Birmingham Conversation: Faith and The Arts

Can art be a positive influence on interfaith dialogue?
How can art create new spaces for conversations between people of different faiths?
How can an understanding of faith and inter-faith dialogue impact the arts?
How do we talk about art or religion that causes offense to others?

These were just some of the questions discussed by a group of people involved in the arts and members of different faith communities.

Following the successful Birmingham Conversations, a second series of conversations was run in the autumn of 2015 to consider the connection or conflict between faith and art. The aim of the conversations was to explore:

‘How artists and people of different faiths can work together to create the conditions for communities to come together in new ways and share conversations that could not otherwise take place.’
The purpose of these conversations was to:
• build mutual understanding and respect for the opportunities and challenges of contemporary artistic work that relates to themes of faith and spirituality;
• increase confidence amongst participants to engage with arts and faith projects
• build new links between like-minded individuals, groups, networks and initiatives and nurture the community of interest in Birmingham and UK around arts and faith;
• develop ideas for high quality arts projects, happenings and events that bring people together in new ways in the city and make a positive contribution to quality of life and cohesion in Birmingham.

As with the first conversations, we were not looking for complete consensus on issues that are raised, but wanted to provide a space for creative, imaginative conversation around these themes.

The conversations took place over three months and was generously hosted by Anthony Collins Solicitors. A full report of the conversations can be downloaded here: Arts and Faith Conversation 2016

Birmingham Conversation Symposium

The Birmingham Conversations came to a conclusion with a Symposium on May 20th at the Saffron Centre in Birmingham.

The conversations had taken place over six months and had explored the theme ‘What does Lived Faith look like in a 21st Century City?’ A group of 24 people from different faiths met once a month for three hours each time to talk through the way faith is lived in Birmingham. The group consisted of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Ravidassi and Sikhs.

The topics were wide ranging and included issues such as evangelism and conversion, gender issues, young people and education, caste legislation, race and global conflicts. The aim was not, necessarily, to reach consensus but to find a way to talk constructively about these topics. At the conclusion of the conversation three reports were produced to share the methodology and findings from the conversations and to encourage others to use this process in their own contexts.

The methodology report can be read here Designing for Discussion

The findings report can be read here Lived Religion and Difficult Conversations

A lay people’s report summing up the process can be read here Birmingham Conversations Report

Symposium 5 Symposium 4 Symposium 3 Symposium 2  Symposium 1

 

 

 

The Birmingham Conversations

The debate over the alleged  ‘Trojan Horse’ plot, along with other local issues and tensions have highlighted the need for people of faith in Birmingham to be able to discuss the way that faith is lived out in Birmingham. This means being willing to tackle contentious issues in a considered and mature way without causing offence or ducking the difficult questions. The aim is not necessarily to find total agreement but to enable issues to be discussed and offer ideas and a model that others can use to continue the conversation.
To this end Bishop David Urquhart has asked a team to set up the Birmingham Conversations on the theme of ‘What does Lived Faith Look like in a 21st Century City?’. The conversations are being facilitated by Mrs Sian Nicholas who has recently completed a studies in Inter-Faith Peacebuilding for Faith-Based Development Organisations  and lectures at Coventry University on Religion, Conflict and Peace
The conversations will be a series of six sessions between October and March to which we are asking twenty four participants from different faiths to commit to all six sessions. The people are not invited as representatives but are participating in their own right. People were invited from Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism.

The conversations are a means of enabling difficult conversations around ‘lived faith’ in Birmingham post ‘Trojan Horse’ and will deliver two distinct outcomes:

Firstly: a model of how people with very different perspectives can be enabled to discuss issues usually seen as too controversial, yet which impact the lives of many people on a daily basis.

Secondly: a record of the conversations including where there were changing attitudes, agreement or disagreement as a way of encouraging others to see how these topics can be discussed.
These outcomes will be disseminated through:
1) An academic report on the nature and conclusions from the conversations produced electronically
2) A lay persons’ summary of number 1 produced in hard copy and electronically
3) An academic analysis of the methodology with recommendations for groups wishing to use this process in the future
4) A day conference in mid. 2015 to announce and discuss the findings with a wider group

The title for the Birmingham Conversations is ‘What Does Lived Faith Look Like in a 21st Century City?’; the aim is to provide a means of enabling difficult conversations around lived faith in Birmingham post ‘Trojan Horse’.

