Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009's TOP 10: No 1

Holocaust Memorial Day, University of Leicester, Fraser Noble Hall, London Road, Leicester, Tuesday 27 January 2009

Like the Faiths Trail coach tour round some of the city's places of worship (see number 5 in this list of my top ten for 2009), Holocaust Memorial Day has become one of the signature events organised each year by Leicester Council of Faiths. This local commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day is arranged in association with the Schools Development Support Agency, the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council).

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year was Stand Up to Hatred. There was a three-member panel: Dr Martin Stern, a member of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation who had been taken into a Nazi concentration camp at the age of five (along with his one-year old sister) and whose story had been published in the Leicester Mercury over the previous week; a lady from the British Traveller community, who wished to be known by her first name only (Lil); and Suleman Nagdi, founder member of the Muslim Burial Council of Leicestershire (MBCOL) and Public Relations Officer for the Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO) - an infrastructure support body that works with more than 750 Muslim groups in the city and county.

The Muslim Council of Britain had advised Muslims throughout the country to abstain from supporting National Holocaust Memorial day this year as a way of registering their protest at the situation in Gaza. I can't say whether this was universally observed all over Britain. I can say that in light of this national advice, the FMO held an urgent meeting and voted that they should support the events in Leicester and Leicestershire. Abdul Kareem Gheewala, Chair of the FMO, was in attendance at this commemoration of HMD. Suleman Nagdi was asked to speak on the panel at Fraser Noble Hall at just half an hour's notice. I'm not going to try and report or paraphrase what Suleman said when he got the chance to speak. If it's a failure on the writer's part to say, "You had to be there" then on this occasion I'll happily hold my hands up and say, okay, I fail - this time. Usually I take copious notes at such events, but my Moleskine notebook stayed shut on this occasion. Anyone reading this will be aware that Leicester likes to think of itself as somewhere special, somewhere exceptional. It's at moments like this that I believe it.

I asked some of the folk I know from Network for Change to come with me to this event. People whom we'd now describe as having mental health problems were also taken to the camps - and Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates all those who have been (or still are) victims of persecution.

It's a guiding principle of Leicester Council of Faiths that it tends to the religious, spiritual and cultural life of the city. While it expresses sympathy with those who are suffering around the world, for whatever reason and from whatever cause, it doesn't take sides. This evening was a magnificent display of solidarity among the city's faith communities. I'm sure that Suleman would have received a standing ovation at the end of his impromptu speech - were it not for the fact that many of those attending were probably a bit too old and frail to stand.

Read my blog entries for Holocaust Memorial Day 2010, "The Legacy of Hope" and Holocaust Memorial Day 2011, "Untold Stories".


Before arriving at number one in this top ten countdown for 2009, I thought I'd write a little about a few other events and occasions that didn't make it into the countdown proper, but which still deserve special mention here.

Launch of "Jewish Voices",
Brookfield Bowls & Social Club,
Kimberley Road, Leicester,
Wednesday 11 March 2009

For several months starting summer 2008, around 70 people who had been members of Leicester’s Jewish population in the 1940s and 50s contributed to a mixture of writing and photography workshops, oral recordings, emails, phone calls and letters. This provided raw material for a reminiscence writing project coordinated through Writing School Leicester, published as Jewish Voices. Having taught in the Writing School for the past five years or so, I was involved in the project, contributing editorial support. This launch event for book, touring exhibition and website brought this part of the project to a successful conclusion - and brought forth a great new set of resources at the same time. My work on this project was done in 2008 and my involvement in the launch was to sit at the back of the room, drink tea and eat cake. That might go some way to explaining why, as good as it was, this event didn't get into my top ten then.

Visit to Mosquée de Paris,
Monday 25 May 2009

The flavour of Islam on offer in this delightful mosque differs strongly from that with which we find in Leicester - or anywhere else in the UK for that matter: a clear and enjoyable illustration of the diversity of Islam. I know that's obvious to those who know this sort of thing, but it's still a point worth making. The Paris Mosque was built in 1922 to honour the North African countries that had helped France during World War I and closely resembles mosques to be found in Marrakesh, Morocco. A major renovation of the mosque was completed in 1992 (and there was considerable restoration work going on the day I was there). I spent a few hours at the mosque in a personal capacity on a very hot Monday morning. Being in the mosque was cool and soothing, as well as inspirational. This lovely experience left an impression on my mind and heart that remains strong and sweet - rather like the tea I had in the mosque's restaurant, where little birds with bejewelled anklets flitted around the tables.

National Meeting and AGM of the Inter Faith Network for the UK,
Leicestershire County Cricket Club, Grace Road, Leicester,
Monday 6 July 2009

We could say it was quite a coup to have this prestigious event in Leicester, but the Council of Faiths can't take any credit for it. In fact, we somehow caught wind of this rather late and didn't really make the most of the opportunities that this event presented. The Inter Faith Network for the UK chose Leicester for its major annual and national event. We had the luxury of joining in like other attendees despite the fact it was in our own back yard. We were able to showcase our work and resources to a good number of people from all over the UK. The conference theme was the engagement of young people in inter faith work; the Scottish Inter Faith Council sent a delegation to speak on this theme, made up of young people whom I'd met at the "Beyond Tolerance" event at Glasgow University in June (see number 6 in this list of my top ten for 2009). The Inter Faith Network of the UK published its report of this event online.

"Exploring the Diversity of Hinduism",
Christchurch, Clarendon Park Road, Leicester,
21 September - 30 November 2009

A ten-week course on Monday evenings, run by Christians Aware. Their courses are almost always attractive and thought-provoking, but I've not been able to commit to one before. I didn't get to every meeting of this course in the end, though I'd rather that I had. I've retained a lively interest and deep affection for many aspects of Hinduism, from my teen years when I read the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads and listened to recorded recitation of the Vedas. My encounter with Hinduism influenced how I dressed, what I ate and drank, the music I listened to - and in those days I was able to devote a couple of hours a day to yoga and meditation. I found this course refreshing and inspirational. I felt like it put me back in touch with something that had once been central to my life, and has always provided something meaningful, even if it's been in the shadows. Several people whom I met on this course came forward to support the exhibition at Highcross during National Inter Faith Week and I'd like to express my thanks for that here (I have thanked them individually of course).

Climate Change Conference,
John Foster Hall, University of Leicester,
Saturday 24 October 2009

I'd been involved in planning this event for well over a year, part of a small group spearheaded by Rev Dr Alan Race. The event was originally planned to span three days in July, be much more international in scope, with speakers and attendees from different countries. It was also intended to be part of the centenary celebrations for St Philip's Church. However, publicity for the event was sent out around the time people started becoming seriously nervous about the recession, so the original plan had to be scaled down to this one-day event. I didn't actually get into any of the sessions, as I sat outside taking registration, pointing out the way to the loos, rustling up refreshments etc. I also had to dash back to the Welcome Centre late morning to pick up some paperwork that should have been on site, so I got to see virtually nothing of the conference itself and didn't hear the speakers or panels. I did these things on the day voluntarily, I should add - but for that reason it hasn't made it into my top ten proper. Those who did take part in the sessions and workshops seemed to feel the benefit tremendously though! A report of this event was published on the World Congress of Faiths website.

