Interfaith work was recently dismissed in a report on integration as ‘saris, samosas and steel drums for the well intentioned’. In Birmingham we find it is so much more as people across the city are regularly coming together, motivated by their faith, to care for people who are facing some kind of hardship. In the last few weeks I have been part of interfaith groups of people who have hosted a party for newly-arrived asylum seekers, taken aid to the ‘jungle’ in Calais, wrapped gifts for refugee families, fundraised for a women’s refuge and today we were distributing food hampers to elderly or vulnerable residents in Balsall Heath.
The distribution was sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover and enabled by Balsall Heath forum a small organisation, itself facing cuts and challenges, that manage to keep in regular contact with the 14,000 people who live in their local neighbourhood. They know the people who are ill, who has been a victim of crime, who is a frail elderly person living alone and who is making the grim choice between heating and eating. Many of the residents had been contacted to let them know the hampers would be given out on December 19th and they were very pleased to see us. As we delivered the parcels we had the chance to chat with people and find out how they were doing. It was clear that behind each door, behind each face, was a world of experience, stories, wisdom and grace. As one volunteer said during the feedback – we were blessed by the residents, it felt like it was far more beneficial for us than it was for them.
Chatting to the organisers afterwards, their combination of intricate knowledge of their neighbourhood and their deep compassion reminded me of parish life in a small village in the 1980s – when my father was a vicar. While he only had about 1,500 parishoners there was no-one he did not know or nothing that he did not care about. Nowadays the priest looking after those three tiny villages must have another five or six churches in their patch. But knowing people (whether or not they go to church), caring for them in need and enabling others to do the same must surely still be at the heart of the ministry of the Church of England. Now we have the chance to do it hand in hand with people of different faiths, ethnicities and culture – and I think it means a lot more to all involved than saris, samosas and steel drums.
I don’t think very much. Well I mainly think by talking and I talk quite a lot so maybe I do get to think a fair bit.
Last Monday evening I was speaking to a small group of wonderful women who are one of the Mother’s Union groups that meet at St Peter’s Church in Hall Green, where I am the curate. I had been asked to talk about the work I do outside the parish and I rambled on, as I always do, about the importance of bringing people together. I got passionate about friendships that bridge all kinds of difference and tried to explain with a diagram of boxes and lines. It looks like this:
What this flurry of lines and scribbles is meant to represent is the boxes of our fragmented society criss-crossed by friendships. The vertical lines indicate the boundaries of ethnicity and faith that can mean we live parallel lives and the horizontal lines indicate the boundaries of class, economics and education that can separate us further. While the lines of friendship that connect people vertically and horizontally (i.e. – they either bridge economic difference or religious/ethnic difference but not both) are important I think friendships that bridge both economic and ethnic difference – the diagonal lines – are the most important to build strong, trusting and equal communities.
This has become for me the theoretical understanding of what we are trying to do both in our interfaith work at St Peter’s and through the Near Neighbours programme.
However for me this is much more than theory or work. These relationships have changed my life, transformed my thinking, inspired our family and deepened my faith. I suddenly realised – thinking aloud at the Mother’s Union – that they were an answer to prayer.
In 1989 I co-ordinated an evening on Understanding Islam while I was at university. The speaker, a godly, wise and compassionate Christian priest spoke about the importance of understanding one another and appreciating different faiths. When he had left some of the students with whom I was leading the week’s mission, prayed that this man might become a Christian. I left the meeting deeply saddened and went to my little bedroom/study and prayed that God might show me a Christianity that was free from the prejudices of class, race and privilege. Of course nothing happened instantly but I never forgot that prayer even though I thought it might be impossible to answer.
But with God, nothing is impossible – even though you miss it by thinking that it is. Driving home a couple of days ago I realised that the answer was emerging: the precious network of friendships that so deeply enrich my life are God’s response to this prayer. The insights I hear, the challenges we face together and the thinking aloud that happens when we are in a room together is beginning to answer my prayer of 1989. There are so many of you answering that prayer that I can’t personally thank you. I hope you know who you are..