Review of a year with Interfaith Scotland Part 1

11 months ago I arrived in Scotland. It was the beginning of an exciting, interesting, instructive and intense time. In today’s blog I want to review the first half of my time here in Scotland. The second half is going to follow next week.

July 2017:

In July I moved to Glasgow and started to settle in. I explored the city and it’s surrounding. I learned the basics of how Interfaith Scotland is working. I also started my work with Interfaith Glasgow, where I usually spend one day a week. In this month I also visited some places of worship, eg the Hindu Mandir and the Central Gurdwara in the Westend of Glasgow. I attended the Church of Scotland’s National Youth Assembly and visited the local interfaith group in West Lothian.

August 2017:

In August I continued my settling in process, and visited some more places of worship in Glasgow, eg the Andalus Centre. I started to help my colleagues to plan Scottish Interfaith Week by for example collecting information about Creativity and the Arts in the different faith traditions. I visited the Fife Interfaith group, Edinburgh Interfaith Association and the Dumfries and Galloway Interfaith group. I helped to organise and participated in the Annual Networking Seminar. With Interfaith Glasgow I supported the volunteer team at my first Weekend Club event for refugees and asylum seekers.

September 2017:

In September I explored the northern parts of Scotland for the first time and visited the local Interfaith groups in Orkney and Aberdeen. I also represented Interfaith Scotland at the AGM of Faith in Older People and with an information stall at the Cumbernauld Campus of New College Lanarkshire. In this month we also started to plan our national interfaith youth conference in St Andrews with a planning meeting together with the coexistence initiative at St Andrew’s university. With Interfaith Glasgow I helped to facilitate my first Faith-to-Faith event at St Mungo Museum. I was also invited by the Ayrshire Interfaith group to give a talk at their One Peace Day and attended an interfaith dialogue about Identity and Belonging.

October 2017:

In October I helped at the Scholl’ Interfaith Day for Roman-Catholic Schools and joined meetings of Interfaith Scotland with the Catholic Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald. I also attended an Interfaith Symposium organised by the Ahmadiya community in Glasgow. I represented Interfaith Scotland with an stall at Brannock Highschool and met the Caritas students group at Lourdes Secondary school on the southside of Glasgow. I travelled to London for the first meeting of the Youth Engagement Advisory Group, which had been set up by the Inter Faith Network for the UK. I also attended and helped at a Faith-to-Faith event and joined the Weekend Club for an trip to Edinburgh Castle.

November 2017:

The most important part of my work in November was of course Scottish Interfaith Week. I attended several events: A Scriptural Reasoning in Edinburgh, an interfaith evening with creative action and interesting talks in Ayrshire, an Dinner together with international European guests at the Glasgow Gurdwara, the Launch event for the Our Story exhibition at the Scottish Parliament, an evening about the Architecture of the Baha’i Houses of Worship, the annual interfaith lecture in Fife, an Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner at the US Consulate in Edinburgh, an creative lunch in Dumfries and several short events at St Mungo Museum. The two big events I helped to organise myself were the Launch event of Scottish Interfaith Week in Dundee and the Family Fun Day in Glasgow. After Interfaith Week I gave workshops at Airdrie Academy and we started to plan the national Holocaust Memorial Day event. The second planning meeting for the youth conference in St Andrews happened also in November.

December 2017:

After the intense November the December was quieter, but not quiet. I joined my colleagues from Interfaith Scotland and Interfaith Glasgow for our deserved Christmas lunch. I visited some schools, who had participated in the Art competion for Scottish Interfaith Week and brought them their prizes. I travelled to London again for another meeting with the Youth Engagement Advisory group. With Interfaith Glasgow I helped to facilitate the next Faith-to-Faith event and a Weekendclub event where we pre-celebrated Hogmaney.

 

During the first half of my internship I met many interesting people and got a very good insight into the work of Interfaith Scotland and Interfaith Glasgow as well as into some local interfaith groups, the Scottish school system, the work of the Inter Faith network for the UK and Scottish society, culture and history. Next week I’m going to write about the second half of my internship.

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What is a local interfaith group?