Apple Day,
Quaker Meeting House, Queens Road, Leicester,
Saturday 31 October 2009

This might seem out of place at first sight, but I surprise even myself sometimes at how much of my everyday experience can be relevant to my job. This event relates to a common and growing phenomenon that has interested me for a few years now: people who describe themselves as being "spiritual but not religious". There were many things about this celebration of Apple Day that illustrated this principle, in my opinion. It drew together a diversity of people (in terms of age, class, culture, educational attainment) welcomed them all and offered things for them to do appropriate to their needs and interests. On a more subtle level, it used an artifact that has long suffered a negative symbolic status and appropriated it for positive purposes. The use of the apple as something that not only binds us to nature, but also functions as a symbol of national pride, is quite a meaningful step. Over and above all that, there was plenty of apple-based food and drink on offer. A lovely slice of apple pie, combined with custard (surely another symbol of our national culture) was very welcome.

This was the first time I'd heard of Apple Day, but it's an annual celebration, normally held on October 21 each year, of apples and orchards. Apple Day was initiated by Common Ground in 1990 and has been celebrated in each subsequent year at hundreds of local events around Britain. Common Ground describe the day as a way of celebrating and demonstrating that variety and richness matter to a locality and that it is possible to effect change in your place. Common Ground has used the apple as a symbol of the physical, cultural and genetic diversity we should not let slip away. In linking particular apples with their place of origin, they hope that orchards will be recognized and conserved for their contribution to local distinctiveness, including the rich diversity of wildlife they support. More recently Apple Day has evolved into a weekend event, usually taking place on the Saturday and Sunday closest to 21 October. (thanks, Wikipedia!)

This particular celebration was arranged by Transition Leicester, and held at one of the city's most accessible and adaptable places of worship. I think that simply reproducing the programme here will be more effective than me chuntering on about it.
10.00-11.00 Apple music improvisation. Come and experiment with voices, instruments and sound on a theme of apples. All ages welcome. No experience needed. Bring instruments if you want to.
11.00-11.30 Low input apple growing talk. A short talk about growing apples in a time of climate change and peak oil with a chance to ask questions afterwards.
11.45-12.45 Storytelling. Listen to a storyteller bringing magical, fantastical, mythological and English apple and tree stories to life.
12.30-1.30 Apple rounds. Learn apple rounds to sing in unison and harmony. You don’t need to be able to read music or sing well to enjoy making fabulous music with other people.
1.30 – 4.30 Apple Impression print workshop. Use discarded apples and natural colours to print your own stunning patterns. Make a picture to hang up or a cover for your recycled notepaper. Anyone can drop in and out at any point. Children especially welcome.
1.30-2.00 Low input apple growing talk. A short talk about growing apples in a time of climate change and peak oil with a chance to ask questions afterwards.
2.00-3.00 Starting where North, South, East and West meet, apples are for everything not just to eat. A writing workshop for children aged 8-12. Use play, listening, feeling and guessing to bring words to life. Parents needed to support children who find writing hard.
2.30-3.30 Harvesting a crop of juicy words. Creative writing on a theme of apples for adults.
2.30-3.30 Biting the Apple. In this workshop for teenagers we will be looking at the symbolism of apples, playing collaborative automatic writing word games and coming up with individual takes on a crunchy theme.
4.00-5.00 Storytelling. More apple tree filled stories and worlds for you to enter with your storytelling guide.

Harry and Grace thoroughly enjoyed themselves; my abiding memory is of Harry peddling furiously on a stationary bike, the energy from which was being used to crush a bucket of apples. He ended up spattered with a lot of apple shrapnel!

I'd recommend a look at Common Ground, the organisation which founded Apple Day. They exist to promote local distinctiveness, have much to say about the "spirit of place" and encourage creation of "Local ABCs". In my mind, this could all be creatively applied to Leicester with great effect - since we're so proud of our diversity. That's work still to be done by someone or an interested group; I'm sure there are more people than just me who have an interest in this.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 2

Public meeting regarding an application
to build a new mosque and community centre,
9 Bath Street, Leicester,
Tuesday 20 January 2009

Well, if anything sounds prosaic, surely this one does. Having said that, I should point out that when I drew up the long list for my top ten of the year, this one sneaked in at the bottom, but the more I thought of it, they higher it has climbed. In the end, it was one of two occasions which led me to think, "That's Leicester for you!" (The other such occasion, on a larger scale and to greater effect, is at number one in this top ten countdown for 2009.)

I’d seen an article in the Leicester Mercury the day before about this proposed new mosque that was going to be so environmentally friendly it would be virtually carbon-neutral, using solar power and rainwater amongst other things. This caught my eye particularly because of my being involved in planning the Climate Change Conference. I was attending a meeting of Global Education LeicesterShire at Rushey Mead School that afternoon and I thought that, since I was at that end of town, it might be useful to pop along to the planning meeting on the off-chance that someone there might be interested in attending the climate change conference and making a contribution to the programme.

The meeting was held in a factory building in Bath Street, off Loughborough Road. This building, which was pretty derelict, was owned by the Dawoodi Bohra group, who had commissioned the design for the new mosque and who were applying for planning permission to get it built.

The first speaker was John Tiernan, Senior Partner, Pick Everard Architects, who had drawn up the plans for the proposed new building. He explained how their design was “faithful to religious requirements of the building as specified by the client – for instance that it should have no minarets, but have small domes – but which also has elements which are familiar to us, with common elements that have come through the three great religions of the Middle East, showing some continuity of religious architecture that has come to us down through through European history – e.g. windows with Gothic arches.”

Jaffer Kapasi spoke on behalf of the Dawoodi Bohra Welfare Society, the Muslim community interested in this development. He said that the community in the city and county amounted to little more than 35 families which would be regular users of the mosque. They had been seeking an appropriate site for this community’s place of worship for over ten years; three other sites have been considered, but none of them have worked out. For the time being, they were meeting for worship in a converted office space in Wellington Street. When he stood, he gave the traditional greeting, “Salaam alaikum” (“Peace be upon you”). Much to my surprise, the almost entirely white, middle-aged and female local residents replied, in unison, “Alaikum salaam” (“And upon you be peace”). I was really taken aback by this - delightfully surprised - and, if I’m honest, this was the single most striking “inter faith” moment of 2009 for me.

