Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Believers and unbelievers in dialogue

This last two mornings, I've been up early, out of the house and on my bike into town, to catch a bus out to Ely for a 9.15am start at the Jasmine Centre, where I've participated in a training workshop on Anti Discrimination and Religious Diversity Awareness, along with fifteen others who work in public sector or voluntary organisations with an obligation to implement policy shared by the new Equalities Act. My participation in this dates back to an interesting invitation received from Terry Price of NovaScarman Trust and Charles Willie of the Cardiff & Vale Coalition for the Disabled back in January, to participate in the pilot project which they were planning, as part of a Europe-wide initiative.

The two days were carefully planned and executed with perfect attention to timing, without this feeling in any way contrived. Terry and Charles are experienced trainers and very relaxed in their work of facilitation, without ever losing focus. It's an admirable skill to have. There was a good mix of participants in terms of age range, gender and ethnicity. There were two Muslims, one Sikh, and apart from me, several churchgoers, although it never became entirely clear how many active committed churchgoers there were, as opposed to people identifying with Christian faith but not involved in any faith community.

What was good about the process was that it gave participants a change to air their views about relgious matters and be listened to, without ending up in argument or diatribe, knowing that all exchanges were governed by 'Chatham House rules'. So really there's not much more I can say about the participants or the detail of discourse. For me it was a rare opportunity to listen to the stories of people who had been raised completely outside the influence of any faith community, and to listen to people who had been raised in a faith community but have rejected all that they grew up with.

It was difficult, almost distressing at times to realise how far their experiences of other people's faith differed from my own - not that I haven't had enough negative experiences of religion to keep me closer to the edge than the centre as a religious professional - it's the never ending search for the truth of God that keeps me going, I guess. Could I give up, as some of them have? Sometimes, I think that's possible, but the feeling passes.
I wish many of my colleagues could have had the privilege of sharing in this exercise. It would perhaps help us to re-think how we approach proclaiming the good news and living the faith relevantly and attractively today. All of us, me included, need to get out of the religious ghetto more.

One small delight was getting to know a young man who arrived at the workshop on Monday, having flown back from Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where he'd been making the Hajj, after a visit to Jordan and Israel/Palestine with a group of young muslims. His iPhone was packed with pictures which he shared with me, taken by himself as a pilgrim, circulating the Ka'aba, and visiting Mecca's Grand Mosque. The prize for me was seeing his photos inside Al Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City. One of the photos was a view from the side of the Dome of the Rock across the valley to the Mount of Olives. He wondered about one of the ornate building on the hillside, whether it was a synagogue. He was intrigued to learn it's the Church in the Garden of Gethsemane - familiar to me from my visits there. Oriental style churches with domes and cupolas were unfamiliar to his eyes.

The fact that he and the group he'd been with were all young, and had been allowed into the Al Aqsa complex told me something I hadn't seen reported
. People under forty were for some time banned from entry, in case they started a protest and caused affray, but now visits are possible. A small sign of hope maybe?

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