Below are some definitions from the title to unpack what our intentions are:
Enabling Difficult Conversations: facilitating the creation of safe space, whereby participants feel able to freely express the deeply held convictions of those within their faith traditions with each other. Within this safe space participants should feel heard and understood, and feel able to discuss issues and to disagree in a respectful manner. The space should allow participants to be challenged and to be challenging in a constructive way that informs the reality of daily life for participants.
Lived Faith: Religion is often expressed as a series of propositions, belief, practices or assertions that those who adhere to that religion are supposed to hold. Faith is a much more difficult term to define, but often speaks to the individual’s own commitment to those beliefs or practices, or on occasion the way in which the beliefs and practices are expressed within a particular community. By ‘lived faith’ we are looking to move beyond a purely intellectual understanding of religion to see faith as something that not only affects the way each individual member of a religion lives out their faith, but also the way in which that living inevitably interacts with those who live around them.
Lived faith is probably best understood in relation to identity. It is that expression or practice of the faith that is most intimate and personal for each individual. It can be expressed in terms of a relationship, particular values, a series of practices, law or encapsulated in specific words and passages of scripture. To engage with lived faith at this level is to touch that which is most personal for the faithful individual, that which has evolved from childhood, or that which drew a specific person to the faith in the first place. It cannot always be expressed in words, and questions of memory, emotion and embodiment are essential to any expression of lived faith. It is also rarely something that is uniquely individual; a lived faith is shared, lived out within a community of faith, even if the different members of the community may not choose to express their faith in identical forms. The community of the faithful is clearly important, but in practice lived faith also engages with, and may even share values or practices with, those of other faith traditions who live close by creating particular synergies and tensions within the expression of the faith.
Post ‘Trojan Horse’: Whilst the ‘Trojan Horse’ episode has brought the way faith is expressed in schools to the fore, it is our contention that the beliefs and values that led to some of the issues (e.g. gender separation) are not limited to schools or to one community. Furthermore there are other issues that are more relevant to people from other faiths that can also lead to tensions or conflict between people. It is this underlying way that faith is lived that we want to discuss in these conversations rather than ‘Trojan Horse’ per se.

Whilst the process and selection of invitees might not be perfect we hope that it will serve as a useful group to tackle some of these important issues and be a model that can be repeated enabling different people to participate.

 

Birmingham Faith Leaders’ Pilgrimage to Amritsar

Worship Leaders Mohiwal Golden Temple Diwali Golden Temple 1PictureFLG Discussion 2 FLG Discussion

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chance to go on a visit to Amritsar as part of an interfaith pilgrimage is not something that comes along everyday, so when Dr Andrew Smith from the Faithful Neighbourhoods Centre received the invitation he started packing immediately.

Andrew writes

The visit gave us a chance to visit some of the most sacred sites Sikhism and to visit them in the company of Sikhs for whom this was a very significant spiritual journey. We had the privilege of being in Amritsar for Diwali and to share in the celebrations of that day. We also visited Sultanpur, the site where Guru Nanak meditated and where in 1496 he stepped into the waters of the river Bein and disappeared. After three days he returned with a  divine glow and started his mission to fight hypocrisy, preach the word of God and show people how to live in peace.

The trip also included a visit to Anandpur and the site of the first Amrit ceremony in 1699 and the foundation of the Khalsa.

As well as visiting the sites there was also much chance for discussion around faith and belief, interesting resonances between faiths were explored such as the experience of exile and the way that can lead to growth and the nature and response of a call to live a holy life. As our friendships grew during the week we were also able to discuss issues that we disagree on, including profound questions about where we have come from, where we are going and what we are called to do? Whether one beliefs people are created in the womb or reincarnated or their soul has transmigrated leads to very different understandings of humanity and the human condition. The depth of discussion led to new insights and scope for much deeper discussions in the future.