None of the residents in attendance raised objections for religious or cultural reasons, but did so on practical grounds (e.g. obstruction of light for neighbouring houses, increased traffic, noise, lack of parking spaces, access for emergency vehicles being blocked. Everyone acknowledged that the proposed building was not in keeping with the look of the local area; but the residents praised the design, calling it “wonderful” and “fantastic”. They appeared genuinely pleased that they were going to get this beautiful white marble building in their rather drab street! However, they were also concerned that the unique character of this building (as highlighted the day before in the Leicester Mercury article) would attract many visitors from outside the area, increasing the pressure of traffic on Bath Street and adjacent roads.

Rev Peter Hobson was there on behalf of the Bishop of Leicester, prepared to disperse any whiff of religious intolerance that might arise, but, to but his services were not needed. The locals expressed real ease with their Muslim neighbours, some of them thought it was a bit rich to have a troubleshooter from the church among them when there was no such trouble there - and they wished that the church would show as much enthusiasm in cleaning up the nearest church, in Claremont Street.

During the course of the evening, no reference was made to the environmental features, which were the original reasons I went to this meeting. I did speak with Mr Tiernan about the planned conference and he did say that Pick Everard would be happy to display the plans at it, and that he himself would come along and speak to attendees. In the end, however, the conference itself was radically changed, and reduced in duration from three days to one. There was not the space after all to involve Pick Everard, unfortunately.

Little bit of a cheat here: the photo of Jaffer Kapasi OBE (above) was taken at Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 Jan 2011, in New Walk Museum. I'd been talking to him then about this event back in 2009 and mentioned that I'd nothing to illustrate this blog entry. I was glad to hear from him that plans for the Mosque in Bath Street are still proceeding.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 3

Inter Faith Week exhibition,
Highcross, Sunday 15 – Saturday 22 November 2009

Anyone who saw the exhibition, or took part in it, may be surprised to see that it's not at number one in my top ten countdown for 2009. But in this list I've tried to balance things that affected me deeply, or things that I feel I did well, alongside things that brought benefit to, or spread the good name of, Leicester Council of Faiths. No doubt this exhibition for Inter Faith Week met all these criteria. It was by far the biggest single project that I was involved in since taking up my post and it was surely the biggest single public event that the Council of Faiths has mounted in its history. Rather than write loads of new stuff about the exhibition here, I'd rather refer anyone who hasn't already seen the earliest entries in this blog to go back to the start and see the full week's worth about what went on at Highcross.

Having said that, I would like to add a little, from an unexpected source. I posted this entry on the morning of Tuesday 29 December, shortly before catching a train to London, where I visited an exhibition at the Design Museum, entitled, "Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams". Rams was the chief designer for the Braun electrical consumer goods company in Germany, whose principles and practices had a significant influence on the aesthetic of everyday life from the late 1950s onwards. In the texts on display that accompanied the exhibition, there were two statements that resonated with me when I thought about their relation to the exhibition we put on at Highcross. One text stated how Rams's designs "used different materials and colours but they all reflect a single sensibility", another how he adopted "restrained simplicity as the route to order in a chaotic world." Though speaking about something utterly different - and purely coincidental - both these quotes stood out enough for me to copy them down and want to add them here. Potentially, the exhibition at Highcross could have been chaotic. For many people, inter-faith work itself is chaotic and muddled. Several people, out of perfectly sound motives, asked for certain elements to be featured - pictures (photos of places, paintings illustrating sacred themes, portraits of special people), artifacts, music, food and drink, ready-made exhibitions that had been used on earlier occasions, one source even offered to come along with a number of helpers to build what sounded like a semi-permanent structure out of wood. While all these offers were appreciated and acknowledged, they would have made the Highcross exhibition a ragtag jumble, without theme or dynamic, not following any kind of line or narrative - and not linked to the other material the Council of Faiths had already produced (our series of leaflet and our new website). Some might have looked at what we presented there during National Inter Faith Week and wondered how such a display could have taken so many weeks in the planning and execution. For me, those two quotations in the Dieter Rams exhibition expressed perfectly how I would want to encapsulate the spirit of what we showed in Highcross that week, and that is now a lasting legacy for promotion of our work in Leicester: "different materials and colours but they all reflect a single sensibility"; "restrained simplicity as the route to order in a chaotic world."

Well, I'm not going to apologise for this significant and successful event not making number one in the list. However, I imagine that the entries that take up the top two slots will be surprising!

Monday, 28 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 4

Volunteering and Faith Communities Briefing Day,
Birmingham Centre for Voluntary Action,
Monday 11 May 2009

This event at Birmingham Centre for Voluntary Action was intended for leaders in the faith and volunteering sectors who want to hear firsthand what new research in this area has revealed; faith organisations who want to learn about other faiths and volunteering and find out about the next steps for this project; volunteer development agencies interested in developing faith based volunteering and learning about the potential funding opportunities for innovative pilot projects.

Leicester Council of Faiths was asked to help organise a number of focus groups earlier in 2009 to help provide information for the research project, “Volunteering and Faith Communities”. In recognition of this support for the project, Barbara Regnier at Dare to Change asked me to be the opening speaker at this event, which drew around 60 or so attendees, from all parts of England. This was followed by researchers from De Montfort University’s Centre for Social Action who presented their findings on volunteering and faith communities in England. A free copy of the published report was given to delegates (Leicester Council of Faiths was given 50 copies of this publication, with compliments for our cooperation in the project; there are still some available if anyone would like one).

In the afternoon, we heard from Professor Harris Beider, of the Institute for Community Cohesion, who set up round table discussion where attendees worked together to share experiences and expertise to help shape the outcomes for the remainder of this programme. On a personal level, this day was important for seeing the following text for the first time, entitled “The Helping Grace”. I’d discussed this briefing - and the presentation I was intending to give - with Clare and she sent me this (from a book entitled Helping the Client by John Heron) on the morning of the event:
"People who help people move by the grace within the human spirit. This grace is the primary source of effective helping behaviour. Its presence and expression are entirely independent of professional training: it can inform and be enhanced by the latter, but can also be obscured, suppressed and distorted by it
“This helping grace seems to have five key attributes: warm concern for and acceptance of others; openness and attunement to the other's experiential reality; a grasp of what the other needs for his or her essential flourishing; an ability to facilitate the realisation of such needs in the right manner and at the right time; and an authentic presence. This combination of concern, empathy, prescience, facilitation and genuineness is, I believe, the spiritual heritage of mankind. . . . What makes the effective helper is, then, an interaction between inner grace, character and cultural influence. Inner grace is a spiritual endowment and potential, which everyone has. Character is what persons make of themselves in the light of this endowment and in response to their culture."

