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01 September 2011

Love Thy Neighbour

Love Thy Neighbour

The Bible teaches that loving our neighbours must be our priority. But are all parts of the UK Church really switched on when it comes to seeing Muslims as that neighbour? And does a dimension of fear play its part in reluctance to build relationships? Rebecca Taylor takes a hard look at a subject the Church cannot ignore and finds congregations sharing their lives and their faith unreservedly...

For some the thought of building relations with people of another faith is not an easy concept. But if you dig deep - do we really think that God wants us to ignore the elephant in the room that is Muslim-Christian relations and leave it un-tackled?

Jesus himself was living in a country with a vast array of cultures and a foreign occupying army. There were many times he reached out, where he spoke to the person who was not Jewish. Do we need to engage and do the same?

Alastair Kirk is a university chaplain working in the West Midlands as one of the 60 diocesan interfaith relations advisers for the Church of England, who, often combined with other jobs or parish roles, provide advice for churches wanting to develop good relations with different faiths. He agrees that the members of the early Church lived among a mix of cultures.

"It is important to remember where we have come from: the early Christians were in a society where no-one else believed in their faith, and yet Christians were called to be in that context," he says.

In Ephesians 2, Paul speaks of Christians reaching out to those who are outside the faith: "The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals." (The Message) "He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near." (New International Version)

Tense times

Newspapers and commentators have long reported on tensions in cities. I spoke to one Christian leader who said he recently went to a British city, long hailed as a hotbed of difficulties between groups, and physically felt the desperation and tension as he walked along the high street.

I also know of a Christian community worker who was able to help a Muslim family engage in a long process of healing following a trauma, just because she knew them and could help.

Diluting faith?

Some in the Church find the concept of interreligious dialogue a challenge, arguing that once involved, our beliefs will be diluted and we will compromise in order to build good relations.

But those involved in the work point to their cross-cultural experiences actually strengthening their Christian beliefs. As they discuss their faith with their Muslim neighbours or work together on a local issue such as bringing together communities after the awful 7/7 bombings, eradicating a drug culture or donating clothes together to local refugees, they become more confident of their own gospel.

Nick Coke, along with his wife Kerry, is the Salvation Army officer in charge of Hope asha church in Stepney, east London. With Bangladeshi Muslims making up 65 per cent of the Ocean Estate, Nick and Kerry live in the community and have developed strong relations over a number of years.

"My wife and I spend a lot of time visiting and sharing meals. We meet people through our children who attend the school so we meet local kids and their families. We are intentional about sharing our lives and being in each other's homes." Nick also talks openly with his neighbours about faith. "We try to share who we are and our faith," he says. "It is very easy to talk about it with our Muslim neighbours and we are open about sharing the gospel. Our Muslim friends tell us about Islam - we have lots of conversations on what we share and look at what our differences are."

As well as relational work, churches are also providing services to their communities - expressing beliefs through action. Phil Rawlings, vicar at St Brides in Old Trafford, Manchester, tells me that as well as English classes, the church runs mother and toddler groups that are attended by large numbers of people from the Muslim community. "People feel it is a comfortable place - it's safe," says Phil. "The work we are doing here is not primarily about about evangelism it's about relationship building."

Peaceful places

For Angela Hughes, minister at Stainbeck United Reformed Church in Leeds, reaching out to local people from different groups is about making that community work. "It is important that we get to know one another better at a local level so that together we can build communities which are safe and peaceful - good places to live and work," she says.

Holding 'Knit and Natter' groups and cookery classes requested by local Muslim women, the church congregation and its Muslim neighbours have produced a blanket, donating it to a local organisation caring for refugees. Angela believes that the most successful groups have been about getting women together doing ordinary things which unite them and that having local grassroots activities alongside more formal interfaith dialogues is important.

