Wednesday, 31 March 2010

journey to the cross


Jill Marsh, Minister at Bishop Street Methodist Church, invites me into an exhibition and "meditative activity" for Holy Week based around images of Christ's journey to the cross, displaying art work by the Benedictine Nuns of Turvey Abbey. There's a superb series of paintings laid out in the church's exhibition space, reflective music, friendly and welcoming faces. I have a brief, pleasant chat with a volunteer named Patrick.

This is also a preparation for what has now become a regular feature of the public celebration of Easter in Leicester: "Christ in the Centre", a dramatic enactment of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection at various points in the city centre on the morning of Good Friday.

Find out more about Christ in the Centre:
http://citc.dioceseofleicester.com/

Find out more about Bishop Street Methodist Church:
http://www.bishopstreetchurch.org.uk/

hot cross buns! hot cross buns!



This morning, during the BBC World Service live broadcast at Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara, Urban Canon Barry Naylor mentioned he'd be involved in an Easter activity at lunchtime in the city centre, handing out hot cross buns in Leicester Market.

There's a gazebo in the market, with a number of folk from the church under it, offering freshly warmed (and buttered) hot cross buns to passers by. I recognise Revd Pete Hobson and Bishop Tim exercising generosity to the passing shoppers.

I know this isn't exactly on the scale of Leicester's celebration of Diwali or Vaisakhi, but I've heard a lot of ill-informed comment over the past few weeks that the prominence of other faith communities in Leicester has meant the downgrading of the place of the church in the public life of our city. I just wanted to put this in to show that that's not necessarilly the case. Chatting with Barry earlier today, I expressed my thoughts that one could look on what's going on at Leicester Cathedral as being the church's innovation unit - by which I mean Cathedral AM, Street Pastors, the Workplace Chaplaincy (add to that the forthcoming development of the old Grammar School). These are ways of serving the whole community with practical acts of love, compassion and kindness.

And I recently heard someone say that if the traditional song is correct ("Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!") then they were the first recorded BOGOF promotion: Buy One Get One Free.

BBC WORLD SERVICE LIVE BROADCAST FROM GURU TEGH BAHADUR GURDWARA


An early start today at Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara, East Park Road, where BBC World Service is broadcasting live. The World Today is running a feature in which presenter Kumla Dumar is travelling up the M1, stopping off at cities and towns on the way and considering issues to do with identity - encompassing a variety of aspects such as culture, language, faith, values, loyalties, parochialism and nationality. Their first stop was Luton, next is Leeds and today they're in Leicester (with some recorded inserts glancing eastward to Peterborough).

Knowing that Guru Nanak called the time before dawn "the ambrosial hour" and that it has a special sweetness and significance in the devotional life of Sikhs, I eschew the easy option of going by taxi and resolve to walk from home to the Gurdwara. I reckon it should take about an hour to do so, tweeting merrily as I go, along with the dawn chorus. But the curse of Googde Maps strikes again and I arrive with only a few minutes to spare before we go live on air. We start at 0600 (although BBC World Service abides by Greenwich Mean Time, so the programme is going out at 0500 GMT). Already seated around the small table in the vestibule of the Gurdwara are Kumla, his producer, Mr M. S. Sangha (President of Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara - to the right of me in the photo below) and Cllr Manjula Sood (Deputy Lord Mayor of Leicester and Chair of the Council of Faiths).

The main part of the show is broadcast live from London and it cuts to us every few minutes. In our first segment, Kumla announces that he's on a quest to investigate the meaning of Englishness. Then he points the mike at me to ask my opinion. Well he's come to the right guy to answer that question, obviously!

Manjula and I feel obliged to challenge the assumption that as the fortunes of one of the city's communities (whether defined by faith, culture, language, heritage, geographical origin or something as basic as the colour of their skin) rise, it means the fortunes of another inevitably sink. That's certainly not the way it happens in Leicester. We've never been hostage to the crazy world of political correctness, where Christmas is replaced by "Winterval" (I could go on, but surely you, faithful reader, will know your own examples). It is possible and practical for all to rise together. As Leicester's celebrations of Diwali, Eid or Vaisakhi have grown year by year, so there is also greater prominence given to Christmas and Easter (see later blog entries today for more on public celebration of Easter). Leicester just had its first ever St Patrick's Day parade and in a couple of weeks there's a St George's festival lasting several days (nothing much for St Andrew yet though). I mention a few of these when I'm asked to comment on an insert of three young white women recorded at a bingo session, saying that there's nothing for the white community in Leicester, that they're forgotten and neglected in favour of more recent arrivals and incomers.

By the end of the first hour of the show, we've attracted a small crowd round our table. As worshippers begin to arrive at the gurdwara in number and the main door behind us is left open, it becomes rather chilly. We're offered cups of sweet milky tea to keep warm. I got up very early to come here today, leaving home to walk halfway across the city before dawn. Guru Nanak's writings describe the time before sunrise as "the ambrosial hour" and Sikhs are urged to rise early, pray and listen to the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib at this special time each day. I wanted to get in the spirit and be a wee bit more attuned to this place rather than rushing here by taxi. It was lovely to hear the dawn chorus on the way here, with very little traffic to drown it out. I haven't eaten anything yet, so pick up a piece of pakora from one of the plates left for us on the table. We're not on air at this moment, the show has cut back to London for the news on the hour. Something spicy goes down the wrong way and all of sudden I have hiccups! I haven't had hiccups since I was 12 and here they are, when I'm about to go live on the World Service - broadcasting to the entire planet! Thankfully, a few gulps of tea and panic's over as the hiccups subside.