I picked this up on my BlackBerry, while on the train on the way to the briefing. Having read it, I decided to ditch the presentation I had prepared, and with hardly an hour to go before my talk, redrafted the whole thing, putting this text onto PowerPoint slides at double-quick time. This passage just seemed so apposite to the theme of the day and particularly the approach I was taking, that would help set the tone for the whole event. I spoke for half an hour, and gave a very different sort of presentation from the one I thought I would; it was also different from the presentations that followed, mine being the only one that presented a perspective from inside the faith communities. Two things struck me in particular, having helped organise the focus groups in Leicester and having taken part in two of them myself. One was how people within the faith communities who routinely offer services that the rest of the world consider to be "volunteering" don't see it that way themselves - it's just how they live and what they do (sometimes it's what is expected of them) individually or collectively. The other was how some belief systems embrace (or even institutionalise) service voluntarily offered and practised as "seva" or something along those lines. I made reference to these two aspects in my presentation. I'd been looking for a way to connect these two approaches that would allow them to be united without flattening out their differences; the notion of the Helping Grace allowed me to do that.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

2009's TOP 10: 5

Faiths Trail,
Sunday 13 September 2009

This has become a regular fixture in the Council of Faiths calendar over the past few years, organised in conjunction with English Heritage as part of their programme of open days during this week. I got to go on the first one of these tours (it was called a "Peace Pilgrimage" then) after I took up my post in 2007, but missed last year's excursion, so I was pleased to be able to take part this time.

Our party of 25, from a variety of backgrounds and interests (and some from outside Leicester or Leicestershire) convened at Pilgrim House at 0930. We had a few words of welcome and introduction from Minou Cortazzi (Chair of the Council of Faiths), Cllr Manjula Sood (Deputy Lord Mayor and trustee of the Council of Faiths) and Resham Singh Sandhu (Chairman of the Sikh Welfare and Cultural Society and former Chair of the Council of Faiths). Our coach left Town Hall Square shortly before 10 o'clock. First stop was the Jain Centre, Oxford Street (pictured above), where we were joined by the Lord Mayor of Leicester and the Lady Mayoress. From there we proceeded to Shree Jalaram Prarthana Mandal, Narborough Road; then to Guru Amar Das Gurdwara, Clarendon Park Road, where we were treated to lunch (and where the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress had to take their leave of us). After lunch we went to the Orthodox Synagogue, Highfields Street; then to the Central Mosque, Conduit Street; and finally, St Philip's Parish Church, Evington Road. As we approached each place of worship, we handed out copies of the relevant leaflet to everyone on the coach, so they'd have a chance to read something about each faith community before each stop on the tour.

Everyone was impressed by the hospitable reception at the various places of worship. Arrangements for the day were made by Ajay Aggarwal, Co-Ordinator at Leicester Council of Faiths.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 6

Launch of “Beyond Tolerance” DVD,
University of Glasgow,
Tuesday 2 June 2009

Dr Maureen Sier and her daughter Sonya (Director of Freshlight Films) launched the DVD and education pack, Beyond Tolerance, an inter faith resource for young people and adults. Young people from a variety of religious and national backgrounds were interviewed in the film and spoke at the launch about the ways in which interfaith engagement had made a positive impact on their lives.

I was invited to attend this event and I just couldn't say no. Great to see this happening in my old stomping ground, have the chance to catch up with some old friends and colleagues from the early days of my interfaith activities in Glasgow - and, hopefully, to make some new ones.

In Sonya's presentation at the launch she told the story of how this inspiring project got started (Sonya's words below are lifted wholesale from the Firstport website.
"This interfaith documentary project all started a few months before my mum, Dr Maureen Sier, left for America in August 2007. She'd received a UK/US Fulbright Interfaith Scholarship and I was very proud of her and eager to hear about everything she'd be doing. We were sitting at the dinner table late one night, mum was excitedly telling me about the amazing people she would be meeting in America; activists and scholars from around the globe who were at the forefront of interfaith learning. The plan was for the Fulbright scholars to share what they knew and explore ideas for the future. Each scholar would then go to a different grassroots project, to see what life was really like on the ground. Finally they would each return home and use their experiences to improve interfaith relations in their home country. 
"My mind was buzzing, this was really something - people who cared, who wanted to really make a positive difference. At the same time I started being plagued by the question - How were people going to hear about this? The answer came to be in a flash, literally a light bulb moment. I was convinced that if I could make a documentary about mum's journey, the people, places and organisations she met along the way it would be of interest to everyone, especially to young people who I think are the key to making real change in the world. At the same time as all this was happening I noticed whenever I watched the news, it was a doom and gloom, in fact depressing, broadcasters showed nothing but images of war, terrorism and violence, as one of the my interviewees says in the DVD 'if it bleeds it leads!' No wonder people feel hopeless!
"And so it was from this desire to make a difference, to show the world in a more positive light that Beyond Tolerance was born. I wrote a proposal and sent it to everyone I knew and sometimes people I didn't. Mum left for America and there was no sign of funding, and I was beginning to feel like perhaps it was not meant to be. Then all of a sudden some funding arrived from the Scottish Government, the Baha'i Council for Scotland, British Airways, and Scotland UnLtd. It was enough to take a small crew to America. 
"There we found wonderfully inspiring people especially youth, in fact so many people wanted to share their stories and experiences that we ended up with over thirty hours of footage. When I got home I knew the one thing that was missing was UK and Scottish voices, particularly those of young people and so another bout of filming took place and I was able to interview amazing young people from the UK. 
"The editing process was a long labour of love there was so much footage than we could ever have anticipated and I really wanted to make the most of it. Thankfully some further funding arrived from the Sikh Community and the Scottish Inter Faith Council an this allowed for the process to be completed. While the post production work was happening, work started on the education pack which could be used in schools, universities, religious groups, homes and youth centres. It had to be relevant to issues of diversity, full of activities that could be done anywhere from a small classroom to a large church hall and it had to be engaging for the participants. A tall order I hear you cry. Well, yes, but we had the assistance of many wonderful consultants from across the learning and artistic sectors. The final combination of interfaith documentary and education pack is something we're very proud of and it's already being used here in the UK."

The launch went without a hitch and the guest speakers included Dr Rose Drew, from the Glasgow University Centre for Inter-faith Studies, MSP Fergus Ewing and Haroon Ahmed, Magdalen Lambkin, Frances Hume and Dr Maureen Sier, all of whom are interviewed in the film. The atmosphere was one of hope, excitement for the future and positivity about the role interfaith can and does play in building good community relations. Many personal stories were told and MSP Fergus Ewing spoke of the continued need for education against sectarianism, bigotry and religious hatred. Dr Drew said, "This project is timely, education is vital and not just the academic level at the grassroots is really where it will make the biggest difference." There are great plans for Beyond Tolerance, already Sonya has been in discussion with Australia and New Zealand about it being used down under so it is with great expectations that we "watch this space" for further development of this inspirational project.

