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.