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Thursday, September 29, 2016
Faith traditions in close encounter at National J&P Conference
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 There was a close encounter of the world's larger faith traditions at the 24th Annual Justice and Peace Conference at the Hayes Centre, Swanwick in Derbyshire on 19/21 July. Over 350 J & P activists from all the Roman Catholic dioceses of England and Wales together with representations from the Bahia, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths explored the theme: "Who is my neighbour: people of faith working together for the common good." The weekend was organised by the Leeds Diocese J & P group in collaboration with the National Justice and Peace Network, and offered a mixture of liturgies, talks, workshops and socialising that fed both heart and mind, often at the same time. As always, this was a family event with the separate children's programme culminating in the Sunday Mass. They taught us a rousing hymn about the bigness of God, and were blessed in turn by Seema Buttoo, Muhammed Mushtaq and Rajinder Singh Panesar, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh respectively, who contributed so much to the whole conference. We began on Friday evening with a choir singing excerpts from the sacred texts of different faiths while these, and a statue of the Buddha, were brought in procession to a table at the front of the conference hall. They remained there throughout the event to hold before us the essence of spiritual awareness necessary in all interfaith collaboration. For many J & P delegates, who have spent years campaigning on the international debt issue, interfaith dialogue was new territory. The scene was opened for us by the introductory talks. First David Jackson, Interfaith Co-ordinator (he prefers Navigator) for Leeds Diocese, shared his experience of working with other faith traditions over 20 years. All the stories he told were humorous, and it became clear during the conference that humour is a vital ingredient for successful interfaith encounters. William Steele, a member of the Bishops' Conference Committee for Other Faiths, set before us the relevant teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in the 21st century. Not only does it offer positive encouragement to enter into dialogue, but interfaith encounters are seen to foster our own mature Christian faith. Next morning, Elizabeth Harris, Interfaith Officer of the Methodist Church, revealed to us the stress felt when coming across something apparently quite alien in another's faith. But, in her personal experience, this can be the very point where, with perseverance, new ground can be broken. She therefore believes in granting full respect to each faith tradition so that we might learn from each other in a relationship of equals. How such a relationship can work in practice emerged next in the testimonies given from Luton, Leicester and Bradford. Shakeela Lal spoke movingly of how she came to form an interfaith network of support for asylum seekers. On a city-wide scale, genuinely interfaith councils have established connections with local authorities that have resulted in education, housing and employment projects. The workshops on Saturday afternoon gave the Christian majority excellent opportunities for more personal meetings with members of other traditions. We also had the chance to browse at the Conference's famous Just Fair with stalls from many bodies actively concerned with J & P issues along with those selling a wide range of Fair Trade goods. On Sunday, Michael Barnes SJ, who has long worked practically and theologically on interfaith "conversation", brought the threads of the weekend together. All faith traditions encounter difficulties in persevering with interfaith relations. We all need a motive of perseverance, for continuing to seek, in Cardinal Hume' phrase, "our common humanity." Why should we keep making efforts to get to know each other at the individual level, and to work together at the political level for the common good? Because our faith, in our case, as Christians, in Jesus, is mirrored to us by the other. The face of the other speaks to us of God. As Frank Regan SSC remarked, during our celebration of Mass, this was a quantum step for all present: to live out our God's love for each of the 6.8 billion people of different faiths living today on our planet. And to find that every other faith shares this vision of love.
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