2009'S TOP 10: 7

“Sacred on Location”,
Central Lending Library, Belvoir Street, Leicester,
Friday 16 January - Friday 6 February 2009

This was a touring version of the British Library’s most successful ever exhibition (on show at the British Library’s St Pancras site, April to September 2007). It visited Leicester’s Central Lending Library for three weeks. The exhibition brought together some of the world’s most important and beautiful religious texts, exquisite and rare examples of Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred texts from the British Library’s collections were presented in a unique and compelling modern context, which included a distinctive interactive element, enabling visitors to leaf virtually through some of the Library’s greatest treasures and even to hear extracts from the texts chanted aloud in their original languages. It also provided people with the chance to explore information about customs and rituals from the three faiths featured in the original exhibition: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

I was commissioned to run a series of workshops on behalf of Leicester Council of Faiths, for several schools and colleges who were booked in to visit the exhibition. Unfortunately, this coincided with the worst snowfall in England for over 25 years; a fairly small amount of snow brought the country to its knees for days on end. So only two of the workshops went ahead, with Crown Hills Community College and Regent College. This was an excellent exhibition to have come to Leicester and it's a pity that more people didn't see it. Of those who did get to see it, many complained that it didn't reflect the nature of religious diversity in our city, focusing as it did only on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But that was missing the point and there are always plenty of people who will do that, sadly. To counteract any such feelings of omission or misrepresentation, we were able to display our full series of leaflets, featuring all eight of the religions represented on Leicester Council of Faiths, in the entrance to the library. Loads of these were taken away by visitors to the library over the course of the exhibitions.

Sacred on Location launched at an event split between the The Mitchell Library and Botanic Gardens in Glasgow on 27 April 2007 before touring the UK for more than two years in all.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 8

“One Leicester: Harmony & Diversity”
Secondary RE conference,
Salvation Army, Ladysmith Road, Wigston,
Monday 28 September 2009

The Salvation Army Leicester South HQ is an excellent facility and our hosts were very hospitable. The key purpose of this event was the founding of the Students' Council on RE. Being at this day was part of the ongoing process of strengthening relations between Leicester Council of Faiths and Leicester SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education). There were around 12 schools represented out of a possible 17, with well over 100 students there. There was a good number and variety of workshops and sessions on offer, but I didn't get in to any of them. My part was to bring a small exhibition, stand by it for most of the day and ensure that staff from the various schools attending the event went away with sets of our leaflets to use as classroom resources. "They also serve who only stand and wait" as John Milton famously wrote.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 9

Andy Cooke Show,
Eava FM,
Wednesday 8 April 2009

I'd met Andy a few weeks earlier, at a meeting of the short-lived Leicester Community Network which was held in the LCB Depot, Rutland Street. He'd asked me then (in principle) if I'd appear on his morning show on Eava FM, which goes out daily, live for an hour, from 0900-1000. Eava FM is a multilingual community radio station, with licence to broadcast only within Leicester. I was the only subject on this edition of Andy's show and, apart from four or five pieces of recorded music, the whole hour was given over to the two of us chatting. I got to talk about my early experiences in inter-faith work in Glasgow and what I did before taking up my current post with Leicester Council of Faiths; so I got to big up ReMit and Network for Change while talking about my teaching adults with long-term mental health issues. We covered some interesting ground on the show, such as how an organisation like Leicester Council of Faiths would relate to the increasing number of people in this city and country who describe themselves as being "spiritual" but not necessarily "religious" - those who express a genuine and lively interest in values and lifestyles that go beyond the merely material, while not aligning themselves to any religion or belief system. In this context I got to explain, live on air, how the pickling classes at Network are one of the most spiritual activities I've ever heard of! Only two people whom I know told me that they'd actually listened to the programme, since I didn't have much time to alert anyone about it.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

2009'S TOP 10: 10

New Year Address to Leicester De Montfort Round Table,
Regency Hotel, London Road, Leicester,
Thursday 8 January 2009

At little more than 24 hours’ notice, I was asked to give the New Year address to the Leicester 500 De Montfort Round Table. I may have been filling in for someone else who had dropped out at short notice, but I’m not proud! Initially, when Ash Sheikh (their Programme Officer) phoned and asked me to speak, I declined, because I’d already accepted an invitation to attend a reception for the Cllr Manjula Sood, Lord Mayor of Leicester, which the Council of Faiths was sponsoring the same evening at the Welcome Centre. But very quickly I reconsidered, called Ash back before he could find someone else and said yes. I thought that if the Lord Mayor knew that I’d turned down the chance to speak about the Council of Faiths to such a distinguished meeting for the sake of some tea and buns with her, she’d box my ears!

The Round Table meets at the Regency Hotel, London Road. Apparently, they take their New Year address from someone involved in religious life locally; I was the first to be asked to speak from a multi-faith perspective. It was a very positive experience (for me at least); they laughed at the right bits and asked good questions. I was warned beforehand that it’s their practice not to applaud the New Year address, but most of them did anyway – even though it meant the members had to pay a fine to their Sergeant-at-Arms!

I was impressed by the Round Table’s aims and objectives and the grace that was said before dinner. I thought it would be good to include them here (starting with the grace):
May we, O Lord, adopt thy creed,
Adapt our ways to serve thy need,
And we who on thy bounty feed,
Improve in thought, in word and deed.

And the aims and objectives of the Round Table:
  1. To develop the acquaintance of young men through the medium of their various occupations;
  2. To emphasise the fact that one’s calling offers an excellent medium for service to the community;
  3. To cultivate the highest ideals in business, professional and civic traditions;
  4. To recognise the worthiness of all legitimate occupations and to dignify each his own by precept and example;
  5. To further the establishment of peace and goodwill in international relationships;
  6. To further these objects by meetings, lectures, discussions and other activities.

I was told later that the upper age for membership of the Round Table is 45; so if I fancied becoming a member, I’m too old, even if they’d have me!


I've wanted to write this blog for ages, but never quite got round to it. And in that time of waiting I kept thinking how many notable events and activities were being missed out. So I'll be taking advantage of the year end to post highlights of my job in 2009 - reflections on events I've not been able to write about till now. I'll be counting down in reverse order, hopefully posting one entry each day, from now till New Year's Eve. At this time of year, lists about this that and the other are everywhere: on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines. I'll gladly add to that pile - but at least it's not going to be my top ten of the whole decade!

Monday, 21 December 2009


An hour well-spent this afternoon at Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living, with Carolyn Pascoe, REDP's Research Officer, looking at some of the work she's been doing on the similarities, differences and variations in equality, diversity and human rights issues across the East Midlands. This is mostly for presentation at the various Involvement Meetings that REDP will be hosting all over the region early next year.

It's more challenging to get suitable information on some of the equality strands than others; we discuss some creative ways of accessing meaningful info for the harder-to-reach topics. We discuss differences between the kind of knowledge we can gain from statistics and the kind we can get "on the ground". It's the first time I've been able to work one-to-one with Carolyn since her appointment in the summer. Just from this hour together, I can certainly see the value of her contribution to the project!