At seven, we're joined by Barry Naylor, Urban Canon at Leicester Cathedral, who speaks about some of the innovative work being done there. A little later, Baz Kanabar (from the Cooke e-learning Foundation) arrives to talk about teaching English language and Citizenship to adult learners in the city. The show also features an interview with one Sikh who gives all his time in service to the gurdwara as a Seva Dar. He describes a typical day in the life of the gurdwara and gives an introduction to its varied services.

Kumla puts me on air four times in all, Manjula a few times more. She is asked to speak about her own story arc in Leicester, of how she rose to become first Asian female Lord Mayor of any English city (even if she's not given sufficient time to do it justice for those of us who have heard her tell it before). I'm there till eight, when I make way for the first in a new wave of guests for the last half hour on air.

Involvement with the media is a mixed blessing. On the upside, they give you and your cause a prominence that it would be impossible to achieve on your own. It's a good thing to have one's profile raised - if that's a good thing for one's profile. On the downside, the media may approach you with assumptions and preconceptions (even prejudices) about who you are, what you're doing and how the rest of the world looks upon you. On the whole, it's a good thing Manjula and I were able to get this opportunity to talk about the diverse nature of Leicester, even if we weren't able to say much about the Council of Faiths itself. We're glad that Barry Naylor was with us; while not a member of the Council of Faiths himself, Barry is certainly one of our most supportive fellow travellers. Since this occasion was all about diversity, I'll sign off this entry by saying that it's always instructive (in the words of Robert Burns) "to see ourselves as others see us!" Mind you, if folk see me like I am in the photo below, I don't know what they'd make of me. Am I having a stroke there or something?


Tuesday, 30 March 2010

GET INSPIRED 2010



At the community centre opposite Shree Jalaram Prarthana Mandal in Narborough Road this evening. I've been invited to attend the launch for a forthcoming public celebration of Hindu life, an ambitious event to be held at Leicester Racecourse and Conference Centre over a weekend in the middle of August.

Get Inspired 2010 aims to educate, inform and promote the full breadth and diversity of Hindu culture, values and philosophy as well as to showcase the Hindu outlook on living a sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle. It takes as its target audience people from all over the UK, from all ages and all faith groups. It is looking to attract over 10,000 visitors to the event over two days but will also reach out to a global audience through its PR and marketing initiatives.

This event is being organised by a group of community-minded individuals drawn from all Hindu faith groups, who have come together over the last few years to promote the work of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies - an internationally recognised academic institution. I understand it's also building on the legacy of "Get Connected", a successful and fondly remembered event held in Leicester in 2004.

Sadly, I won't be able to attend Get Inspired 2010, as it's being held at the same time as the Summer Sundae Weekender at De Montfort Hall and Gardens (I've just forked out £250 for a three-day family ticket for that!)

NAW RUZ WITH LEICESTER'S AFGHANS & KURDS


At Voluntary Action LeicesterShire this afternoon, to attend a presentation and reception for Naw Ruz, hosted by Leicester's Afghan and Kurdish communities (with assistance from Leicester City Council). This is a lovely occasion, full of beauty, warmth, kindness and uncomplicated hospitality. Everyone looks happy and it's infectious. There are some interesting, informative and imaginative presentations about the history and significance of Naw Ruz for these two (and other) cultures, some poetry and music, then some traditional refreshments. Some of the costumes are quite dazzling in their intricacy and finery. I'm glad to be able to show this picture of some of the children here today (taken and published here with parental permission of course).

Engaging with Faith Communities in Leicester (3)

At the Schools Development Support Agency this morning, to continue our work on "Engaging with Faith Communities in Leicester". That's the overall title for a new series of texts for schools, which (hopefully) will also be the basis of a programme of training for school staff. We've just about finished the text on Muslims and are advancing into the second, on Sikhs. This material might end up being published electronically, allowing schools to print off their own hard copy if they want to. Jill Carr (Secretary of Leicester SACRE); Fiona Moss (of RE Today Services), Robert Vincent (of the Schools Development Support Agency) have been at it since 0830, when I arrive, just after 10. We make good progress till we call it quits around midday.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Les Temps


A one-to-one meeting arranged at short notice in the Welcome Centre this morning with Frederic Koller, from Geneva. Frederic is a feature writer with Les Temps, Switzerland's most popular French language daily paper. Les Temps is preparing an in-depth feature (of around a dozen pages) on the state of British society, approaching the General Election.

Frederic is especially interested in multi-culturalism, community cohesion and good relations and how that might be reflected in the election campaign and the result of the ballot. Leicester's reputation as a place where people from such a diversity of cultural backgrounds get along together extends far and wide and this sort of enquiry is becoming more and more commonplace for our Council of Faiths. Indeed, we've had a rush of requests for interviews, with four in all just this week (another, fifth request follows later today, from an independent TV production company working on a commission for Channel 4). Frederic refers to Leicester as the "multicultural laboratory" and is very interested in its development, present state and possible future. We talk for about an hour-and-a-half and at the end of that time I prepare a small pack of material that he can take away with all sorts of information about the Council of Faiths.

Frederic made contact with us by phone a few days ago, just before he arrived in England. Yesterday he visited the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, where he spoke at length with Dilwar Husein. After our meeting, he's off to the St Philip's Centre, to talk with Suleman Nagdi (PR Officer for the Federation of Muslim Organisations).

