This term saw the pilot run of the new Interfaith Buddies scheme, fostering constructive encounters and engagements between LSE students of different faiths and belief systems in the context of small discussion groups. Here, Anthropology and Law student Catherine Whittle shares some experiences and reflections on the scheme, and highlights the importance of staying interconnected, especially when it comes to offering mutual support in challenging times.
Huddled by my Advent candle on this chilly December evening, I’m enjoying the novelty of having just posted a Facebook poll asking a Catholic, an agnostic, a Muslim and a Buddhist when they’re all free for our Christmas dinner. Can’t say I saw that coming.
Frankly I’d be hard pushed to think of four lectures I’ve been to that were as enlightening and intellectually stimulating as the four hours I’ve spent with my Interfaith Buddies group. I’ll share a few highlights that educated me:
– I tentatively asked my new Catholic friend if Catholics pray to Mary and not directly to God. From my evangelical/Baptist background, praying to Mary is not the done thing, and a distant memory from my childhood of hearing my Catholic grandmother open a prayer with ‘Hail Mary’ had roused my curiosity. Her emphatic response: “No, we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I could have cheered and applauded. It seems the ‘personal relationship’ is not the exclusive domain of Protestantism; thank goodness. Actually, the idea of encouraging children to pray to Mary as a more approachable, maternal figure doesn’t seem like the worst idea.
– The lesser jihad, a holy war to resist those oppressing the Islamic community, is not so significant as the greater jihad: the war raging within yourself against darkness and temptation, the fight to choose the right path. And regardless, I am told, the lesser jihad in no way justifies the actions of the so-called Islamic State, at least in the view of many Muslims. (I wondered if this would come up. None of us mentioned it until our Muslim member broached the subject.) Further, within Islam even smiling at someone is an act of charity. I like this logic under which those without financial means can also be charitable. It taps into my understanding that generosity is more about spirit and relationship than finance.
– Buddhist meditation is about understanding our emotions, being at one with them and exercising control that we might not be overcome by them. This practice means that any event of life is not too much for us, however difficult; there is more to our existence and we need not be overwhelmed. Secondly, a prominent Thai festival involves dedicating a day to throw water over anyone and everyone you happen to come across as an act of sharing blessing and good fortune. Really, anyone. The government have told those who don’t want to get wet to stay at home. Can you imagine the influx of common assault charges if we tried the same thing here?
– Burning paper representations of gifts for late relatives and ancestors is still practiced in China, though perhaps not so commonly as in times gone by. Some of us expected this having seen the odd (commonly ethnocentric) documentary, but we didn’t realise that the paper gifts burned for the dead can include servants, or that these gifts can be intriguingly labelled, ‘Made in Hell’. I also heard my first stories of people seeing the ghosts of their recently deceased relatives, which as an Anthropology student is quite exciting. I am challenged to consider how far my theology can stretch to accommodate a diversity of human experience, and where the boundaries lie between faith, reason, tradition and culture.
Possibly the seminal moment of my Interfaith Buddies experience for me, however, has been the human connection of our group, diverse as we are, getting to know each other. One member of our group is facing a difficult time at the moment with her mother being very ill. Recently her mum underwent a serious operation, and through our Facebook group she asked us all to “pray/meditate/wish a lot…” for her mum. If I could crystallise Interfaith Buddies into a moment, it would be this. Five people from with very different histories, and often contrasting beliefs, remembering and supporting one another in any way we know how – we petition our God, a higher power, the Universe; we hope, in the interests of another. And so this other becomes less ‘Other’ and more ‘Person’, like me, who needs support, like me.
LSE’s Interfaith Buddies programme is similar to a programme run by St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, whose mission is to “help people build relationships across divisions of conflict, culture and religion”. I have felt peace and reconciliation within our group. I might even go as far as saying that our meetings have given me hope that our world could one day find peace and reconciliation. That, from my faith perspective, humanity and the rest of creation could live in the ‘shalom’ (wholeness, peace) of God that I seek for myself and often struggle to extend to others. I regret that I have not always seen past my own prejudice or ignorance. I hope we may over time rediscover our true humanity, a humanity that is always shared. And above all, I am thankful for the opportunity I have had to outgrow my preconceptions, to learn from others and to consider how much we have in common. There is much about which we agree.
“Life is never about being correct, but only and always about being connected. Just stay connected! At all costs stay connected. Our only holiness is by participation and surrender to the Body of Love, and not by any private performance. This is the joining of hands from generation to generation that can still change the world—and will. Because Love is One, and this Love is either shared and passed on or it is not the Great Love at all.”– Richard Rohr’s Meditation: The Eternal Home of Love. Centre for Action and Contemplation