Friday, 18 December 2009


In the afternoon, a quick dash across the road from Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living to Voluntary Action LeicesterShire, for a meeting of the EVDC East Midlands steering group. EVDC is an arm of Volunteering England (though independent of that parent body), and exists to promote volunteering as an expression of citizenship. The East Midlands is the last region of England to establish an EVDC (surprise, surprise); this meeting is an attempt to get one up and running. Since Leicester Council of Faiths had been involved in a major project with Volunteering England earlier this year, looking at the role of volunteering within the faith communities, I'm interested in ensuring recognition for their contribution and strengthening their ongoing involvement. There's a presentation on volunteering challenges and opportunities related to the 2012 Olympics, which I find especially interesting and rather inspiring, if truth be told. Mind you, the one thing that wasn't made clear at any point in the meeting was: what do the initials EVDC stand for? On Volunteering England's website, it appears, they appear to stand for England Volunteering Development Council, but that doesn't really make sense in terms of a regional presence. Hmmm ...


Meeting of REDP's Working Group this morning at Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living, focusing on the series of Involvement Meetings we'll be holding throughout the East Midlands in January, February and March 2010. We're hammering out the details of the programme, which needs to be consistent for each meeting, while leaving room for the necessary variations that will crop up because they're being held in different locations. Issues of equality, diversity and human rights in the city of Leicester won't be the same as they are in rural Lincolnshire, after all. We have to recognise that - and ensure that the people from those areas attending the meetings on their doorstep know we're recognising it. The quality of care and attention going into this from all concerned (but particularly Laura and other staff at LCIL) is remarkable and admirable. My contribution today focuses on writing up a set of FAQs to go on REDP's website and form part of the pack of materials that will be given out at the meetings.


This letter is published in today's Leicester Mercury:
Bishop enjoys a privileged role
Tim Stevens must be glad that Interfaith Week is well behind us now. (First Person, December 12).
Interfaith Week, with its themes of social cohesion and understanding between people of all faiths and none, leaves him once again free to attack non-religious people.
These are the people who number among their ranks some of the most active in defending good community relations against the divisive cancer of sectarianism.
His title is Bishop of Leicester. How a Bishop is appointed is a mystery to many – it certainly isn't through a process respecting equality of opportunity, in an organisation tearing itself apart over gender rights and an obsession with sexuality. And he didn't come to be "of Leicester" through any election of the people of our diverse city.
Nonetheless, he enjoys enormous privileges. He is part of the senior management of the Church of England, one of the country's biggest property businesses, and one whose coffers will be filled from donations in proportion to the numbers persuaded of the importance of the Nativity story enough to put their bums on church pews a few times over the festive season. Our unwritten constitution even guarantees him a seat in the national legislature.
Let's return to our goodwill and cheer this festive season, and look forward to a future time when people with a genuine spirit of peace in their hearts are our favoured opinion makers.
Frank Friedmann, Scraptoft

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


To the newly opened Phoenix Square Film and Digital Media Centre this morning, for CreativeCoffee Club. This is only its second meeting since relocating to its new home. I used to take part in the original CreativeCoffee Club, which met fortnightly in the Graduate Bar at De Montfort University. I missed no more than a handful of meetings there from the autumn of 2007 till summer this year. I felt that being there gave me a real boost in the early days of my post with Leicester Council of Faiths, giving me the opportunity to meet new people from a variety of backgrounds in and around the city, to hone the skills I needed to be an effective networker, and to find a variety of ways to talk about my post, my employer and myself – often to people who had no time for religion, faith or belief, and who could often be quite dismissive about it and the communities who identify with it. At the start of my time in this job, I was very much relying on resources and contacts from my earlier working life, mostly from my time in adult teaching. Since the mainstay of that teaching had been Creative Writing and the guiding figure for CreativeCoffee Club in Leicester was (and still is) Professor Sue Thomas, head of New Media at DMU, I found something of a ready-made entree for me there. Except, of course, as I kept saying around that time, Sue was teaching her students 21st century Creative Writing while I was working with ones who were largely stuck in the 18th century! Those early experiences at CreativeCoffee Club were by turns challenging, helpful and reassuring, both professionally and personally; I found new ways to describe and discuss my job, the issues surrounding it and the kind of people involved that helped people sit up and take notice, who may not have done so before. There still remains a major "disconnect" between most creative people in the faith communities and something like CreativeCoffee Club though; do the entrepreneurs, media developers, web designers, music and video producers who identify themselves strongly as Baha'i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh feel disinterested in this sort of thing, that they don't fit in or wouldn't be welcome? Things are changing, with more people at this meeting from what are called the BME (Black and Minority Ethnicity) communities than I've seen before, but it's still hardly representative.

Well, I’m keen to see how this new iteration of CreativeCoffee Club might differ from the one I was used to. Still the mystery of why the first two words are run together endures. There are mostly new people running it and new people attending. I saw photos online from the first of these new meetings and there was barely anyone I recognised. When I arrive at Phoenix Square, there are about a dozen people sitting round one big table (that’s different from the DMU days) a few minutes into a round table introduction (that’s different too). Each person is given two minutes (measured on a stopwatch on Jayne Childs’s iPhone) to speak about themselves, their work and how they heard about CreativeCoffee Club. One woman introduces herself as working with a firm of local architects who have drawn up the plans for a new Swami Narayan mandir in Catherine Street, which she says will be the biggest Hindu temple in Leicester, which is of obvious interest to me. Sarah Harrison, City Centre Director, is looking for a catchy name for the Leicester City Centre Strategy Board, which she leads. She tells us that the City Council wants to move away from talking about Leicester as being “diverse” and start calling it “cosmopolitan”. We spend some time talking about the difference between these two: some interesting nuances there (not all of them positive, in my opinion). I wonder aloud, playfully, how this sort of change might affect my job title!

Because of where I’ve sat, I am last to introduce myself. I’ve made a few notes in my trusty Moleskine notebook (it only counts as product placement if you’re getting paid to place them!) so that I can make what I have to say as relevant to the attendees as possible. The moment comes for me to speak, and the first thing I do is drop the notebook, which skites under the table! But I’ve done this so often anyway, there’s no need to kick myself for that. I make the point that long-standing involvement with CreativeCoffee Club has helped me gain a better understanding of social media, and how that’s reflected in the new website for Leicester Council of Faiths, which has links to our own Facebook page and Flickr photostream; we've now joined the fast-growing ranks of the twitterati and have an active presence in the blogosphere!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


To the School of Education, in Fraser Noble Hall at the University of Leicester, where I’m presenting a workshop as part of a training event for PGCE primary school teachers: “Education for the 21st Century – Incorporating the Global Dimension”. The Global Dimension is an educational initiative supported by the Department for International Development, which has grown out of earlier programmes developing themes of citizenship and community cohesion in our schools. In a nutshell, it encourages children to have a wider perspective on the world in which they live and instills in schoolchildren a sense of awe and wonder at our planetary home. It is meant to be embedded across the curriculum, campus and culture of schools.

