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28 September 2011

Crossing the Faith Divide

The events commemorating 10 years after 9/11 have proved a sharp reminder of the need for our communities to foster deeper understanding of and trust between people of different cultures and faiths. Many churches and Christian community groups see the need and want to engage with the challenge but are nervous about how to go about it without compromising their own position.

Where churches are developing good relationships with people of other faiths they observe that it's important to see the people first. Patronising or artificial behaviour is never a good way of fostering relationships and it's easy to take the scraps of information we have about other faiths and cultures and use them as the basis for constructing unhelpful myths around what our next door neighbours must think, do and feel.  They are as individual as you are! 

Building relationships first

Some guidelines which might help when getting to know people who seem to be different to you:

  • Remember they will face many of the same daily challenges/celebrations as you do: getting the children to school on time, supporting sick family members and friends, being unemployed, equipment breaking down, birthdays, a new job, children's success at school, holidays - these are shared experiences which are good places to start conversations
  • Don't make assumptions about what someone else thinks - listen to what they say and if it doesn't make sense to you, ask questions
  • Don't avoid subjects of conversation because you think they're sensitive - if you do think something is a touchy subject, ask if it's alright to have the conversation.  People will be pleased that you respect them and work with you to define boundaries
  • Be respectful of other people's culture - every culture has its own practices.  It is not appropriate to challenge a particular behaviour unless you know someone very well - by the time you know them that well, you will know how to have the conversation appropriately
  • Think about what's cultural and what's faith-based
  • Find occasions to deliberately invite people into your space
  • When appropriate, share food - giving a cake or seasonal food as an expression of celebration is rarely unwelcome (best to make sure it's vegetarian) - or other home made treats (home made vegetarian soap has proved very bonding for one family I know!). And if in doubt ask them what dietary rules their faith requires e.g. halal meal

Holding on to what is important

Many churches are setting up separate legal entities through which they run a number of activities in their neighbourhoods where there are people of other faiths. Some churches may be nervous about how to meaningfully engage with the people living in those communities and yet preserve the Christian basis of the organisation. There is no reason why you can't do both. In setting up an organisation some useful tools include:

  • Having founding members who have to give their consent before certain specified things are changed, e.g. the structure of the governing committee or the purposes of the organisation.  The founding members can be individual people, offices or organisations/institutions (e.g. the minister, the church warden, the deacons, the church youth worker)
  • Ensuring that the Christian community has the majority of places on the governing committee
  • Setting up consultation groups which give community members a forum for saying what they think.  Perhaps giving these groups a place on the governing committee or if not ensuring through other means their contribution is taken seriously 
  • Considering whether you want to employ only Christian staff or whether there are roles appropriate for people from the wider community to carry out.  However, make sure you comply with the Equalities Act and other relevant legislation.

Sarah Hayes
Anthony Collins Solicitors