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Multi-faith Bristol (July 2018)

Dear Friends,

In the middle of June I attended a wonderful event in the heart of the very multicultural community in Easton. It was the biggest street party in the UK – as the news reports described it!

This was the “Grand Iftar”.  Iftar is the celebration at sun down for the breaking of the fast, on the days of Ramadan, for people of the Muslim faith. This was the second ‘Grand Iftar’ the Muslim community of Bristol had hosted and there were over 2000 people there. There were brief speeches from MPs, the Lord Mayor, Police Commissioner, people from Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Christian communities spoke and I was invited to speak on behalf of Bristol Multi Faith Forum. We sat down together on the carpets rolled out along St Mark’s Road. The call to prayer was made as the sun went down and we all ate together. The muslim community provided food for 2000 people that night, all of it hot, and there was a joyful, generous, gracious welcome for the great mix of people who were there. (The food had been prepared in the kitchens of the Church across the road from the mosque!) “This is Bristol” was the message, “a city where people come together, welcome and support one another and make life good together.” It was so good to be the guests of a Muslim community that has grown in confidence to be active citizens and bringers of opportunities for peace in our city.

One of the great delights of my time in Bristol has been the opportunity to be involved with the Bristol Multi Faith Forum. Its work is twofold, firstly, trying to bring people of different faith communities together to discuss the social issues that concern for us, and secondly, to find ways of enabling the ‘voice’ of people in the faith communities to be heard and feed into the debates that shape the city.

Working with the Forum has brought me into contact with people who are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist and many shades of Christian. And, with people who would describe themselves as of ‘no faith’ and yet who see great value in the people of the different faiths getting together to build bridges of understanding across the things that might divide us in today’s society. Together we have explored questions of health and wellbeing, mental health, poverty, the role and rights of women, safeguarding children, social isolation among the elderly, challenging radicalization, encouraging care for the earth and our fragile environment and building trust between people whose traditions and understandings of life are different.

There have been many times when the Bristol Multi Faith Forum has had a role in helping people to come together in response to difficult events and challenging times in the last few years. On too many occasions, with partners like the Bristol Council of Mosques and SARI (Stand Against Racism and Inequality), leaders from faith communities and Bristol City Council, we’d gathered on College Green after some of the tragic events caused by terrorism in recent years, and together we’ve spoken up, with determination and hope. Time for the majority of people who will stand together to denounce violence and commit themselves to building peace.

Peace, we’ve said, comes from welcoming one another, celebrating diversity as a gift to society, challenging prejudice and making strong, kind, trusting relationships with others. ‘It’s about our shared humanity’ one of the Muslim colleagues has said many times … and he is so right, our religion, our faith must recognise and serve the rich picture of a multi cultured diverse humanity. The work of building those friendships is constant and essential for they offer the hope that where there is trouble we can stand together and be strong peacemakers.

For me it has been a deeply enriching experience to encounter and work with people of different faiths. I have come to recognise the love and devotion with which they follow the teachings of their faith as a holy and precious gift to the world. And I’ve learned to speak up for my own Christian faith too, hopefully in ways that increase understanding, peace and tolerance. In building communication between people of different faith traditions you discover that there is much that we hold and value in common. We are not all the same, but, knowing one another and growing in understanding of ‘the other’ makes peaceful life alongside one another more possible and more fruitful.

There is, surely, only one God. And if we can discover, amongst all the differences of culture, tradition, belief and outlook, that in all honesty and devotion many different people are seeking to understand God and live peacefully with their neighbour, then it is an act of faith. to reach out to one another and hear the insights that others bring. And this, in today’s world, is a challenge and opportunity we’ll all meet somewhere along the way. To reach out, with welcome and hope of understanding one another is, I believe a gift and calling of God that’s vital in our time.