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franciscan - September 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Faith at Work?

By Maureen Henderson CSP

The South London Industrial Mission (SLIM) is an ecumenical Christian network of people exploring the relevance of faith to work and all aspects of the local economy. I joined the team of Chaplains in May 1991 with a particular brief to develop dialogue with members of other faith traditions in South London. Before coming to London, I had spent nine years at Walsall in the West Midlands in InterFaith community work. I soon discovered that building up networks of relationships in London is far more difficult than in a Midlands town where there is a strong sense of belonging. People in London relate to so many different places: they often live, work, shop, recreate and worship in quite separate areas. It was a real case of ‘on my bike’ (fortunately motorised) to find out where the people were.

Developing interfaith relationships can only be done by building upon other people’s work, and I received wonderful help from the South London Interfaith Group and the Interfaith Network. Sometimes, it can be impossible to gain entry without an introduction.
This was borne out by my experience in Greenwich. I was trying to make contact with members of a Mosque and had been given the name of the president by the local vicar. I duly turned up on the doorstep one Saturday morning and my ring was answered by a crowd of small children. I asked to see their father and a very suspicious-looking man came to the door. The door was only opened about six inches and I knew I had to talk fast or that door was going to be closed. I mentioned the vicar’s name and at once a beaming smile appeared on the man’s face. The door was thrown wide open and I was welcomed in for a cup of tea. Some years before, that vicar had helped the Muslims obtain premises for their Mosque when there had been a lot of local opposition, and subsequent developments could not have happened without his support.

I started working on a three-year project for SLIM called ‘MultiFaith Issues and Economic Developments’. Rather a mouthful and, although I had plenty of experience of multifaith issues, I was floundering with regard to the economics. I was greatly helped by the Senior Chaplain, Canon Peter Challen, who pointed out that the word comes from the Greek oikos (house) and nomos (law or management). So basically I was trying to develop InterFaith dialogue on how we manage the household of this world, how we live together as human beings on Planet Earth. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, commented: ‘Humankind has many faiths but only one world in which to live’, which succinctly expresses the challenge which confronts us all.

I saw the first area for dialogue to be ‘What does it mean to be human?’ ‘How can we help each other to be more human?’ A meeting was arranged one Saturday morning for members of that local Church and Mosque in Greenwich. We shared our creation stories and agreed that being human meant being in relationship with God, our fellow humans and the created order. The duties within those relationships were discussed and the importance of tolerance, peace and justice. We discovered that we had a great deal in common, although there were some sharp differences in theology and attitudes to law. We decided to meet again and a Muslim member suggested that we discuss ‘How can Church and Mosque work together for justice and peace?’ The Gulf War had started by the time we next met and so we considered the effect upon us locally and what we could do about it. After a very lively meeting, we produced a joint statement for the local press:

‘WE BELIEVE in One God, Lord of Creation, God of Justice and Peace, who will judge all people with mercy and compassion. We declare our common concern for the destructive effects of the Gulf War on God’s creation and the hatred it can generate among God’s people. We pray together for a just and peaceful solution.’

We then prayed in silence together, ending with the Muslims reciting their prayer and then the Christians saying the Lord’s Prayer. It was the process of reaching that agreed statement which was so important. It took over an hour and a half and much heated discussion, but we learned so much about each other.

As the project developed, I became increasingly convinced that being human was the key area for dialogue and that it needed to be done at a local level. It is simply about how we relate as neighbours. In one Mosque, when I asked if members would like to meet with members of the local Church, one Muslim said, ‘O yes please, because when I walk down the read wearing my little hat, people look at me as if I come from another planet!’ How dehumanising for all concerned, I reflected sadly. Such local groups can develop better understanding and need to work together on neighbourhood concerns. Even where groups do not continue regularly, the established links are important when local incidents occur.

The Christendom Trust, who were part- funding the project, insisted on a monitoring group to ensure that their money was not being wasted. A Jewish woman and a Shia Muslim joined with two SLIM Chaplains to form a group. Neutral territory was the Wholemeal Cafe in Streatham on a Sunday afternoon, when we were allowed to spend a couple of hours evaluating and planning. A series of consultations was arranged when Jews, Christians and Muslims met on Sunday afternoons to explore the relationship of Health and Wealth, what it means to be Living Healthily, particularly socially and environmentally, and people’s experience of Changing Work Patterns. We discovered a wealth of wisdom in the different faith traditions. The problem was the gap between wisdom and practice. Could we help each other to narrow the gap? Always at the end of a consultation, the question was, “What can we do about it together?”

In October 1993, the Inner Cities Religious Council, a government initiative under the Department of the Environment, held a day conference for leaders of faith communities in South London. Much of the day was spent in Borough groups identifying areas of common concern and we were encouraged to go on meeting in those groups after the Conference. The Lambeth group gave just the focus we needed for a practical response to those consultations and so the Lambeth MultiFaith Action Group was formed. Our purpose is to improve the quality of life of Lambeth residents by working to overcome racism and religious discrimination, providing a programme of celebration and education. We are a group of representatives of some of the faith communities in Lambeth and are seeking to extend our membership. We have recently produced a small exhibition of our work which is being shown in the local public libraries as a launch for our Information Bank. This is simply a list of telephone numbers of contact people from the main faith communities in Lambeth for the use of individuals or statutory bodies needing information or advice.
Although a small group, we are friends who enjoy working together and we provide a network of support. When the local Synagogue was vandalised and daubed with racist graffiti, Christians and Muslims attended the following Friday evening prayers to register support. For the last three years, we have held an evening of shared food and entertainment at the Synagogue to celebrate One World Week. It is celebration which is so important. We enjoy each other, and our differences are the distinctive features of people for whom we have a great respect and affection; and we do not want to change them. §

Sister Maureen Henderson, of the Community of the Sacred Passion, has worked in Tanzania and lately in the West Midlands of England and in South London.


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