Friday, 9 September 2011

Awareness Sunday

Awareness Sunday from Awareness Sunday on Vimeo.

The short video above is about Awareness Sunday, an initiative which aims to create better understanding between religions and communities as a response to the events of 9/11. The first Awareness Sunday will be the tenth anniversary, this Sunday, and churches and groups all over the world, led in the UK by a service of remembrance and reconciliation in Westminster Abby at 6.30pm, will be drawn together to try to create a better understanding between faiths and cultures. I first read about Awareness Sunday at Synod - I think they had a stall , or some groups was distributing the leaflets. I must admit that (rather ironically) I had not known about this initiative before, nor have I heard of it since.

The events of 9/11 have, of course, been in the news and on our television screens this week. I have mixed feelings about the coverage. The events were so momentous that to say little or nothing seems a travesty, and yet some of the delving into personal stories and lives seems intrusive and voyeuristic. I read a magazine article last week about "the jumpers" - those who fell, or jumped, or were forced to their death. The faces and pictures of those thought to have jumped were on display. The reader could try to match the blurry, grainy photos of them falling to their death, or leaning out of windows waving handkerchiefs, with those other photos, the equally harrowing ones of them living their lives -  getting married, hugging their children, smiling at the camera with calm, unknowing eyes. I thought how it might feel for the families left behind, that a decade after their deaths their loved ones are newspaper fodder.

Many people of faith who remember 9/11 this weekend will be acutely aware that religious belief is a force for evil as well as good, that while our faith can help us recognise human dignity and strive for peace, so it can also fuel extremism and hatred. The attacks were made in the name of religion, and yet this can be a simplistic view when politics, cultural ideology and bitterness at injustice, both real and perceived, also played a part. Evil rarely comes from nowhere. The events of 9/11 should leave us grappling with our own propensities for bitterness, fear and hatred. How effectively do we discriminate between justice and revenge or negotiate moral boundaries in a world which is not always black and white, but often rather grey?

The leaflet from Synod is on the desk in front of me as I type. The radio downstairs drones on about the fear that some will use the anniversary of 9/11 to carry out further attacks. The leaflet about Awareness Sunday speaks of its belief that people of all faiths and world views, "will help defeat extremism and enable people to live together in peace, without fear."
It's a nice idea.


  1. I happened to be looking thro’ the blog of an American Evangelist (a private man – not some telly-Evangelist or anything like that). The blog has the usual flavour of Reformed, Evangelical, American Christianity: pro-life, anti-gay, anti-evolution, pro-Republican party (all those ‘stances’ that admit you into the tribe...). However he is a guy you can have some interesting discussions with, tho’ like other blogs we both visit, some of the other commenters can be pretty nasty pieces of work.

    I was quite moved by a piece he wrote about ‘witnessing’ at a baseball match. He ended up talking to a guy who was a refugee Iraqi Muslim – I anticipated that the tale would be about how the Evangelist tried to win the Muslim for Jesus. But the post was actually about the immense respect he had for the Muslim and how he learned something about Islam and also another culture.

    I am utterly shocked by the comments – and posts – of what are seemingly fairly mild-mannered bloggers when it comes to Islam. And in church circles by the ignorance many Christians have of other faiths – AND other denominations. That said, I get a bit fed up talking to some Muslims or Hindus or whatever religion when they likewise display ignorance or prejudice towards Christianity.

    It is events like the above that can deal with the ignorance - after all ignorance is not a crime. The problems come with the prejudice. Given many ‘world’ religions (tho’ not all) trumpet themselves as ‘the only true’ religion, it can be rather challenging to have to contemplate that others hold their own religion to be the ‘truth’.

    The trouble is with events like the above, the people who go to them are, in the main, open and tolerant people – in a sense it’s preaching to the converted. The problem is how to reach those who don’t want dialogue and don’t want to see the their religion ‘on a par’ with others... And as religions the world over seem to be moving to the Right, dialogue, mutual respect and understanding is needed more and more. The responsibility for an increase in such understanding lies with those in the pulpits (of churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras etc.).