When I tell people about interfaith work in Scotland and what I’m doing here the local interfaith groups are always an important part of my description. There are in total 21 local interfaith groups in Scotland at the moment, including three women dialogue groups and the two local charities for interfaith dialogue “Edinburgh Interfaith Association” and “Interfaith Glasgow”. The interfaith groups cover most areas of Scotland, from Dumfries and the Borders in the south to Orkney and Shetland in the north and from the isle of Skye in the west to Fife in the east. I know have visited most of the local groups and some more visits are planned for the last weeks of my internship, but I think it is a good point to tell people a bit more what a local interfaith group is doing.

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In March Simon and Frances (not in the picture) visited Interfaith Moray.

To describe this is harder then it might sound, because the groups are very different between each other. What they have all in common is bringing people of different (faith) background together. Usually all of them are organising/holding some kind of event during Scottish Interfaith Week in November. One main task of Interfaith Scotland is to support the different groups in their activities at the grassroot level. This happens for example by providing some materials, for example for Scottish Interfaith Week, giving them (a small) financial support for their events during Interfaith Week, inviting them to events like the Annual Networking Seminar and help them to get publicity via Social Media and the Annual Newsletter.

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In February Simon met members of the Committee of Inverness Inter Faith Group

The groups differ all in their size and the religious diversity, depending on the region they are based in. Some of the groups have been set up with the support of a local council. One example for this kind of group is the one in West Lothian. In this case the members of the group attend the meetings mainly as representatives of their faith communities and show a good picture of the diversity of faith communities in their area. Such groups have often their main focus on organising events for the wider public, for example visits to places of worship or interfaith meals. So the meetings of the group are mostly about planning and organising dialogue events in this case and not mainly about having dialogue at the meetings of the group.

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Members of different local interfaith groups in dialogue at the Annual Networking Seminar last August.

An example for a very different kind of group is the Central Scotland group, which meets in Stirling. Here are individuals from different faith backgrounds coming together to share food and thoughts about a different theme at every of their meetings. The attendees see themselves not mainly as representatives of a particular faith but bring often short texts or thoughts from their tradition to the meetings and share them with each other.

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Members of the Dumfries and Galloway Inter Faith Group are creative during their Interfaith Week event last November

Most of the interfaith groups can be put somewhere in between those “extremes”. Some of them have for example a formal constitution with chairpersons and secretaries and some have no kind of “hierarchy” or “formal structure” at all. In some groups people a paying (small) membership fees, in some groups not. Some groups are mainly meeting for planning purposes, some for having a direct dialogue with each other and many do both from time to time. Some groups have members from all different faith traditions, some mainly from different strengths of Christianity (but they would be very open and welcoming for anyone of another tradition!). Some groups usually meet at the same place, some groups meet at different venues in their area. Some groups usually to a similar kind of activity at every meeting, some do a lot of different things (even such activities as picnics or going on a trip together – as for example the Inverness group does on a regular basis). Some groups have intense cooperation with other groups, as for example Peace groups, some have not.

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Frances, Simon and some members of Aberdeen Inter Faith Group

When I visit the groups and ask them about their wishes for the future there are two classical answer: The first wish is usually “More diversity of faiths”, especially in the more rural areas and the second wish is usually “More young people” (I would guess the average age of a member of a local interfaith group is usually somewhere in the 50s or 60s). Both wishes are difficult to fulfil because I can’t perform magic but I would say that for everyone interested in interfaith dialogue it is definitely worth contacting the local group or setting up one themselves. I see the local interfaith group as very enriching for their areas and they do very important work by promoting religious diversity and harmony.

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Dialogue at an Interfaith Week event organized by Ayrshire Interfaith Forum

If you are curious in meeting the group in your area, you can find a list of them including contact details at: http://www.interfaithscotland.org/interfaith-groups/

If you are interested in setting up an interfaith group in your area or have any further question about it feel free to contact Interfaith Scotland. We are happy to help you!