Visit the website of Les Temps. This is in French (of course) but I got google toolbar to translate it into English with just one click:
http://www.letemps.ch/

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

HATE INCIDENT ACTION PROJECT


At the Ramada Hotel, Loughborough, this evening, for the launch of the Hate Incident Action Project. This is hosted by Human Rights & Equalities Charnwood, which has obtained funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission for this significant initiative. This new project will extend support to victims of hate crime across all the equality strands (age, disability, faith or belief, gender, race, sexual orientation). It will provide training for those involved with victims of hate crime (including visiting reporting centres, helping them extend their activities to all equality strands).

Among several interesting presentations, PC Pete Bumpus of Leicestershire Constabulary offers a look at the definition, history and current status of "hate crime". Leicestershire Constabulary deals with a total of 362,000 incidents per year. Of these,

  • 24,000 involved domestic abuse
  • 122 involved same sex domestic abuse
  • 2,400 involved people with mental health issues
  • 1,500 were race-related
  • 220 involved religion or belief
  • 200 were homophobic in nature
  • 13 were disability-related

By far the majority of these were cases of verbal abuse (although that does not diminish their significance for the victims). I've asked Pete for a copy of his presentation, so I can lift some of the content for the blog.

This is one of those frequent occasions on which I'm speaking up for both Leicester Council of Faiths and the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership. Laura Horton's here, Ian Robson (Director of the LGBT Centre) and Jai Parmar (from LCIL). That's them in the photo above (then Laura and me in the photo below). We have an REDP display as well as one for the Council of Faiths.

community cohesion @ Castle Rock


Noel Singh brings back the Council of Faiths' exhibition that's been on display in Coalville (Castle Rock High School today and Newbridge High School, Monday and Tuesday). I've asked him to be a guest writer on the blog, so we can have something about this important educational event. The Council of Faiths has played a significant part in this community cohesion project, though none of us were there to see it. I'd like to have something proper about it on the blog, so I hope that Noel can write it up - so watch this space!

Noel and I have a brief chat about the second National Inter Faith Week, set for the end of November this year. The earlier we can start planning for how we'll be celebrating this in Leicester and Leicestershire, the happier both of us will be.

Find out more about Castle Rock High School:
http://www.castlerock.leics.sch.uk/

EAST MIDLANDS AMBULANCE SERVICE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: 1

To Nottingham this morning, to take part in a Community Engagment Strategy Working Group with East Midlands Ambulance Service. I'm here with Laura Horton, Project Manager of REDP. This is the first piece of work we've done together since the last of REDP's Involvement Events; that was only three weeks ago, but it was such an intensive period that, now it's all over, it feels like it was ages ago! We had a lot of support from EMAS for those events. Two members of EMAS's Community Relations Team - Gulnaz Katchi and Mick Rimmington - took it in turns to attend, so that we had one or the other at each and every one of those meetings across the region.

We're at EMAS's Nottinghamshire Divisional HQ, in Beechdale Road. There are 30-odd people in a fairly small room, mostly people working or volunteering for EMAS around the region. There's a lot of brainstorming and small group work around our tables, in which people are honest and open about how much they know and don't know concering the communities they serve and issues of equality and diversity that can affect their service. This would appear to be early steps on a long road!

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

new media contacts

Over the past couple of days, three strong and positive media contacts through phone calls received at the Welcome Centre - one broadcast, one online, one print:

BBC World Service: asking to do a live on-air interview with our Chair, Manjula Sood, and me on Wednesday 31 March - starting at 0530!

The Guardian: wanting to do a short video profile of multi-faith Leicester to be posted on their website, part of a series on various cities around the UK in the run-up to the General Election.

Le Temps: the top-selling French language daily paper in Switzerland, has a reporter flying in to visit the Markfield Institute of Higher Education tomorrow, then hoping to interview someone from the Council of Faiths on Thursday morning.

SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IN THE VOLUNTARY AND COMMUNITY SECTOR

At Action Deafness, Welford Road, this morning for a breakfast networking event with the theme, "Social Enterprise in the Voluntary and Community Sector in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland". Round the table are nine organisations:



I'm here today speaking not only for the Council of Faiths but also for the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership (REDP).

Jenny Hand, from LASS, chairs the meeting. It is facilitated by Jacqui Tilyard, who has worked with Business Link (amongst others) and is a freelance business trainer and consultant. She's particularly interested in the "social entrepreneur". I first met Jacqui at the launch of the Jewish Voices book, exhibition and website. Her husband, Glen, took the photos for that book and has long worked for Writing School Leicester, for which I've taught from time to time.

This meeting, and the informal network of contacts invited to it, are supported by the Modernisation Fund, which promotes collaboration and merger. The former is appealing to the VCS, the latter not necessarilly so. A few organisations which have obtained some funding from this source are committed to the network that has grown out of their involvement: how is it working? is it a network of organisations or of individuals? can it be expanded? should it be expanded? Today we discuss some of these, and related, issues: sharing resources, experience and expertise; consolidating back office functions; making joint funding bids; identifying best practice; overcoming isolation; retaining and transmitting values; tapping into our network of networks (a brief explanation of the relevance of REDP fits in here). We consider how to use the more positive aspects of our common anxiety about the future - how it is making many in the VCS world come out of their shells and reach out to others. Plans are made for moving forward, which should be taken up soon.