    Last year I was invited to a talk given at Finsbury Park Mosque (of Abu Hamza fame- but now much more moderate!!) and I was embarrassed by the fuss made of me and the undergraduates I took with me (I’ve never experienced such a welcome at a church!!); likewise I have been to several events at East London Mosque and I have been impressed with the kindness, respect and welcome offered. I have experienced similar acts of welcome and sharing at the Birmingham NIshkam Centre and Gurdwara. Hence why I am deeply saddened by some of the prejudiced – and sometimes downright wicked – comments I read on some Christian blogs about some of these places or adherents of other faiths (one fairly respected Christian blog allowing a comment containing the phrase ‘raghead’ to remain when talking about Sikhs...). Most of the people commenting have probably never even set foot inside a mosque, temple, synagogue etc. Thankfully, I know there are welcoming non-Christians to sharing events – which is really what is needed on both sides of the religious divides.

    It is only through dialogue with and learning about other faiths and their believers that there can ever really be a way forward.

  2. Ages ago, when I was a student, I had an Indian boyfriend and used to go with him to the Gurdwara in Shepherd's Bush and sometimes the Guru Granth Gurdwara in Southall (mind you, his family were Hindu, I never knew why they attended the Gurdwara!) I was always made a fuss of - and it really struck me that some white people who were clearly down on their luck came in looking for food- as you know there is a meal offered. These people (potential scroungers?) were treated with the utmost courtesy, plates filled up and second portions offered.
    One day, at my dad's church in Keighley, two Asian kids came into the church fete to look at the stalls. I heard one of the old ladies at the church say (scandalised) to another - "they shouldn't be allowed in here, this is not their church."
    Of course, this is not the attitude of most christians, and prejudice exists in all races, faiths, colours. There did seem to be a policy of hospitality in the Gurdwara though that was understood and shared by all?

  3. My ‘big conference’ last year was in Birmingham – on faith based organisations and international development. A bit less globetrotting than the conference in Las Vegas this year – and I stayed in student halls of residence instead of a hotel with a couple of acres of casino. But one interesting thing laid on for us one evening, was a visit to the Nishkam Centre and Gurdwara, where we were given a tour and then had a meal served to us by some of the elders. It was the best meal I ate in the three days I spent Birmingham!

    It was a lovely evening – the thing making it so being the fact that the temple was a place used every day, all day, by the whole community. And the usage wasn’t just about worship, but that it was a place to eat, socialise, learn & hold community meetings; the Nishkam centre added to this with a gym, health centre and learning centre – open to all the community (not just Sikhs).

    Oddly enough the Jesus Army ‘Jesus Centres’ echo this way of using a religious building as more than just a church or something that is opened up a few times a week for different events of disparate groups. I know of other churches (both Evangelical and Catholic) that have adopted similar strategies in the UK & other countries.

    I think such places are the way forward for churches – not staffed with paid employees, but part of the witness of the congregation. Modern Western society has become so privatised, differentiated, bureaucratised and institutionalised and this is echoed in many of its emptying churches. There is much that could be learned from how other religions and denominations do things and maintain and build community.

    It is a damn sight more proactive than the present habit of many Christians of moaning Christianity is suffering because of things happening in the wider world (“It’s secularism...” “It’s the government’s fault” “It’s the BBC’s fault...” “It’s political correctness” “It’s gay rights”) when the real reason is because many churches don’t provide what people need; or do anything that different to wider society. Of course running a church along the lines I have suggested, borrowing from how mosques, temples and less mainstream Christian churches organise and define their places of worship would mean doing something more costly than blaming others or writing accusatory and bigoted blog posts! But if Christians really want to do something different, then I believe it is the only way forward...

  4. Some churches are waking up to the idea that they are going to have to do things very differently - the "trash the Church" event I attended at Synod suggested radical innovation is the only solution in most areas. It is a challenge though and a huge undertaking in straightened times. But the slogan really is "change or die"- that is often the stark choice.

  5. Thanks for this. here in Cornwall, a while back there was a lecture as part of multi-faith programme on Understanding Islam -thankfully places sold out quickly, underlying the hunger people have to get to tackle the hard issues we all need to face up to in future -the world of religion/and anti-religion has always been polaarised but dialogue is the only way forward. Poor old Francis of Assisi tried to dialogue with Muslims and was highly regarded by the Muslim leaders he dealt with but on a dark day it all seems like a proverbial drop in the ocean. On a good day(! I just keep on hoping for a breakthrough in this world - we all know the cliches of small acorns etc etc but that is what our faith always asks us to do and keep on praying !

  6. I forgot to add these :
    all positive and tangible signs of hope.