The value of travelling

“The train now leaving platform four is the 10.45 service to Edinburgh.” This and similar announcements have I heard very often since I came to Glasgow last July. Travelling is a large part of my work with Interfaith Scotland. I travel, when I visit the different local interfaith groups all over Scotland, between Dumfries and Shetland and between Skye and Fife. I travel also when I attend meetings of the youth engagement advisory group in London and I travel when I attend dialogue events or networking meeting with other charities or institutions. I had to travel to come to Scotland in the first place as well. Travelling is nice, because it gives me the opportunity to see a lot of different places and meet interesting people. Today we have very easy travel opportunities and even if a train is delayed or a flight cancelled, we (at least the privileged people with a passport, which opens most countries for us) can be pretty sure, that we can reach nearly every place in the world in relatively short time.

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Most of the people I work with at Interfaith Scotland and Interfaith Glasgow have been travelling a lot. Frances grew up in Northern Ireland and has spend time in India, Else has a Malaysian-Chinese background, Maureen is from the Highlands, but has lived in Samoa and the USA and is exploring interfaith connections in New Zealand the next weeks. At Interfaith Glasgow Rose is from England, Magdalen from Northern Ireland and Lynnda from South Africa. In a lot of the local interfaith groups there are people who are not born in Scotland or have lived in another country for some time of their life.

On the one hand this mixture of travel experienced people in interfaith context is a result of our modern globalized world, but on the other hand it also shows that travelling has a value in increasing interfaith and intercultural awareness. If I never had met people from other cultural or faith backgrounds than my own I probably would not be that interested in interfaith dialogue. I probably would never have thought about the question what my faith and believe means for the relationship to people of other faith. And I’m sure a lot of people involved in interfaith work and activities share this opinion.

Of course there are different kind of travelling and journeys where people of different backgrounds directly meet each other might be more fruitful for raising interfaith awareness than holidays where people spend there whole time at the beach and the only “strangers” they meet are those, who clean the dishes at the hotel buffet. But the first step is anyway to start moving being open to meeting others.

For some people it is easier to travel than for others. Therefore Interfaith Scotland offers schools the opportunity to bring volunteers from different faith backgrounds to them, so that students, especially outside the large and diverse cities can meet people of different faith backgrounds. Two weeks ago I joined a group of volunteers and delivered a day of school workshops in Oban, where it is not that easy for the students to meet Muslims, Hindus or Baha’i. It was really interesting to hear the interested questions the young people asked and I wish more schools would organise days like this (even if it were difficult for Interfaith Scotland, because of the small staff team we have…).

One idea, which has been discussed in the last years, that I really liked was to provide every young person in the European Union with a free Interrail ticket. It’s really a pity that in case this project comes into reality the young people in Scotland and the other parts of the UK can’t benefit of this! I think this would be a great opportunity especially for young people to meet people from different backgrounds and raise their awareness of the value of diversity. Maybe the Scottish government or the UK government should think about supporting/founding similar projects or at least organise/support more projects where people can travel in Scotland to meet people of different backgrounds (be it from the Southside of Glasgow to the East End of Glasgow, or from the rural areas of the country to the more diverse ones), like Interfaith Scotland does with it’s school workshops. Hopefully more people can have similar interesting travel experiences, as I do at the moment!

List of wishes

December is a month when many people are thinking about wishes. Children might write letters to Santa Claus with their wishes for Christmas and adults might think about what they wish for the new year.

The following is my personal list of seven wishes for the interfaith work in 2018.

  1. No religious violence anymore.

No person should suffer from violence and religions should in no way support people suffering. Politics, society, religious leaders and every believer all over the world should do everything possible to support the peaceful streams in the different religions.

  1. More dialogue

The dialogue that is happening here in Scotland is very good, but there can always be more. And in other places in the world there is less or no dialogue between different religions.

  1. More young people in dialogue

When I visit local interfaith groups this is the wish I hear most often. 2018 will be the official “year of young people” in Scotland. For Interfaith Scotland the work with young people will be one of the most important parts of its work this year, for example by organising a national youth conference in St Andrews in April. Even the UK Interfaith Network is putting much effort in the work with young people (I can tell you more about this another time).