Monday, 22 March 2010

working with the Local Strategic Partnership


Meeting in the Welcome Centre this evening with Dr Rachel Chapman, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Northumbria (in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne). Rachel is involved in a research project commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, looking at how Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) have been promoting equalities and how they have been engaging with locally-based equalities groups. She's considering case studies, identifying good practice and seeing how much of that good practice could be shared. She's interested in asking us what we've learned from our experience of working with our LSP and how much of what we've learned could be transferred elsewhere.

The main experience that Leicester Council of Faiths has of working with our Local Strategic Partnership is, of course, in our capacity as the Host Organisation for Communities of Interest in relation to religion and belief.

There are seven of us gathered round the table: Julie-Anne Heath, Alan Race, Resham Singh Sandhu and his wife Surinder (who, while not a member of the Council of Faiths, can speak for the Sikh Welfare and Cultural Society), Manjula Sood (our Chair, who arrives after an hour or so) and Gursharan Thandi. Gursharan is the focus for most of Rachel's questions, as she is one of the two representatives on Leicester Partnership for Communities of Interest in relation to religion and belief. The meeting lasts just over two hours (Julie-Ann and Gursharan have brought food and drink). I think we respond in interesting and varied ways to Rachel's questions. She's treating us as a focus group, recording our conversation on a small digital device. She's going to write up a report, anonymising our comments. She may be back in the future to do some follow-up work with us.

To read the published report ("The role of Local Strategic Partnerships and Local Area Agreements in promoting equalities") click on the link below:

infrastructure providers group (2)

At Voluntary Action Leicester this morning representing both the Council of Faiths and the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership at a meeting of the Infrastructure Providers Group.

Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the purpose of these groups and meetings, to forget the practical and postive outcomes that they work towards. So I think it's good to state the goal of this group here, which is the establishment, maintenance and development of "a vibrant and effective voluntary and community sector that enables people to be active in their communities and to make Leicester and Leicestershire a great place to live for all." I don't think there would be many people in the city or the county who wouldn't get on board with that (if you'll excuse the double negative and mixed metaphor there!)

Ian Robson, Director of the LGBT Centre is here today. We both feel ratehr bereft after the end of the series of REDP's Involvement Events and related activities. We both liken it to that wistful feeling at the end of a relationship - though, ironically, in this context, it's just the beginning of one!

WHAT PRICE SECULARISM?

This letter appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
What price secularism?
The president of Leicester Secular Society, Mr Hayes (Mailbox, March 15), invites me to think again following my comments on his society's objection to faith schools following their tenets in relation to sex education.
Mr Hayes quotes the education Bill's passage that faith schools have been offered derogation. I will not contest the wording of that passage as it makes literary sense; how it is interpreted by non-faith schools is another debate.
As our society continues to move further away from religious tolerances and practices and further into a secular lifestyle, the spectre of disrespect, drunkenness and violence seems to fill the void so that "Broken Britain" is now a description used by politicians of our own country.
The issue of sex education has been on the education agenda for many years. For all of those years schools have taught pupils sex education, yet we face a situation of unprecedented promiscuity inherent in this country's younger citizens that leaves me and many of my fellow citizens, religious and agnostics alike, saddened. So, what price secularism, Mr Hayes?
As you asked, I have thought again and not surprisingly I cannot agree the decadence and selfishness that many years of secularism seems to have spawned is good for this, or any other country's people.
Some Mercury readers who are following this exchange may form the view that secularists believe religion equals bible thumping, oppressive ministers or priests and a rigid Victorian strictness of personal behaviour.
If that is the case, how very wrong it is. If society was to develop a sudden, but welcome, mass return to faith, the modern user-friendly moral guidance, citizenship, fun and humanist input a faith has to offer a family must go some way to improve general behaviour. I am not suggesting utopia would result, but it would reverse the decline of respect. Have faith, it would!
Stephen A Warden, Wigston

community cohesion @ Newbridge



Late last night, Clare and I loaded the Council of Faiths exhibition material (set of eight banners, a couple of hundred copies of our "generic" leaflet, bookmarks and stickers) into her tiny Peugeot, for her to drive to Newbridge High School in Coalville this morning. The school (along with its neighbour Castle Rock High School) is holding a community cohesion event this week and improving the pupils' and staff's awareness of the faith communities around them is an integral part of the activity. Our neighbour, the Schools Development Support Agency (SDSA) is providing a day of lessons and activities on issues related to faith or belief today at Newbridge and Wednesday at Castle Rock. We're backing that up with our display materials, which are going to be on show in the school library today and tomorrow before moving on to Castle Rock on Wednesday morning.

This is the first of two occasions when I would have needed to be in two places at once this week. Thanks Clare for support above and beyond, in taking the stuff out to Coalville.

Find out more about Newbridge High School:
http://www.newbridgehs.leics.sch.uk/

Find out more about the Schools Development Support Agency:
http://sdsa.net/section/0_welcome_to_the_sdsa/

Sunday, 21 March 2010

spring has sprung!



Today, Sunday 21 March, is the Vernal Equinox - the first day of spring. It may be stating the obvious to say that this day has long been an auspcious day in many faiths and cultures - but it may also be acknowledging something normally taken for granted. I thought I'd devote an entry to going below the surface of how we see this day, from a number of different but related religious or spiritual perspectives.

