I am not superhuman

Opus Dei member Olivia Darby stresses that members of Opus Dei are just like everybody else. She gi

If you have learned about Opus Dei from the media and Da Vinci Code, it is easy to believe that it is a shadowy sect, governed by some sinister Dr No type figure, high on power and attempting world domination.

I am a member of Opus Dei. I take the bus with you. I walk past you in the street. I might be behind you in the supermarket queue, and you might buy me a drink at a bar. I am 23, I work for a charity, I love cooking, reading, and walks along the Thames. I struggle to get up every morning and I find it impossible to be tidy. Superhuman – I don't think so. When my brother asks me whether I've been brainwashed, I can only sigh, "I wish!” Maybe Opus Dei could wave a magic wand and help me keep my room tidy!

I am in the middle of the world – your world – but you probably wouldn't notice me amongst the hundreds of other people you pass on your way to work. I'm not a nun. I do not live in a dungeon, nor an ivory tower. Members of Opus Dei live their lives side by side with everyone else.

I guess this can lead to the other fear – the infiltration of society by a group of people who you don't quite understand. There are two good reasons to laugh at this. Firstly, I am free. Contrary to popular expectations, I have never been instructed to kill any infidels. I joined Opus Dei four years ago. I think I may have got an inkling of this if it were the case, and if someone did ask me I would a) say no, and b) make them an appointment with their doctor. Secondly, there are about 500 members of Opus Dei in the UK, out of sixty million people. None of us has super powers!

But hold on, I may have missed the key point: the vocation to Opus Dei is a vocation to be saints in our daily lives. Saints have to emulate Jesus. They have to love people. Saints are people who try every day (even though they might not always succeed) to love God a little bit more, and consequently make the lives of those around them easier.

What does this mean to me? I work with around 180 disadvantaged children a week. I chose this work because I hope I can have a positive impact on their lives. But perhaps more importantly, I try to see each child as an individual, as a child of God, just like me, regardless of their religious background. With so many children, there is the temptation to see them as numbers, and just look at the statistics (x number passed their exams, no one got pregnant this year). But the real point is to develop the personality of each child, to help them to learn about themselves, to pass their exams so that they can give something back to society. Too see the joy on a girl's face when she realises that she is worth something after she has helped a younger child achieve something.

My vocation means looking after my friends. Not to be a fair weather friend, but to be there through thick and thin. My vocation means that of course I want my friends to come closer to God, because I believe that fulfilment comes through loving Him. But this does not mean that I would pressure them into it. My boyfriend is not a Catholic. I would love him to share my faith, but faith is a gift –it cannot be forced on someone. I love him just the same.

My vocation means trying to build a deeper relationship with God, through daily Mass, prayer and sacrifice. People get a bit worried about the sacrifice bit. But really, we all make sacrifices for the people we love. You don't know that someone loves you until they give you their last rolo. And we make so many sacrifices for much less important reasons- stilettos, leg waxing, nails so long that you're almost disabled (vanity, vanity). What is forgoing salt or getting up on time for love of God compared to blisters from too-tight shoes?

I chose to join Opus Dei. No one even suggested it to me before I said that I wanted to. And ever since I have been a firm believer in St Augustine's "our hearts our restless until they rest in You alone, O Lord". Accepting my vocation, which crept up on me and was never in my life-plan as a teenager, has given me a great peace. I couldn't have said no, not because anyone forced me, but because saying no to God, when he has called you, does not make one happy. Trust me - as a nineteen year old it wasn't what I had thought I wanted - but I was also quite sure it was the right thing to do. I'd be lying if I told you it was always easy - as I said before, I'm not superhuman - but it is always worth it.

Olivia Darby joined Opus Dei at age 19. She is now 23 years old and works for an educational charity helps disadvantaged children in London.
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.