  1. More funding for interfaith work

As everything successful interfaith work depends on funding. Not everything can be done by volunteers and staff needs to be paid, as well as travel expanses and food at events. So hopefully governments as well as private funders and donators will increase the amount of money they give for interfaith work.

  1. More publicity for successful interfaith dialogue

The media seems to talk about religion mainly if there are things going wrong. I would like to see a greater awareness of the benefits of interfaith work in local, national and international media.

  1. More “professional” interfaith work

In Scotland I can experience the benefits of a very good organised interfaith work, run by special interfaith charities like Interfaith Scotland, Interfaith Glasgow, Edinburgh Interfaith Association and the UK Interfaith Network. I wish that many more countries would organize (and fund!) interfaith work in a similar way – not least my homecountry Germany.

  1. More “theological” dialogue

Something popping up in my blog articles from time to time. From my point of view an interfaith dialogue is only complete, if the theological questions are included. That doesn’t mean every single dialogue event needs to deal with those questions. There is definitely a huge benefit in “just” bringing people together and letting them learn more about each other – but from my personal theological point of view the different religions can (and must) also learn from each other in theological questions, but there seem to be very little opportunities for this kind of dialogue.

Interfaith Comedy

This week I had a good meeting with EIFA (Edinburgh Interfaith Association). After the meeting, I took the opportunity to experience the festival atmosphere. One of the shows I saw had an interfaith background. Its title was “2 religions – 1 comedy show”. The two comedians, Henry Churniavsky and Joe Bains, have a Jewish and a Sikh background. Their experiences as parts of religious and ethnic minorities were the main topic of their show and the audience had a very diverse background as well. From my point of view, it was a great show and it was kind of a dialogue event.

Interfaith comedy is not a classical method of interfaith dialogue. Jokes about religious topics are always a bit difficult, because people get offended very easily. One example for (maybe) failed religious satire might be the caricatures about Mohammed at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, which were followed by protest in many countries.

Can comedy about religious be a way for a better understanding between religions? That’s difficult to answer, but I suppose in some cases it can and I have an example from my own experience: The protestant student congregation/chaplaincy in Münster has an exchange programme with Western Galilee College in Akko in Israel. This college is special because it’s students have Jewish, Arab-Christian, Arab-Muslim and Drusian background. In 2012, I joined a group of students from this college on their trip to Münster and Berlin. During this journey, most of the Muslim and Jewish participants visited houses of worship of the other believe (mosques and synagogues) and Christian churches for the first time of their live. In Berlin, we visited amongst other sights the Holocaust memorial site, the KZ Sachsenhausen and the house of the “Wannsee Conference”. I know that in these days me and the other German participants of the group felt very bad visiting all these places of collective German guilt. One evening in a room at the hostel where we stayed one of the Jewish students made a joke. It was spontaneous and it included the words “Germany” and “gas” and probably not very politically correct but in this situation, it was the best what could happen. Suddenly everyone in the room, independent of his ethnic or religious background, was smiling and laughing. This joke and the laugh broke the ice between us and it made us one group and it made the common visits to the different religious and historical sights much easier.

This situation showed me that in some cases even a bad joke can be a basis for dialogue. That means not, that people who want to start an interfaith dialogue should go around and make jokes about religions and the Holocaust, but sometimes humour and jokes can help to a better understanding between different groups. I think it is important to see who makes the jokes about what and how the relationship between the different persons is. In my example, it was a young Jewish man who made the joke and I’m not sure, if it would have the same effect if the joke was made by a one of the Germans or Arabs. There even was already an atmosphere of trust and knowing about each other in the group. We had already spent some days together and knew about the others and the joke showed everyone that we trusted each other and that we accepted each other with our whole history and religion.

That means: From my point of view Comedy can be a good way to deepen relationships if there already is an atmosphere of trust. Often it is a big difference if the joke about a religion is made by a believer of this religion himself or by someone else.  Interfaith dialogue is dialogue about very serious topics, but dialogue is getting easier, if we don’t take ourselves so serious that it’s getting impossible to laugh about ourselves.

And so, I want to finish this blog post with a quote by Stephen Colbert in a Parade interview 23th September 2007:

“Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time — of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid. “