The UN General Assembly in 2010 recognized the International Day of Nowruz, describing it a spring festival of Persian origin which has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. During the meeting of The Inter-governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage of the United Nations, held between 28 September – 2 October 2009 in Abu Dhabi, Nowrūz was officially registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Since 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognizes March 21 as the "International Day of Nowruz".

Naw Rúz is one of nine holy days for adherents of the Bahá'í Faith worldwide. The Bahá'í calendar is composed of 19 months, each of 19 days (with four "Intercalary Days" added in to make it up to 365 days), and each of the months is named after an attribute of God; similarly each of the nineteen days in the month also are named after an attribute of God. The first day and the first month are given the attribute of Bahá, an Arabic word meaning splendour or glory, and thus the first day of the year is the day of Bahá in the month of Bahá. Naw Rúz comes at the end of 19 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset, which takes up the last month in the Bahá'í calendar. Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "Praised be Thou, O my God, that Thou hast ordained Naw Rúz as a festival unto those who have observed the fast for love of Thee". As with all Bahá'í holy days, there are few fixed rules for observing Naw-Rúz, and Bahá'ís all over the world celebrate it as a festive day. Bahá'ís of Persian origin or background still observe many of the Iranian customs associated with Naw Rúz such as the Haft Sín, but Bahá'í communities would exemplify the diversity in their customs and practices today. Some may have a potluck dinner, perhaps with music or other live entertainment, along with prayers and readings from Bahá'í scripture. Bahá'ís in Leicester got together at Feast India on Melton Road for their New Year celebration today.

The calendar followed by Bahá'ís is a solar one, so the dates on which feasts and festivals etc are marked stay the same each year in relation to the Gregorian calendar. Each day in this calendar begins at sunset, so Naw Rúz begins (and the month of fasting ends) at sunset on 20 March. The first year in this calendar dates from 1844 CE, the year in which the Bahá'í era begins. So this Naw Rúz celebrates the start of the year 166 in the new calendar followed by the Bahá'í community.

The day is also used to symbolise the renewal of time in each religious dispensation. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's son and successor, explained that significance of Naw-Rúz in terms of spring and the new life it brings. He explained that the equinox is a symbol of the messengers of God and the message that they proclaim is like a spiritual springtime, and that Naw-Rúz is used to commemorate it.

Read messages from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Leader of the Opposition David Cameron to the UK Bahá'í community on the occasion of their New Year:
http://bahainews-uk.info/2010/03/20/prime-minister-sends-uk-bahais-naw-ruz-greetings/

Read a report of Bahá'í New Year being celebrated in the Houses of Parliament, sponsored by the All Party Parliamentary Friends of the Bahá'ís:
http://bahainews-uk.info/2010/03/23/bahai-new-year-celebrated-in-uk-parliament/

It's the first day of the new year ("Norooz") for Zoroastrians and Parsees, for whom it's the most important day of the year. Zoroastrian customs for Norooz include wearing new clothes, giving gifts, and settling disputes. Zoroastrians of Iranian origin generally put up a Haft Sin table as is tradition for Iranians.

Haft Sín (Persian: هفت سین) or the seven S's is a major tradition of Nowruz. Today the haft sin table includes seven specific items, all starting with the letter S or Sín (س in the Persian alphabet). The items symbolically correspond to seven creations and holy immortals protecting them. Originally called Haft Chin (هفت چین), the Haft Sín has evolved over time, but has kept its symbolism. Traditionally, families attempt to set as beautiful a Haft Sín table as they can, as it is not only of traditional and spiritual value, but also noticed by visitors during Nowruzi visitations and is a reflection of their good taste. The Haft Sín items are:
  1. sabzeh (سبزه) wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish, symbolising rebirth;
  2. samanu (سمنو) a sweet pudding made from wheatgerm, symbolising affluence;
  3. senjed (سنجد) the dried fruit of the oleaster tree, symbolising love;
  4. sír (سیر) garlic, symbolising medicine;
  5. síb (سیب) apples, symbolising beauty and health;
  6. somaq (سماق) sumac berries, symbolising (the colour of) sunrise;
  7. serkeh (سرکه) vinegar, symbolising age and patience.

     
A slightly less traditional Haft Sín may also include:
  • sonbol (سنبل) the fragrant hyacinth flower, symbolising the coming of spring;
  • sekkeh (سکه) coins, symbolising prosperity and wealth;
  • sekanjabin, a sweet mint syrup;
  • decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family (fertility);
  • a bowl with goldfish, symbolising life (and the sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving);
  • a bowl of water with an orange in it, symbolising the earth floating in space;
  • A poetry book, such as the Shahnameh or the Divan of Hafez, and/or a holy book such as the Quran or the Bible (or a compilation of Bahá'í prayers if appropriate).
Zoroastrians of Parsi (South Asian) origin do not traditionally use a Haft Sin. They set up a standard "sesh" tray - generally a silver tray, with a container of rose water, a container with betel nut, raw rice, raw sugar, flowers, a picture of Zarathustra the prophet, and either a floating wick in a glass filled with water topped with oil for fuel, or an "afargania", a silver urn with a small fire nourished by sandalwood and other fragrant resins.