Back in Stepney, working with Muslim community leaders has meant that a campaign to get drug dealing off the local streets has turned into something of a success. Initially the church invited all sections of the community to come and talk about the violence and dangerous atmosphere that was being generated by the dealing. Says Nick: "We had Christian and Muslim members speak about how they felt we should deal with the issue and we have been campaigning together. We now hold a local festival on the issue of drugs with other agencies that has been running for three years - 1,000 people attended the last one."

Social responsibility was high on the agenda for Reverend Canon Bob Shaw, vicar in the parish of Beeston Hill and Hunslet moor, who over the last nine years has been responsible for building up positive relations with the Christian and Muslim community in Beeston Hill, Leeds. Bob's experience in the field was painfully needed after the 7/7 bombings when it was discovered that three of those involved were from the Beeston area.

One of the poorest parishes in the area, 30 per cent of the community is Muslim. Before 7/7, Bob had led on a building project to provide a space for the local community. A parents' centre was built and is now where the local Methodist church meets, with the Anglican church using the building as their parish centre for the area.

The project was something that Bob and his congregation had felt "God had been calling us to do" and with support from locals, outside funding and the Church Urban Fund, they built a joint Christian worship centre and worked with Muslim groups who used the old Methodist building developing it into a healthy living centre.

Like the project in Stepney, strong relations and a robust foundation of closeness was established as a result of working together, and as events unfolded in July 2005, this was never more needed.

Says Bob: "When 7/7 happened it was pretty difficult for the local community. The impact was immediate and devastating. We were swamped by the media, but the community held together and the relations that we had built up before helped to create stability, the very thing that God has asked us to do."

Determined to show an act of unity one week after the bombings, the community made a walk of friendship to the centre of Leeds, and later to St Pancras Old Church, London. Says Bob: "We were united and we would not be divided. Sometimes bad things happen to good communities. As well as that our Christian calling was to tell the truth about our community whether people wanted to hear it or not.

"When we went to London we took down books of condolence for the victims of the bombings. We were telling our capital city and nation - that we were determined to be united as a community and that Beeston Hill was a place where god-fearing people were living together."

As well as its cross-cultural work, St Brides, Manchester, has Eden Project youth workers from Alliance member The Message Trust at the church and many of the Trust's dance bands perform in the Old Trafford area. Says Andy Hawthorne, Trust founder who was recently awarded an OBE: "We have a lot of Eden Teams (youth worker placements) in predominantly Muslim areas and our bands do go into a lot of schools in these areas of Manchester."

Says Reverend Rawlings from St Brides: "Jesus said 'love one another' - our response to Muslim communities must come out of love and not fear. God has given us a spirit of love. Discipleship can mean cost - and that sometimes means feeling uncomfortable."

We need to be confident in who we are reaching out in grace and love

Comparing texts

Both Alastair Kirk from the West Midlands and Phil Rawlins study texts with Muslim colleagues and find that the conversations inspire and encourage: "If anything it helps strengthen my faith," says Alastair. "If I can spend time seeing how Muslim friends interpret their own texts and they see how I interpret mine, then we can build deep relationships that help to diminish fear and promote trust."

Says Phil Rawlings: "With a group of Turkish Muslim friends I have given a talk about the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. We've also been involved in visits to Muslim groups during Ramadan - to share a meal and talk about fasting. We are evangelistic and share the gospel but want to do it in a respectful way." The main message from all the churches involved in this work is not to be apprehensive.

Says Salvation Army pastor Nick Coke: "We shouldn't be fearful - there are fears that we will loose our faith but we don't need to be. We need to be confident in who we are - reaching out in grace and love. We also need to have that tension of bringing that faith and love and allowing God to do His work through us."

By getting the balance of respect and dialogue right now the future could be really bright.

"We are called to love our neighbours," says Bob Shaw from, Beeston Hill, "and that's what we are doing. You can't argue with that."

• Hope asha Church Stepney have a film on the work they are doing in their community see ashes2asha.blogspot.com/p/who-are-we.html

• For more on the Church of England Diocesan Interfaith work see churchofengland.org


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