Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sikh and you shall find

It's 25 years since we lived in Bristol. Despite all the changes in roads and townscape I still find my way about without too much hassle, but I find it curious how it takes a while for feelings and memories about particular places to propose themselves. And yes, it's feelings that seem to come first. A Sikh woman, at today's conference, Indar Singh did a simple introduction to the Sikh community for .. well civil servants in their silos, I guess. She proudly wore a great turban to cover her hair, plus the other signs of being a khalsa Sikh. It took my back to my first year as Rector of the Parish Team Ministry in St Pauls, thirty one years ago.

A couple of Sikh men who lived in the area came to ask if they could use St Agnes' church hall for a religious meeting. Being a bit conservative and under-exposed to people of other faiths, I was glad they hadn't asked to use the church as I wouldn't have known what to say. But the church hall would be OK wouldn't it? The PCC were persuaded that hospitality was what Christians should do, and that was fine.

Their meeting lasted from Friday to Sunday. Over a hundred people gathered, daily to pray, eat and listen to devotional addresses from a visiting Sikh teacher. I was invited to attend, and I went in my black cassock. It was hot with all those people packed into the hall. I made a small welcome speech, and was greeted by the teacher, in traditional robes, seated on a dais and radiating generosity and love to everyone.

They prayed and sang, and I sat there wondering if this was OK for Vicars to do - it was my first year as a Parish Incumbent. I didn't angst for long, as the atmosphere of peace, love and prayer was as true and beautiful as anything one might find in a church where you had just to listen because you didn't understand the language. By that time I was already used to sitting through long hours of Orthodox worship in Greek or Russian - so why not Punjabi? It was my first inter-faith encounter.

I can't remember when I last thought of that occasion until today. Those Bristol years were an education in cross-cultural encounter and dialogue which it would be hard to match on any academic course. Not least because so much of it was among ordinary working class immigrants, who would end up feeling very proud if their offspring made it through to Higher Education. Yet their values, their aspirations, their solidarity, their encouragement were all formed by being part of a faith-community living by prayer and service to others.

Oh yes, the church hall .... the parish was too poor to afford to run or repair it. It was part of an innovative community complex built by a pioneering radical Victorian parson, T J Harvey. Half of the building was already in use as a gymnasium frequented by world class weight-lifters. In the end the Empire Sports Club bought us out. The hall became a weight training gym, and as Vicar I was an honorary member, and trained there with others up to marathon standard running in the years after I gave up smoking - half a lifetime ago.

Within a couple of years of their visit the Bristol Sikh community bought, refurbished a redundant non-conformist chapel as a Gurdwara over in neighbouring Easton, which I visited when it was open. Bristol now boasts four Gurdwaras, and Cardiff three.

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