Find out more about how people of Persian origin all over the world are celebrating Norooz, first day of their national and cultural calendar:
http://payvand.com/blog/1389/2010/02/07/new-year-norouz-1389-2010-times-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%88%DB%8C%D9%84-%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84/

The Vernal Equinox is celebrated today by our Pagan friends. Find out more about the Pagan celebration of Ostara in the Northern Hemisphere:
http://web.grinnell.edu/groups/pagan/pagan-home-ostara1.html

I'd like to acknowledge Wikipedia as the source for most of this information.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

national inter faith week 2010

The Inter Faith Network UK has announced that there will be a National Inter Faith Week later this year. National Inter Faith Week in November 2009 was the first of its kind in England and Wales (a similar event has been running in Scotland for the past six years). When the 2009 event was announced and then held, it had not been decided whether it would be a one-off. Those organisations that took part in it were asked to recommend whether they would like to see it run again. We at Leicester Council of Faiths said that we would. Here's the text of the letter from the Inter Faith Network UK:
An Inter Faith Week will take place across England and Wales from Sunday 21 to Saturday 27 November 2010. The aims of the Week are:
  • to strengthen good inter faith relations at all levels;
  • to increase awareness of the different and distinct faith communities in the UK, in particular celebrating and building on the contribution which their members make to their neighbourhoods and to wider society;
  • and to increase understanding between people of religious and non-religious belief.
This will be the second time that such a Week has taken place in England and Wales. It builds on the very successful pattern of events held last November which ranged from social action events, to discussions and dialogues, inter faith football matches, meals, inter faith walks and pilgrimages, festivals and celebrations, tree plantings, exhibitions, concerts, film festivals, activities in schools and in FE and HE and other institutions.

Minister for Cohesion Shahid Malik said "The 2009 Week was a big success. It raised the profile of faith communities and their contribution to society, increased inter faith engagement and understanding and helped people of religious and nonreligious beliefs get into dialogue. I am delighted that there will be a similar Week in 2010.”

Co-Chairs of the Inter Faith Network for the UK, Rt Revd Dr Alastair Redfern and Dr Girdari Lal Bhan, said “Inter Faith Week offers a tremendous opportunity for shared learning, making new connections and deepening inter faith understanding.” It is hoped that faith communities across the country will take part, alongside schools, colleges, universities, local authorities, health care organisations, and many others.

The Week is being led by the Inter Faith Network for the UK, working with its member bodies, in consultation with the Department for Communities and Local Government and also with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Local Government Association and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Regional Faith Forums in England will again play a key role in supporting and making known the pattern of events in their regions.
The Inter Faith Network for the UK was founded in 1987 to "advance public knowledge and mutual understanding of the teachings, traditions and practices of the different faith communities in Britain" and to promote good relations between people of different faiths in the UK. IFN links over 170 member bodies including: national representative bodies of the Bahá'í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian faiths; national, regional, local and other inter faith bodies; and academic institutions and educational bodies concerned with inter faith issues.

The Inter Faith Week website will be further developed across the coming weeks to provide additional resources (including a report on last year’s Week) and event and project ideas.

Find out more about the Inter Faith Network UK:

Find out more about National Inter Faith Week:

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

serendipity


A pleasant hour in Caffe Nero with my friend Trisha Selvartnam, who tells me how she has recently realised a long-held goal of founding an orphanage in her native Sri Lanka. The Serendip Children’s Home is a non-profit organization that will strive towards giving 50 orphaned children of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, a loving and nurturing home, addressing their immediate needs of food and shelter, as well as their progressive needs for education, social support and eventually, work and independence.

Find out more about Serendip Children's Home:
http://www.serendipchildrenshome.com/

CreativeCoffee Club (2)



Return to CreativeCoffee club at Phoenix Square this morning. I've not been able to make it to the last three or so fortnightly meetings, so it's good to get back, to meet some new people (of which there are some three or four this morning) and find out how some of the projects (such as Leicester on the Map) are being developed.

In the photo above: Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media at De Montfort University (founder and guiding spirit behind CreativeCoffee Club in Leicester as well as having established the Amplified Leicester project here) is in the centre. Jayne Childs (who coordinates the regular meetings of CreativeCoffee Club at Phoenix Square) is on the right. On the left is Dorothy Warner, Head of Development at Phoenix Square.

We've been featured in the online magazine, Midlands Business News, with a decent artcile and photo. You can see this by following the link below (and I'm not just recommending this because I'm in the photo!)

http://www.midlandsbusinessnews.co.uk/2010-03/creativecoffee-sparks-conversation-and-inspiration-at-phoenix-square-in-leicester.aspx

Cathedral AM (2)

At Leicester Cathedral Visitor Centre for Cathedral AM, starting 0730. This is a bi-monthly networking event, bringing together people working in, living in, or otherwise concerned with the city centre. We have breakfast together (assuming we arrive in good time!) get the chance to listen to a relevant guest speaker for half an hour or so, then quiz them. This morning we get two for the price of one, with Julie-Ann Heath and Barry Naylor. Julie-Ann and Barry have been organising these meetings since the start. Attendees at Cathedral AM have often asked Julie-Ann and Barry about their own work; they thought it time to present something direct about that today.

Julie-Ann's background is in retail management; she was ordained four years ago, Barry was ordained in 1976 and had several months' experience as a monk. She's given up the Mercedes, he's given up giving things up! There's definitely a pilot for a sitcom in there. "She's an ex-barmaid; he used to be a monk. Together they walked the streets of Leicester city centre - with hilarious consequences!" Or an offbeat detective pairing, maybe ...

