23 December 2016
The Feast is a Christian youth work charity, specialising in helping young people of different faiths and cultures to live well with each other. So is this about evangelism? No, says the charity’s CEO Tim Fawsett. “What we do is enable Christians, especially those on the evangelical side of the Church, to meet with people of another faith and talk about their faith, without compromise or watering down, in a way that allows us to form friendships based on trust and respect. So maybe it is evangelism?”
WHY ARE YOU CALLED THE FEAST? Traditional “interfaith dialogue” - a term we don’t like because of its baggage - is so often serious and formal, like dry Ryvita. Instead we want to create a fun, noisy and happy environment for young people to connect up with their friends. It’s our dream that people would share their lives with people who are different to themselves, inviting them from the front door right through to their kitchen and dining room to share a full and welcoming meal.
WHY DO YOU WORK WITH TEENAGERS? We were founded by Dr Andrew Smith, who was the Scripture Union youth worker in Birmingham. One aspect of his ministry took him into schools, and increasingly he found himself in schools that were made up of mainly South Asian students, of the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faiths. He found so few Christian youth work resources on how to engage these young people that it lead him to pioneering the approaches we now use. There are other clear benefits of working with young people. Unlike many of their parents, they are already much more engaged with peers of a different faith and culture, and are growing up in a country where diversity is normal. Our work gives them opportunities to share and explore what they believe, and so contributes to the discipleship journey of Christian young people. Finally we have found that young people can have a big impact on challenging the stereotypes, fears and prejudice that is held by their families, faith group and community.
STEREOTYPICALLY WE OFTEN DON’T THINK OF TEENAGERS AS GREAT COMMUNICATORS. DO YOU HAVE TO GIVE THESE YOUNG PEOPLE A LOT OF ENCOURAGEMENT TO TALK? The centre of our ministry are what we call Youth Encounters, where say five young Christians come together with five Muslim peers, around normal, fun youth work activities like sport, ten pin bowling, or doing art, creating times for them to speak to each other about their faith and cultures. To do this we put in place simple rules that will guide their discussions, and then let them go. To be honest, we rarely find they need a lot of help to talk together.
WHAT DO PEOPLE REALLY LEARN DURING THESE DIALOGUE SESSIONS? Many of our young people or their adult leaders are struck by the rules we use to guide our discussions. These include speaking positively about my own faith rather than negatively about other people’s, acknowledging similarities and differences between our faiths and not judging someone by what some people of their faith or community do. We often hear stories of how people keep using these rules and even teach them to their family or friends.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE MEMORY FROM ONE OF THESE SESSIONS? As a Christian I’m probably more proud of the change that happens in other Christians, as we are changed by our Muslim friends. Once we had some boys come from a church, which even the vicar said was “a little bit racist”, to spend a weekend with some Muslim peers. Afterwards they spoke in their church about the experience - how they had made friends, with names, senses of humour, similar interests, and not the ‘stereotypical Muslim’. This lead to a woman in the church saying hello to a Muslim receptionist who she normally ignored or avoided, for the very first time. This church has now been on a journey of reaching out to the Muslims who have started to come into their community and their young people were a vital part of that.
WHY SHOULD WE HAVE FRIENDS OF OTHER FAITHS? Because Jesus said that we should love our neighbour. He taught his original followers the parable of the Good Samaritan, but today we tend to miss the impact of this story. Samaritans were despised by the people of Israel because of their corrupted faith, ethnicity and history, and avoided at all costs. However to demonstrate what he meant he described a Samaritan who really knew how to love, with humility, self-sacrifice, generosity and persistence, right across the huge racial chasm. I started to understand this when I realised that today it could have been the Good Muslim. Our love needs to overcome our fears and prejudices. Sadly, so many people of other faiths in this country don’t know this sort of love. Some may hear our messages, but they don’t hear or experience real, tangible love in friendships, in homes and over meals - through the good and bad times.
WHAT ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT AT THE MOMENT, AND WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE? The Feast works in four locations - Birmingham, Bradford and Keighley, Tower Hamlets and Luton. We love working with hundreds of young people. But the thing I’m most excited about is The Feast becoming more of a movement, sharing our experience and resources, offering training or advice, inspiring and challenging more - especially in the Church - so that many more young people will be able to love their neighbour better. God has blessed us with a little role in His kingdom, and our prayer and hope is that we can be yeast in mix, helping build bridges and enliven the churches engagement with its communities.