Our thanks go to the leaders and volunteers from GNNSJ in Birmingham who organised and hosted this fascinating visit.

 

 

The Feast

The Feast is a Christian charity based in Birmingham, working to promote community cohesion between Christian and Muslim young people. The Feast strives to see Christian and Muslim young people come together to form real friendships that move them to be change-makers and peace-makers amongst their local and wider communities.
Established in Sparkhill in 2009, we now work across Birmingham, in Bradford and Keighley and in Tower Hamlets, and have developing works in other locations across the UK and the world! We work with Christian and Muslim young people in their own school, faith or community setting and bring them together at ‘faith encounter’ events where they join to do something fun like art or sport.
The Feast is all about…
Exploring faith – young people are equipped and empowered to discuss their faith in a safe and respectful way, drawing out both the similarities and differences.
Creating friendships – bringing together young people in small groups to do something they all enjoy creates the opportunity to get to know one another, work together and build friendships based upon trust and respect.
Changing lives – having been to our events, young people are challenged and enabled to live out the lessons they have learnt in their everyday lives, overcoming prejudice and working together on social action.
‘Project Ghana’ is an interfaith social action project enabling eight Christian and Muslim youth in the UK to share this learning around preventing and appropriate responses to religious conflict, with teens in Ghana whilst working to sustainably enhance the lives of local children. You can stay up to date with the Facebook page.
The Feast is excited to be running our second Engage Training Course. Commencing in October 2014 we are offering a Certificate at Level 3 ‘Assistant Youth Support Worker’ training course for Christian and Muslim youth workers. The course includes dedicated theological reflections for each faith and is the only course of its kind in the country. It is the ideal ‘foundational’ qualification and provides the knowledge and skills needed to be a competent and confident youth worker in your youth work setting.
As The Feast marks its fifth official birthday, we remain committed to promoting community cohesion amongst Christian and Muslim young people, and are excited to see more young people explore their faith, build friendships and ultimately, to see lives and worlds changed. The Feast has now helped approximately 400 young people through events, plus many, many more at the schools where we work. These young people have been given the opportunity to meet with people of a different faith, and have been able to impact their families and communities.
www.thefeast.org.uk | 0121 675 1158 | contact@thefeast.org.uk | @thefeastproject

Mystery Mission Trip Lands at the FNC

For three days in July the FNC became home for 20 young people and leaders from Knowle Parish Church. They eat, worshipped, and even slept at the FNC which they even found to be quite comfortable! However this wasn’t just a luxury city break they were here as part of their church’s annual mission trip for young people. So whilst they were with us they went litter picking with the Balsall Heath Forum, helped out at the Sultan Bahu Trust, Got involved with The Feast, did gardening at The Springfield Centre and helped at the Narthex Food Bank.

As well as all this activity they visited shops on the Stratford Road, had a tour of the Hamza Masjid and were there for Iftar and had a delicious meal at Hajees Restaurant.

Although Sparkhill is only 15 minutes away from Knowle, it’s a different world, one which many of the young people had never visited. However, they got stuck into the work and were enthusiastic and hardworking volunteers.

 

Near Neighbours 2 – all you need to know.

Near Neighbours is back and includes more areas than before in the West Midlands. We have some new areas as well as our 13 wards and there is a new programme running in the Black Country.

Near Neighbours is a Government – funded programme which runs until March 2016.  It aims to bring people together; to meet, build friendship and work together to improve their neighbourhood.

Where does Near Neighbours work?
Near Neighbours funding is available in parts of London, Leicester, Birmingham and parts of Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, Leeds and Manchester, Nottingham and Luton.  Within Birmingham we cover most of Aston, Bordesley Green, Edgbaston, Hodge Hill, Ladywood, Lozells and East Handsworth, Moseley and Kings Heath, Stirchley, Handsworth Wood, Hamstead, Hall Green, Acocks Green, Billesley and Perry Barr.

What sort of projects get funding?
In phase one Near Neighbours in Birmingham gave away nearly £500,000 to 140 projects.  Activities supported by Near Neighbours range from volunteer-led job clubs to community meals, or from sporting events to debt counselling.  The fund will priorities applications from small faith-based groups with a turnover of less than £150,000 a year who are developing a new activity with people of different faiths.