They spoke to us about the Workplace Chaplaincy and about Street Pastors. Both these ministries are prayer-based; both have, at their core, the establishing, maintaining and furthering of partnerships. Julie-Ann and Barry describe how this involves them going out with love, care and compassion - going out to encounter people where they are, going through whatever it is they're going through at that time, with whatever they have in their heads and hearts, who want to share whatever is on their minds or in their hearts, whether it's good or bad. They tell us that their chaplaincy is all about active listening. They listen to people tell their stories, express their thoughts, to someone independent of their workplace. They give time to listening to people who often have no one to speak to in their dialy lives. People's work in the city centre has become more target-focused; the Workplace Chaplaincy is spirit-focused, working with the whole person.

The Workplace Chaplaincy (which is more Julie-Ann's sphere of influence) has a distinct multi-faith dimension to it (for which, it has the support of the Council of Faiths). Street Pastors, on the other hand, is identified as a more overtly Christian ministry. Neither is conducted with the intention of seeking to convert anyone though. Many of the people they meet in the city centre can't believe that they are Christian, let alone that they are Christian clergy! Most young people have an image of the church - and of church people - as being aloof and disinterested in them.

There is the possibility of extending Street Pastors sometime within the next year or so, with appropriate training. The possibility was raised from the floor that city centre businesses could sponsor the work of Street Pastors. If 100 such businesses pledged just £5 per month, it would free them from having to raise funds and allow them to just get on with their work.

Today is Julie-Ann's birthday. There's a nice-looking cake that gets cut up and passed around.

Find out more about Leicester Cathedral Visitor Centre:
http://www.cathedral.leicester.anglican.org/visitor_centre.html

Find out more about Leicester City Centre Street Pastors:
http://www.streetpastors.co.uk/ProjectArea/Midlands/LeicesterCentre/tabid/425/Default.aspx

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

religion in higher education



At Guru Amar Das Gurdwara, Clarendon Park Road, for a full meeting of Leicester Council of Faiths. Our speakers this evening are Dr Attaullah Siddiqui (Academic Director, Markfield Institute of Higher Education - as well as being past Chair and Honorary Life member of Leicester Council of Faiths) and Dr Clive Marsh (Director of Learning and Teaching, University of Leicester Institute of Lifelong Learning).

Dr Siddiqui is given the floor first. He offers a brief introduction to the history and work of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education (MIHE), Markfield, Leicestershire. Found in 2000, it is the first academic institution of its kind in the west. It presents a unique opportunity to study Islam in an Islamic institution within the context of Higher Education in the UK. In Dr siddiqui's presentation this evening, he tells us how MIHE was the first academic institution to address issues of being a Muslim in Britain today. It has recently begun to offier chaplaincy training, but it does so for Muslims in the context of a mult-faith society, in which trainees are obliged to learn about other faiths. Later in the evening, one of the members of the Council of Faiths remarks that those who have been students at Markfield are distinctive in their ability to join in inter-faith dialogue, mix with people of other religions and visit places of workship with confidence and openness.

In his introduction to his work, Dr Marsh observes that In Leicester, religion is all aorund us, but it tends to be something that other people have. But one can't work or live in this city without at least seeing evidence of people from many different faith traditions and cultural backgrounds -whether as individuals or as communities.

There is currently no undergraduate course in religious studies at either of the universities in Leicester - which is remarkable (even ridiculous) in a city where religion is such a significant part of public life and faith communities are so obvious to the public eye. Leicester University had a department teaching religious studies, but it closed as long ago as 1986 (presumably due to unsustainable numbers). The University of Leicester's Institute of Lifelong Learning does have a BA in Humanities and Arts which contains a Religious Studies component. The Institute is, however, currently also considering developing a Foundation Degree in Faith and Community Studies. This will be an opportunity for Leicester Council of Faiths to work with the Institute of Lifelong Learning on content, delivery etc. As a first step, the ILL is offering a Certificate of Higher Education in the Study of Religion at Vaughan College starting September 2010. Course Director for this two-year programme is Dr Angela Jagger, former Secretary of Leicester Council of Faiths.

Of course, provision and continuation of these courses can't avoid being market-driven. If there's demand for them, they'll flourish - if not, they'll wither away. Certificate courses require twelve students each year to run sustainably.

It's one of the stated aims in the constitution of Leicester Clouncil of Faiths that we should promote the disseemination of accurate knowledge about the faith communities in our city. This new development presents us with an excellent opportunity to put that principle into action.

These programmes of study are not intended to affirm the personal faith of the individuals enrolled on them. Indeed, if anyone signs up for that purpose alone, they may find it an uncomfortable ride. The old-fashioned distinction between "religious eduction" and "religious instruction" came to mind as we discuss this point. Students will be encouraged to look at their own religion (if they have one) and other religions as if from outside. Students should be able to reflect critically on the beliefs, values, history and practices of their own tradition as well as on those of others. These courses should allow students exposure to the life and activities of faith practitioners through contact with individuals (as visiting speakers, for example) and as communities (through visits to places of worship, joing in community, family or neighbourhood events such as festivals, commemorations, celebrations).

Angela will be offering a taster session on the evening of Monday 17 May, during Adult Learners' Week. The Institute of Lifelong Learning will have a stall in Highcross on Saturday 15 May to promote this week of learning opportunities.