Making the Global Dimension a central part of school life means equipping children to live in a world of change, in which they will have to live with intensification of issues that earlier generations may not have had to address: climate change; biodiversity loss; air pollution; terrestrial system weakening (deforestation, desertification, agricultural overuse); poverty; inequality; debt; conflict; pandemics. These are often described as “megaproblems”; how much of this can we burden children with? Teachers and schools have to help children respond to these megaproblems in ways that are that are positive, hopeful and energising. It’s a strange thing to be doing, on a number of levels and we’re all very self-conscious of this. We’re helping train teachers who will prepare children for adult life in a world that we can barely imagine. These teachers, qualifying at the start of the second decade of the 21st century will be in charge of children who could easily be living into the start of the 22nd. Given what’s happened over the last 100 years, how can we conceive of what might take place in the next? It beggars belief and baffles the imagination. But whatever we’re passing on to the next generation, we can’t make them a gift of apathy, disinterest or fatalism. Many of the difficulties that we see bubbling up now will hit them with full force – heaven help them.

The “Global Dimension” in education has eight key concepts: global citizenship; sustainable development; human rights; interdependence; conflict resolution; social justice; diversity; values and perceptions. The workshops are designed to try and cover all these principles. The workshop I’m presenting is entitled, “The Globe on Our Doorstep”. It’s my intention to help these trainee teachers to consider ways to use the presence of faith communities in and around the city as an educational resource to help further the global dimension, presenting them as being of interest and relevance to the school and its wider "family", to show how we might discover their unity and celebrate their diversity. Other workshops on offer today:

  • Developing Thinking and Enquiry Skills Through Philosophy for Children (Clare Carr)
  • The Global Dimension Accessed Through the Outdoor Classroom (Claire Plumb)
  • Sustainable Schools and the Global Dimension in the Classroom and Curriculum (Phil & Barbara Smith);
  • Global Education Through School Linking (Helen Trilling)
  • Using Play to Bring Home the Global Dimension (Paul & Alice Warwick)

There are about 120 student teachers attending. They get to pick two workshops to fill their afternoon, so we all present our one-hour session twice, to 15 of them at a time.

This is the third time I've contributed to this sort of event at the University of Leicester. Involvement in the East Midlands Network for Global Perspectives in Schools has been a constant feature from the earliest days of my post with Leicester Council of Faiths. Given the state of our world – and its possible future – it might be argued that there is no part of our children’s education that’s more important than this. But right now it looks like there will be no funding for this programme from the middle of 2010 onward. Now that can’t be right, can it?


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Church leaders unveil plans to transform Leicester's cathedral square
Church leaders have unveiled plans to turn an historic area into a public square.
About £1m will be spent creating a plaza outside Leicester Cathedral – one larger than Town Hall Square, with seating for 1,000 people.
It is the first phase of a £12m plan to develop the building and the area around it, which includes the former grounds of Leicester Grammar School.
The buildings were bought by the church in March 2008.
The square will form part of the Heritage Quarter being planned by the city council.
It will include the Magazine, Jewry Wall museum and Castle Gardens.
Plans have been submitted to the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England.
Pete Hobson, director of the project at the Diocese of Leicester, said: "It is one of the oldest areas of Leicester and it deserves attention.
"The work to the cathedral will involve flattening the mounds outside it and levelling the area to create a larger public space with greenery.
"However, it's only the first stage of the project and we are still developing it."
The commission, the body responsible for all Church of England cathedrals, will consider the plans next month.
Dean of Leicester Vivienne Faull said: "Leicester Cathedral is a little-known gem hidden away in our city.
"By developing the space in front of it in this way, we will not only be creating a safer and much more welcoming place, but also a space that can be used by both city and church for large gatherings of all sorts."
Developers have suggested a series of water features, including jets placed within the pavement and a Place Line – a memorial in the form of a pavement inlay, detailing the city's history.
All of the headstones in the area surrounding the cathedral would be removed.
However, the details would be recorded and an alternative memorial incorporated into the design.
Derek Hollingworth, vice-chairman of Leicester Civic Society, said: "It's a good idea and a step in the right direction.
"We need to conserve and restore as many parts of historic Leicester as we can.
"I knew something was in the pipeline for the historic quarter and now it's good to see someone has finally put pen to paper."
Developers said there would be the potential to create a performance stage.
The last phase of the development is expected to see the restoration of the inside of the cathedral and the development of the highways around the site.
Proposals for the former school, would see it transformed into the St Nicholas Centre.
This would house a dance studio, exhibition areas and conference halls.

Monday, 7 December 2009


This morning, members of REDP's Working Group at Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living (LCIL) to "bottom" (in Kelly's words) fundamentals about why REDP exists, its features and benefits, all of which must be presented in consistent fashion at our upcoming "involvement" meetings around the East Midlands in January and February.

After this, another meeting in LCIL, with two representatives of Voluntary Action LeicesterShire (VAL). Dee Martin from LCIL, Iris Lightfoote from The Race Equality Centre (TREC) and I meet with Michelle Skinner and Andy Foskett regarding involvement of the Voluntary and Community Sector in the management of Leicester City Council's new Children's Trust in Leicester. A preliminary paper had been circulated about a month back and the member partners of EDP had been invited to respond from a general equalities consideration as well as with regards to our specialist areas. Iris had shaped it into a coherent whole before sending it to VAL. It's clear from this meeting that issues around legitimacy of representation and related topics need to be ironed out to ensure that the right groups are involved from the beginning, rather than as an afterthought.

More stuff with VAL follows, but in the afternoon I make the short hop across Newark Street to a meeting at their place. I'm a member of an Advisory Group working on VAL's BASIS project. There are meant to be three of us involved from outside VAL itself, but at this inaugural meeting of the Advisory Group, I'm the only person attending from any external agency.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


To Leicester City Council, Block B, New Walk (photo by Tim Hallam), where I'm presenting a paper to a meeting of the Stronger Communities Partnership. The paper is an Equality and Diversity Strategy for the Leicester Strategic Partnership, written on behalf of the Equality and Diversity Partnership (EDP). I've knocked it into its present form, but it's been a joint effort written along with Irene Kszyk, Head of Equalities at Leicester City Council, and Liz Carney, a specialist in equalities and employment law who has been working with LeicestHERday Trust. This is one aspect of EDP's "Embedding Equalities" agenda that we've been furthering for well over a year now with the Leicester Partnership.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


It's Philosophy in Pubs (PIPS) at the Swan and Rushes, Infirmary Square this evening. The theme of our enquiry is “Exploration Unlimited” and the stimulus is a poster of Apollo 14’s LEM (which was called Antares) on the surface of the moon. I once met the man who flew that Lunar Module to the surface of the moon: Edgar D Mitchell (on the right of the photo, above). He was the sixth man to walk on the moon. I met him briefly in 1991 at an inter-faith conference in London hosted by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University. He was one of several speakers that day. Others included John Cleese, who read from Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and managed to make us all laugh by emphasising the contrast between the view of life described in that introduction to Tibetan Buddhism and the self-centred materialism of our Western ways; Hayley Mills (who was a childhood heroine of mine, having starred in Swiss Family Robinson, the first movie I ever went to see in the cinema - at the Tivoli in Crow Road, Partick); and Clarke Peters, Master of Ceremonies, sashaying on and off stage in his white suit and white shoes (a hard look for mere mortals to carry off, but he was the very quintessence of style). He had become well known then for having written the book for the hit West End musical Five Guys Named Moe. He went on more than a decade later to star as Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire, hailed by a host of critics as the greatest ever TV show. So there were a good few people gathered there who had been, were then, or would go on to be, influential figures in my life.