How to apply?
All the information you need is on our website.  Your Near Neighbours development worker is on hand to help you with your application.  Jessica Foster can be contacted at jess@nearneighbours.com or by phone on 0121 675 1155.  Near Neighbours is part of Thrive Together Birmingham  and  is based at the Faithful Neighbourhoods Centre, 10 Court Road, Sparkhill, B11 4LX.  Please phone if you would like to make an appointment.

Learning About Love

In May 2014 the local organisation, Connect Justice, released a groundbreaking report called Learning About Love: Developing Interfaith Approaches to Promoting Healthy Relationships.  The Near Neighbour’s funded study carried out by Dr. Laura Zahra McDonald and Zubeda Limbada explored what healthy and unhealthy relationships mean in the context of faith, culture, gender and identity for Christian, Muslim and Sikh participants. Six young males, six young females and a mixed group of six parents were consulted in three-hour workshops in three separate sessions to enable honest views and dialogue to be shared. Each of the three groups had equal representation from the three faith groups. The cultural and ethnic heritage of the participants – reflective of Birmingham as a diverse city – included Somali, Black African, white British, African Caribbean, white American, Pakistani, and Indian.

Rather than focusing on the extremes, the researchers wanted to understand how might we better understand the challenges facing all of us, whether young women, young men, parents, family members or as wider community members? Are there different challenges governed by our diversities, including gender, faith, culture or age? How can we resist the tide, and learn about love? For this study, the question posed was ‘How might we as a society better promote healthy relationships’ which reflected the need for a positive, pro-active response.

You can read a copy of the report here.

Doing Interfaith in the Countryside

The Catalyst young leaders group held their weekend away in February and were able to get away from it all with a trip to beautiful Derbyshire. Apart from great food, a wonderful location and lots of laughter there were also significant discussions on leadership, reincarnation, sexuality and discrimination. The weekend started with a lively game about aims and objectives that involved eating quite a lot of chocolate.

The group also worked on a social action project that they will be rolling out in Birmingham in the coming months. Coming from their desire to help those who are struggling with food poverty and to provide a sustainable, regular supply of fresh food they are working on an innovative and exciting project.

We were also challenged to think through our attitudes to sexuality and how we understand the experiences and stories of those from the LGBT community who are also members of faith communities.

As with all the Catalyst events it was a real mix of friendship building and deep conversations that make the whole course such a worthwhile endeavour.

END HUNGER FAST

On Ash Wednesday a group of staff from the FNC joined faith leaders, food bank representatives and community groups to commission the Hunger Hut in the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral.

The Hunger Hut is a focus for End Hunger Fast in Birmingham and will be staffed by volunteers to enable it to open six days a week. Do call in if you are passing  and find out more about the campaign at www.endhungerfast.co.uk.

Following the launch of the Hunger Hut the Bishop of Birmingham wrote the following article for the Birmingham Post:-  the full text is below. It is quite long but definitely worth reading.

Bishop David Urquhart writes:

At a recent gathering of faith leaders a Government Minister joked that a collective of Bishops might be called a ‘correspondence.’ The letter we wrote with other Christian leaders on February 20th about welfare reforms and poverty seems to have struck a chord in the nation and in the fortnight that has followed its publication, poverty has barely been out of the headlines.

Following the focus on food poverty and food banks, the spotlight turned to families as the Government re-launched their draft Child Poverty Strategy.  However its call for better measurements and data was met with a plea for more substantial action to support the poorest people in our nation and break the cycle of deprivation. I believe this is a good opportunity to refresh our Birmingham Child Poverty Strategy.

But while it is easy to agree the poverty needs to end and action needs to be taken the question that is not so easily answered is ‘What do we do?’  The Church has begun to answer that question with its campaign End Hunger Fast which I launched in Birmingham yesterday.

