to have a little puff now and again, but not now, it's not worth it.