Blog from Assistant Director, David Hampshire
Inter Faith Week 2016 has probably been one of the most exhilarating, exhausting and rewarding weeks of my life. For me it started in York at 9am on Monday after a 4am start.
I was privileged to see the exhibitions at York Minster and York St John University before spending the morning and early afternoon at the York Mosque and Islamic Centre. The welcome I received was wonderful even more so was to see the work of York Interfaith Group, which already has a fully planned programme for 2017. It was also good to see that there were people at the Mosque who had previously had nothing to do with inter faith encounter or dialogue.
Tuesday was London and the Central Mosque at Regents Park. The event: Not in Our Faith focussed on a new charter signed by representatives of religious traditions throughout the UK, which is about the right to practise faith freely; the moral and ethical bases in scriptures and teachings for the practice of faith; and the denunciation of all forms of terrorism, extremism and hate in the name of faith. There was a strong message that religious traditions had been hijacked and that something clearly needs to be done to make it clear that in the UK people and communities of faith all share an imperative to create peace by working together.
Wednesday was Ipswich. The East of England Faiths Agency, Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust and HealthWatch Suffolk worked together to host a conference at Quay Place called: Breaking Down Barriers. The conference explored the relationship between mental health and emotional health and well being, culture and religion. From presentations and conversations during the day the message came across that services had often misunderstood the role of culture, faith and religion in emotional health and wellbeing. Staff were seen sometimes to have misunderstood people whose culture they did not share or to have failed to take into account the needs of people of faith or how faith and faith communities can be drawn upon in the healing process. What struck me was the commitment to listen, even where there were some very uncomfortable stories that confronted the participants. That commitment to listen is at the heart of all good inter faith work .
Thursday was back to London and the Baha’i National Centre event focussing on the concept of Conversations and Beyond. This looked at how we enter into constructive dialogue about some of the big questions facing us as human beings. A resource has been created to get conversations going consisting of a number of cards. Each card has a quote from Baha’u’llah on the front and you have to find someone with the matching quote. On the back of each card there are two or three questions as starting points for dialogue. Interestingly the questions on the matching card are not the same, which allows for five or six questions to be explored relative to the time availalble.
Friday saw another dawn start. Off to Birmingham to be at an event organised by Birmingham Mind with the simple title Kindness in Mind. Held at the Zellig Gallery, it had three major elements. The first was a band, the second was a human library and the third embroidery. The band played with gusto. Anyone who wanted could come and take out a human book from the library. There were clear conditions, such as bringing the book back in the condition it was found, and clear ground rules. I took our three books, each for thirty minutes. My first book was called ‘Witch’. I could ask the person who was this human book any question I wanted – although there was no obligation to answer. I discovered my Witch was actually a Druid. They talked about how, in an urban space, someone practiced their faith, which is so focussed on nature and the great outdoors. Then I took out ‘Pole’ and discovered lots about the old and new Polish migrations and some tensions there are between the two groups, one for ideological reasons and the other for economic, but the binding role of the Roman Catholic Church in bringing Poles into shared spaces was clearly important. Finally, I took out an ‘Agnostic’ human book who was also Registered Blind. Exploring the role of doubt and the experience of prejudice together was fascinating and I wished I could have more than thirty minutes to explore further. I even got to create my own embroidered present over lunch – something I haven’t done since my last grandma died.
Saturday was Wolverhampton and a 4.30am start to reach the Dying Well Conference at Wolverhampton University. I sat with a group of student nurses for the whole event. In fact there were people from across professional categories there as well as from faith communities represented at the Conference. Baroness Ilora Finlay of Llandaff’s input was rooted in years of clinical experience, giving a broad view of the issues involved in assisted dying based on research that was being looked at by the House of Lords. It was fascinating seeing young nurses getting to grips with the hard ethical issues around assisted suicide and euthanasia. Other inputs were all about how to die well from the perspectives of faith communities. It was a tremendously interesting day with a warm welcome from all.
Finally, Sunday. I did get a sleep in before heading off to the Inter Faith Service at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue. To hear the call to prayer from an Imam in a synagogue was something very remarkable. The Interfaith and the Chutzpah choirs were a magical part of the event . Readings from many traditions, with Baha’i children leading prayers and Muslim children reciting from the Qur’an outshone even the presence of the local MP, Mayor and the Deputy Lieutenant – all of whom played important parts in the service. And when it was over we all got to eat Noah’s Pudding – prepared by a local Muslim family. I was sad to leave because I realised that the Week had come to an end and it was a happy-sad parting.
So what did I learn? Firstly, the tremendous energy and commitment there is around the country to inter faith encounter, dialogue and action. Secondly, none of this would happen without dedicated individuals who organise events and give their time so that others can focus on the real work of dialogue. And, thirdly, that there is real hospitality to be found. Wherever I went there was a welcome and an invitation to go back.
Finally, I also learned how important the IFN UK is to local groups and projects. They all said that they were honoured to have me with them but the truth was they were all expressing their thanks for the role played by the IFN in keeping this important work going and in putting on Inter Faith Week. It was clear from conversations had that they recognised that IFW was the result of a dedicated team who went over and above what was expected of them to enable them to do what they do and I, for one, am proud to be associated with them.