During the next 40 days, the season of Lent, Christians across the country will be fasting and praying as is our tradition. This year there is an added focus of food poverty and  following the example of Jesus we will be finding ways of reaching out to those in need. One practical action we have committed ourselves to is to try and raise enough money to ensure the local charity SIFA Fireside can provide breakfast to the people sleeping rough in our city.  We will also be creating prayer spaces with a hunger focus and visiting food banks and shelters to talk to people there and gather stories of hunger which will be presented to parliament just before Easter.

We hope these stories will help us understand the patterns of poverty in this city region and reveal simple steps that could be taken to help people live without the stark choices of heat or eat, payday loans or no bus-pass to get to work. We expect to hear about low paid work, zero contract hours which mean people do not know if they will be paid from week to week, benefit sanctions and the destitution faced by immigrants who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and cannot access the usual support networks. We will of course hear stories of bad health, debt, addiction and relationship break-up and among all the stories we will hear of great sacrifice, bravery, determination and fortitude as well as despair, frustration and anger.

Despite the complexity of the issues I think there are steps that the seventh richest nation in the world can take to help redistribute some of our resources and ensure we care for the most marginalised in our communities.
An obvious start would be a higher minimum wage, or the living wage, which has been adopted by many organisations and helps to ensure people do not have to take on several jobs to make ends meet or supplement their income with benefits and food-parcels. In 2013 the living wage for people outside London was calculated to be £7.65 per hour – the national minimum wage is £6.31. According to the Living Wage Foundation, it implementation is not only good for employees but for employers too. 80% of employers believed that the living wage had enhanced the quality of the work of their staff, while absenteeism had fallen by approximately 25%. (http://www.livingwage.org.uk/what-are-benefits)

Alongside a living wage it seems essential that child-care is accessible and affordable so parents can afford to work in the confidence that their children are being well looked after.  We need tailored support to help people overcome barriers to work whether they are educational issues, health-related problems or any other obstacles.

Of course these solutions need to work alongside growing a creative economy that provides as many well-resourced jobs as possible for those who need them including a flourishing social enterprise sector and a commitment to making work accessible, meaningful and rewarding. We have some wonderful examples of social enterprises helping people into work including Devenish Girl bakery in Weoley Castle, Gear Up in Hodge Hill and Urban Cycles in Ward End.

These are inspiring examples of enterprise putting people first – bringing jobs, training and hope to young people but there is much more like this that could be done by people working together with a commitment to shared benefit from business. Partnerships between the public sector and private sector, voluntary groups and faiths communities are going to play an essential role as we realise we share responsibility for the welfare of our city. But equally essential are new kinds of partnerships that are formed when individuals meet each other across divides of wealth, faith or ethnicity and see their shared humanity and responsibility to each other. The Near Neighbours programme in Birmingham has helped us to develop some of these relationships over the last three years, giving away nearly £500,000 to enable faith and community groups to start small projects to bring people together and work to change their communities. I was delighted to be at the recent announcement that the Government is allocating a further £3 million to this programme.

Equally I have heard of food bank volunteers who are changed by the stories they hear and are moved to lobby MPs or press for change in other ways.  I am also excited by other movements such as Places of Welcome which offer hospitality and refreshments in a way which narrows the gap between guest and host and encourages all to participate and contribute. If you’re interested in these ideas I recommend The Stop by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis which tells how a simple food bank in Canada has developed, by encouraging participation rather than dependency,  into an internationally respected Community Food Centre with gardens, kitchens, a greenhouse and farmers’ markets. It centres on the idea of cooking and eating together to encourage healthy eating and mutual interdependency.
In the Christian tradition, our worship centres around a shared meal, instituted by Jesus Christ, which we call Holy Communion where young and old, rich and poor people of all ethnicities and abilities put aside their differences to share a foretaste of the banquet we believe is prepared in heaven. Meals have been very important in the bridging work of Near Neighbours and I believe they represent our shared humanity, our mutuality, our ability to share and our ability to provide for one another. So when the fast of Lent is over I look forward to the occasional feast, perhaps at a Place of Welcome, where all are included and no-one leaves hungry, where all are heard, seen and recognised as a human being who may have needs, failings and shortcomings but who brings their own unique experience, worth and gifts – carrying in them the image of God.

 

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