Westminster Interfaith: Promoting Dialogue Between People of Faith

The agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster for Interreligious Dialogue

Westminster Interfaith Newsletter

Issue 64 – November 2009

Harvest of Friendship

Three years ago, I heard the news that a British-born Muslim travelled to Israel and blew himself up in a Tel Aviv nightclub. I was shocked to learn that this young man was from Hounslow, where I live, and that he had been studying at a community college where I had recently inaugurated a multi-faith event.

I went to the mosque down the road, and told the imam how shocked I was with the news. The imam told me that the young man used to worship there regularly – a quiet man, with no friends, who never talked to anybody. I told them how sorry I was that the act of this misguided youth was likely to reflect badly on the peace–loving local Muslim community. I promised my support by making a public statement of solidarity with them through our local multi-faith group.

The Second Vatican Council encouraged us to engage in inter-religious dialogue with people of other faiths. This outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church at the Council threw light on the nature of the Church and its mission. The Holy Spirit "in mysterious ways" touches all humans offering the gift of love – not just Christians. This is why the Church has called us to engage in interfaith dialogue – sharing our joy of the good news with others, listening and marvelling at how people of other faiths have found God and learning how they, too, follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Engaging in inter-religious dialogue is part of being a Catholic today. When we tried to apply the teaching of the Council in my own parish, we have found that the most effective way of engaging in interfaith relations is by working together with people of other faiths. This is what our justice and peace group does – helping people of other faiths, asylum seekers or prisoners of conscience. It started about ten years ago when a few parishioners joined Sikh, Muslim and Hindu friends and founded the Hounslow Friends of Faith. First and foremost we are friends because, with true friends, you can listen and be listened to even if you do not agree. We have grown in trust and respect for each other, tasted each other's food, enjoyed each other's religious festivals, understood something of each other's traditions, prayer life and the values we cherish. The group organises events for the public, including an annual peace and friendship walk in June when we visit each other's places of worship. We also have a One World Week multi-faith celebration where the mayor is the guest of honour. With the help of grants from the police, the council and other agencies, we have been able to put on a multi-faith youth festival. A Sikh policewoman comes to our meetings as the faith liaison officer.

There are challenges – and one of them is getting our priests and imams interested. Meeting people of other faiths is not always high on the list of priorities for busy faith leaders – but it is possible. Our parish priest asked me to arrange a meeting at the mosque with the imam, and they now know and respect each other and invite one another to various events. Our Hounslow Friends of Faith group organised a meeting for all the religious leaders in the area and they now come together annually for a multi-faith event. One year we invited the Anglican Area Bishop of Kensington into the Sikh gurdwara and last year we invited the Anglican Bishop of London, Richard Chartres. Because he is well known, the meeting was well attended and the local press gave us good coverage.

To facilitate contacts, the group has produced a directory of the places of worship in the borough, which can be found in all the local public libraries, schools and places of worship. To begin with, and with the benefit of funding, free copies were given to anybody who asked for them; now we update the directory on our website.

This year, for the first time, there will be a national interfaith week from 15 to 21 November – an initiative of the Interfaith Network for the UK which is supported by the Government and outlined in the document "Face to Face and Side by Side – a Framework for Partnership in our Multi-faith Society" which was published in July 2008 by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Interfaith Network has worked in partnership with the department to assist faith communities locally, regionally and nationally to make the week a success.

Suggestions for ideas of how to take part in the week's activities and material for schools can be found on the Interfaith Network website. In Hounslow, we have decided to have a concert on Saturday 21 November, called "Music from the Faiths" – a programme of song and music from the different faith traditions with pieces that are actually used in worship.

Interfaith groups can make important contributions. In the local community, for example, we held a conference on mixed-faith marriages, where couples in mixed-faith marriages spoke about their experience. Our clergy, the local imam, a Hindu purohit (priest) and a Sikh registrar told us about the rules of their faith regarding such marriages. The Metropolitan Police gave their input on the social effect of mixed-faith marriages.

Inter-religious dialogue, community cohesion and social harmony do not take place from the top down, from government or from Church to the people. The real initiatives have to take place at the grass-roots level by lay people from the different faith communities. It begins with people befriending people on a personal level – people meeting each other where they are. No other agenda is needed or appropriate. When the former President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, became bishop, he chose "Fructum dabit" – "it will give fruit" (Psalm 1) – as his motto. What grows out of interfaith dialogue is God's work. It is God, who is Lord of the harvest.

Alfred Agius

This article originally appeared in THE TABLET, 14 November 2009. For more information, visit www.hounslowfriendsoffaith.org; also www.interfaith.org.uk and www.interfaithweek.org.

Return to top         Go to Newsletter Index

Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict    Valid CSS!