This article first appeared in the Premier Youth and Children’s Work Magazine Schools Work in
Happy New Year - Interfaith working in schools
sunat jadidat saeida (Arabic, according to Google translate)
naya saal mubaarak ho (Hindi, according to Google translate)
According to the most recent census, in Britain today there are at least 10 religious groups, plus those who may not fit into the traditional view of a faith such as humanists, atheists and other secularist movements. Many of the different religious and ethnic groups represented in our culture today celebrate new year at different times and in different ways.
A crucial part of working in schools is the need to be aware of the different cultures and faith represented in the school(s) we are working in and always looking to be inclusive and welcoming to all faiths and none. The Feast are a Christian organisation working with this overarching mission, based in Birmingham with branches in Tower Hamlets, Luton and Bradford, they are working in schools as well as their local community to bring about change.
Let’s look at the terminology more closely: Community Development, Faith based development; and Interfaith based development work are all terms we hear in this context. These three terms are intrinsically linked, as schools workers in our own communities an essential part of our job descriptions will be to develop faith based programmes and resources to encourage and disciple the Christian young people or children in our schools. With a heart and passion for engaging with young people or children across the whole school, community and interfaith development is going to be the best way to do this. Much has been written about the intricacies of interfaith engagement and dialogue. However, we only have to read of the impact of interfaith dialogue on the lives of young people, as The Inter Faith Network have done for their latest publication: Connect, a youth interfaith action guide, to begin to understand the value of being inclusive, welcoming and hospitable to all faiths and belief systems represented in our communities.
“Inter faith activity helps young people to relate religion to real life, rather than just being something abstract that only exists on paper. Religion is not just on paper, it is practical, and profoundly shapes the way that people live their lives. Encountering people of different faiths helps young people to realise this.” Jasmine, Christian from ‘Connect, a youth interfaith action guide’.
Organisations like The Feast and The Inter Faith Network are a good place to start discovering more about this, but ultimately the key thing is to start, no matter how small the first step.
Another point of debate and discussion is the difference between multi-faith and interfaith. Reach Out Enrich Within is a publication produced by youthlink in Northern Ireland which gives us a good picture of the difference between multi-faith and interfaith working.
Ask your young people: what food did we eat in this country 200 years ago? In England this was a lot of pork including bacon and sausages, some vegetables like carrots and beetroot, meat, fish or apple pies would have been common. Then, what do we eat today that’s different to this? Chances are they mention pizza or pasta (from Italy), burgers (USA), Chinese dishes like sweet and sour or other stir fry, tapas (Spain), tacos or burritos with salsa (Mexico) along with a myriad of other food from other cultures.
Now imagine that we hold a huge banquet, inviting lots of people we know, asking them to bring food from their own culture. We all sit down and eat only our own food. This is a picture of multi-faith work – the faiths are represented around the table but the faith (or food!) is not being explored or discussed.
If I was at that banquet I’d be curious to try the other foods, to talk about how they were made and what was in them, to discuss what I liked and what I found harder to swallow. So if everyone around the table samples the different foods, talking about the dishes and what they mean to each person, this is a picture of interfaith work. Not that the foods (or faiths!) become blended together, but that the difference of each dish is celebrated and enjoyed.
Multi-faith work then is most usually a project that involves people from all faiths and none, but that does not focus on the subject of faith. Interfaith work involves listening and dialogue around the subject of faith, celebrating the differences and similarities that are discovered along the way.
How can we do this in schools?
Schools in many ways are the ideal context for inter faith working. The relationships between people of different faiths are already there and all that’s needed is someone to help take the next step of actually discussing faith issues. One way of working that lends itself to interfaith dialogue in schools is chaplaincy, which itself can take different forms but always has the mandate to provide spiritual support to the school community, bringing a faith presence to their role that includes treating students with respect and dignity in all situations within and beyond the school. This is a role that is different to a visitor taking assemblies or RE lessons: it suggests a more permanent presence although it needn’t be a full time role in one school; it suggests having a space that is usable to meet individuals in, or could be used for prayer or reflection times; it suggests less of a structured work pattern of activity or programme and more of a flexible approach, making oneself available to talk to students or staff at appropriate times. For much more detail on this go to www.scala.uk.net, they have a whole section on InterFaith work also.
To wrap up, I’ll handover to another young person who has been part of the Inter Faith Network:
“Inter faith dialogue allows you to see faith from another’s perspective which can then lead to curiosity about your own faith. If a concept is discussed in Interfaith discussion, it can prompt individuals to find out what their faith says about that idea or concept, thus leading to more knowledge about yourself and others.” Jaskiran, Sikh