During the evening programme, Edgar Mitchell popped out to have a cigarette (these were the days when you could smoke in public buildings. He was in the lobby of the conference venue smoking alone and I had gone to the loo. As a child of the space age, I ate, breathed and slept the whole space programme. I was just the right age to be swept up in it – I was nine when Apollo 11 went to the moon. Yes, lots of kids from that time were fascinated by the space race, but as an adult, it’s never left me (even very recently, when I bought a blu-ray player, the first disc I bought to watch on it was In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary featuring interviews with virtually every surviving Apollo astronaut. I remember being in the loo, just awestruck by the fact that one of my childhood heroes was standing just outside. More than anything, I just wanted to be able to get back out there before he finished that cigarette. When I got outside, I managed to get a moment alone with him. I said the kind of thing he must have heard a thousand times (and I told him that I knew he’s have heard it a thousand times), but it didn’t matter to me right then. I had my bag with me, and in it I had a copy of a book I’d recently been working on and that had just been published, Meditations of the Blessed Beauty (a compilation about the splendour of God from the writings of Baha’u’llah). I gave him a copy, just to try and pay him back some small something for what he and his colleagues had given to my world. After Mitchell returned from the moon, he dedicated his efforts to promoting different aspects of the paranormal: ESP, remote viewing, global consciousness, UFOs and alien contact. Mitchell is a prominent supporter of the Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly - which would be a first step towards a "world parliament". While I wouldn’t claim to be on message with all these, I've long found it interesting how many astronauts turn to some form of spirituality after their exploits beyond the earth.

Clare is facilitating this session of PIPS; after the meeting, she gives me the poster – that's nice of her!


I prepare a written report on our Inter Faith Week exhibition in Highcross for the meeting of the Council of Faiths Board of Directors at the Welcome Centre this evening. This is the first such meeting since a radical overhaul of our governance that was adopted at our AGM in October. I’m not required to stay for the meeting and deliver the report in person, so I distribute the paper to members as they arrive then I'm off to the Swan and Rushes for the monthly meeting of PIPS (Philosophy in Pubs).

Thursday, 26 November 2009


This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Big rise in cases of forced marriage, Leicestershire police reveal
Police are dealing with more than twice as many cases involving forced marriages as they were last year.
Officers in Leicestershire say the rise shows awareness of the issue has increased, and people have more confidence in coming forward.
The force currently has 84 cases on its system, compared to 38 this time last year.
The figures were revealed yesterday as Leicester hosted a major national conference on forced marriages and honour violence to mark the first anniversary of the introduction of Forced Marriage Protection Orders.
The law enables courts to stop forced marriages, to order people to hand over passports and reveal the whereabouts of a person thought to be at risk, and prevent someone being taken abroad.
It has been used twice by Leicestershire police since it came into force.
Detective Inspector Pete Williams said: "It is a very valuable tool for us to have. It does not involve a criminal case but it can achieve the same ends as that. It can keep someone safe and with their family.
"Not everyone wants their family to face criminal prosecution. They just don't want the marriage."
Justice Minister Bridget Prentice told the conference, at police headquarters in Enderby, how the orders had worked and what still needed to be done.
A total of 86 have been handed out nationally since November last year. The predicted number was "about 50" said the minister.
"That shows just how much this legislation was needed, and how much of a reason there was to have it," she added.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Lost in Loughborough

To Loughborough, to conduct an “Equality and Diversity Good Practice Healthcheck” with Voluntary Action Charnwood. This is one of the responsibilities I have as part of my duties in REDP’s “Mainstreaming Equality” project: to have written this healthcheck document, visit the different “voluntary action” bureaux etc in Leicestershire and Rutland to go through the questionnaire. The questionnaire would seem rather daunting in size (at some 56 pages) but it’s been designed in such a way that when participants answer a section on one of the equality strands –age (young people and old people have their own sections), disability, gender (and gender identity), race, religion or belief, sexual orientation – those answers can be taken as good for the other sections. Of course, each one of these strands has its own particular questions that don’t necessarily relate to the others (e.g. about physical access for disability issues, translation of materials in the race section). But for the most part, the questions are such that what works for one equality strand works for all. When I first went out to conduct this healthcheck, it took more than two hours. Now I’ve got it down to about 45 minutes. Just as well, really, as I mange to get lost in Loughborough and am late for my appointment at John Storer House with Neil Lambert, CEO of Voluntary Action Charnwood. When I get off the train, I decide to save time and effort by getting on the link bus that should take me to the town centre. But I don’t recognise the town centre (it’s smaller and passes by quicker than I expected) and stay on the bus all the way out to Loughborough University – and back again. Thankfully, Neil is an affable and sympathetic fellow who gives me a warm and good-humoured welcome.


This letter appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
It's in the genes
Looking at religion with, possibly, a more practical slant than the recent inter-faith week my impression is that:
Societies where a majority have a personal religious belief tend to prosper. Societies where organised religions are in charge tend to ossify. Societies where religious belief is largely absent tend to decay in an excess of personal self-indulgence.
It is said that the majority of people are "hard-wired" to believe in a deity. If so, then Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fittest genes" suggests that we should not discourage such belief. In terms of evolution, it is the most successful adaptation and the most highly evolved.
Russ Ball, Leicester

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


This evening, to the Peepul Centre for the Diversity Reception of Leicestershire and Rutland Probation Trust. This is the third year I've attended this event and I'm intrigued by a radical change in format. It's in a different room (the main public performance area) the catering is minimal compared to what we've been treated to before but, most significantly, rather than the standard PowerPoint presentation of facts and figures, outputs and outcomes, we're treated to a drama, "The Journey of an Offender Through the Criminal Justice System". This is done by The Facilitator Agency: one woman on stage acting out the story of "Amanda", who is involved in a violent incident in a pub, then finds herself going through the system - arrested, bailed, tried, sentenced, imprisoned, released, rehabilitated. At various points along this path, the story stops momentarily, so that representatives of all the agencies she would encounter, sitting as a panel at the side of the stage, comment on what would be happening to her. This is a really unusual and stimulating format, which allows a feeling of involvement and participation for just about everyone in the room.