Saturday, 21 February 2015

Presence and Engagement - the Joy of Diversity

 Below is an article that appears on the Presence and Engagement website 
“The joy of diversity”

St John’s Church, Hendon, has an average Sunday attendance of around 50 people, representing around 12 different ethnic communities. Their heart is to work alongside their neighbours – sharing their concerns in the ‘nitty gritty’ of real life. Fr. John Hawkins tells me also of some of their more deliberate efforts at interfaith, cross cultural engagement in this diverse context.

With 15,000 people in the parish, statistics suggest that the area is nearly 50% Christian, with the rest constituting large Muslim and Hindu communities. A multicultural centre, housed next door to St. John’s Church, is reflective of this diversity. The building hosts three organisations of different faiths/cultures under the same roof: The Barnet African Caribbean Association, the Barnet Somali Community Group and the Barnet Asian Old Peoples Association. There is a sense in the area, Fr. John reflects, of ‘settledness’ within difference. He continues, this context is a source of great joy. In diversity, there is more commonality than difference to be found.

To be ‘Present and Engaged’ means having the confidence to be counted among a community; to be present in the building, in the schools, and alongside neighbours. In this particular area, this often means drawing alongside a Muslim community who have at times been subject to negative press, increasingly in the last decade. Community engagement, post 9/11, has emphasised social cohesion and trying to promote faith as one of the ways in which people can be brought together across difference, rather than a problem. ‘Engagement’ means not doing it alone, but working in partnership with people of all faiths. More generally, it means equipping the church community to manage an ever changing demographic in the area. Once a largely Hindu area, this parish is becoming increasingly Muslim.

As a Christian, Fr. John says, it is easy to lose faith as everything changes around you. He is encouraging St john’s church to not retreat, become aggressive, defensive, or make more noise. He sees new faces as a source of rejoicing, rather than despair. He emphasises commonality, rather than difference, and sees the ‘isms’ of life – sexism, racism etc. – to be things that hinder ‘life in abundance’, as promised in John 10:11. He explains that God enriches our life; we don’t have to live it defensively or fearfully in the face of difference.

To show in practice how different people can enrich each other’s lives, the church engages in numerous art-based, intergenerational projects. One example is of a project in which Year 5 children, along with elderly members of the church were encouraged to bring a piece of fabric that told a story about their life. A square of wedding dress, traditional fabric, and icons of faith were sewn together to make a quilt. 

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