Find out more about Dr Attaullah Siddiqui:
http://www.mihe.org.uk/mihe/detail.php?t=6&what=tutor

Find out more about Markfield Institute of Higher Education:
http://www.mihe.org.uk/mihe/

Find out more about Dr Clive Marsh:
http://www2.le.ac.uk/ebulletin/people/appointments/2000-2009/2008/12/nparticle.2008-12-19.5789722496

Find out more about the University of Leicester Institute of Lifelong Learning:
http://www.le.ac.uk/ad/

LEICESTER COLLEGE DIVERSITY FAIR: DAY 2


At Leicester College Abbey Park Campus for the second day of the college's Diversity Fair, which is part of their Respect Week. The site is more suited to this sort of event than the one we were in yesterday at Freeman's Park Campus. It looks and feels more like a collective exhibition today, rather than a bunch of disjointed and unconnected tables and banners.




Most of those who exhibited yesterday are here today:


Kaspalita Thompson, from the Amida Trust, is fronting the college's multi-faith chaplaincy (that's the two of us, in the photo below).



New among the exhibitors today is Age Concern's BME Mental Health Project. I don't have quite enough material with me to fill a table (some leaflets, boomarks, stickers and my laptop running a slideshow), so I share one with Mick Walker, who is representing City of Sanctuary.

Monday, 15 March 2010

mindfulness (8)


This evening I'm at the eighth - and final - session in the course on "Mindfulness" offered by Christians Aware at Christchurch, Clarendon Park Road. The emphasis this evening is on establishing and maintaining our own practice.

To start, Kevin leads us through discussion of "object-based meditation" - on the body (breath, heartbeat, physical sensations), a mantra or visual objects (such as a mandala). This leads into talking about "just sitting", the style of meditation practised in Soto Zen.

The phrase "monkey mind" is used several times, meaning the tendency of the mind to run off if left unattended. When we're meditating and a thought arises naturally, we may notice it, but not engage with it. The same goes for any sensory stimulation.

One of the basic aspects of practising meditation is sitting comfortably - in a chair, on the floor, on a small individual bench (padded or unpadded), using cushions of different size and shape. We should be able to relax into a comfortable position - upright, but not "fiercely upright". We should not be trying to make a martyr of ourselves, physically.

We rearrange the seating, dim the lights (I'm designated "light monitor") then sit together in silence for fifteen minutes. Kevin starts and ends this period of group meditation by lightly tapping a brass bowl; the first ring signifies the start of the period of meditation, the second, a quarter of an hour later, its end. It's an unusual thing to do, just being with people rather than having to do something with them.

As the session - and the course - come to an end, we're encouraged to consider establishing our own practice, if we don't have one already. We're encouraged to find the opportunity to meditate regularly, either on our own as individuals or with others in a group - either an existing one or one that we might be able to form in our own community of belief.

Barbara Butler expresses our collective thanks to Ian Grayling and Kevin Commons (from Leicester's Serene Reflection Meditation Group) for having led us through this fascinating journey over these eight sessions. And for those of us who've taken these first steps together, we're aware that the journey has only just begun.

LEICESTER COLLEGE DIVERSITY FAIR: DAY 1


At Leicester College, Freemen's Park Campus, for its Diversity Fair, which takes place in the college's annual Respect Week. Leicester College has three campuses dotted around the city centre. We'll be doing something similar tomorrow at Abbey Park Campus.

Right up until first thing this morning, I don't actually know if the Council of Faiths is taking part, if we were just to provide an exhibition or to present a workshop. Vinod Chudasama (Inclusion Cordinator, Student Services) is always the organising force behind events such as this, but he's been uncharacteristically quiet this past couple of weeks. I call his mobile bang on nine this morning, but it goes straight to voicemail. I leave a message saying that I'm coming anyway and that I'm sure space can be found to display one of our banners and a small tabletop display of some leaflets, boomarks, stickers and my laptop (running a slideshow).

When I arrive at Freemen's Park campus, I'm shocked to hear that Vinod has been unwell for several weeks and is currently in hospital. I, his friends at Leicester Council of Faiths and everyone who appreciates his work in championing equality and diversity at the college wish him well and hope for his speedy recovery.

Our banner looks good (I think it always does, no matter the setting or company it's in) but the tabletop looks a wee bit bare for my liking.

The first person who approaches me to talk is a member of the college staff who tells me that she's a descendant of John Bunyan, author of "Pilgrim's Progress". She tells me that she's not read it - yet. I have, as part of my degree with the Open University and it made a strong impression on me, which still lingers, some twenty years later.

Other participants in the Diversity Fair today include:

  • Amida Trustwhich is both a dedicated Pureland Buddhist Sangha and also a wide and creative network of spiritually inclined ordinary people from many orientations
  • Catch 22: a national charity that works with young people who find themselves in difficult situations
  • Diversity Hubtrainers in diversity, equalities, leadership, conflict resolution, team building and anti-bullying work with young people and adults
  • Jasmine Housewhich provides free confidential support and information for women and girls who have experienced any form of sexual violence at any time in their lives
  • Leicester College Student Union
  • Leicestershire and Leicester City Multi Agency Travellers Unitsoon to be involved in the launch of "GATE": Gypsy and Traveller Equality
  • Refugee Actionwhich provides a range of services for asylum seekers, refugees and other agencies working with asylum seekers in the Leicester area
  • St Philip's Centre for Study and Engagement in a Multi-Faith Societyspecifically promoting their Interfaith Youth Hub
  • Vistaan independent charity that provides services for blind and partially sighted people of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland of whom there are nearly 6,000 recipients

I have interesting conversations with students and staff, who take some of our materials. