Interfaith Parish Ministry

By Fr Gerard Mitchell SJ, St Aloysius Parish, Glasgow

imagesJesus in the gospel challenges his host and his friends to extend their horizons and to offer hospitality to people who are not part of their cosy and select little social scene.  He challenges them to move out beyond the familiar, to what is strange and unsettling and messy and foreign to them

How might this be done in the world in which we live today?  One way might be this.

For twelve years I lived and worked and ministered in Southall in West London.  What gives Southall its uniqueness is the fact that, within a one and a half mile radius of the church, some 60 different religious groups meet at least once a week for

congregational worship. It is difficult to imagine the existence of a more multifaith parish anywhere else in the world than Saint Anselm’s Southall. One cannot move more than a few hundred yards without passing the entrance of a church, mosque, mandir or gurdwara. The Sikh community alone has established close to ten places of worship in Southall.

When I first moved there after ten years in leafy Wimbledon it seemed that, suddenly, I found myself in a totally different country. Exotic, novel, strange, different with  crowded and bustling streets awash with Salwar kamiz  and saris, turbans and chunnis of many hues.  On first being driven  along Southall Broadway I found myself thrilled, quite taken by surprise and convulsed with joyous laughter.

All through their lives, many people of faith will, out of choice, never cross the threshold of a place of worship of a tradition other than their own.  It may be for a variety of reasons.  Often, perhaps, it is out shyness or nervousness in the face of something apparently so different and strange.

After so many years of walking the streets of Southall as a pilgrim I must confess that I still did not always find it easy to cross the threshold of the other for the first time.

Perhaps the words of the gospel are particularly helpful in negotiating the way in such circumstances:  when you are a guest, make your way to the lowest place and sit there, so that, when your host comes, he may say, “My friend, move up higher.” In that way, everyone with you at the table will see you honoured. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles will be exalted.

Certainly experience, repeatedly teaches that a warm welcome is extended to the stranger in every place. Of course, there are customs to consider when you visit a place of worship: you must be prepared to cover your head here, or to remove your shoes there, or to do both in another place. A respectful attitude, however, is something you are indeed expected to have.

In other faiths, one encounters differences rooted in ancient traditions, often derived from sacred scriptures, that have nourished the faith of millions for thousands of years. These differences may find their expression in unfamiliar practices, and in rituals which have grown in complexity over the ages. Accepting the other means that one accepts not only that differences may exist, but also that there may be something to learn from them.

On such visits many personal contacts are established, walls of ignorance and suspicion start to crumble, the opportunity to start building bridges of friendship may eagerly be grasped. In a multifaith community like Southall, this demands acceptance of the other on the level of faith. In turn, this requires learning about the other and meeting the other on the level of faith. Much of this is achieved through visits to the others’ places of worship.

There is created between people of faith who accept each other a common bond which helps to weave together the rich and diverse strands to be found in a multiracial and multicultural society. Such experiences often deepen our own faith and help us to learn more about the ways of God with human beings.

As Pope John Paul II used to put it “Interreligious dialogue is ‘not so much an idea to be studied as a way of living in positive relationship with others’ (Pope John Paul II 1990).  It is Listening respectfully, lovingly and openly in the spirit of Christ.  It is emptying ourselves so that the other’s real identity can be disclosed.  It is to imitate Jesus who sees the beauty of the divine image in every person who comes to him.

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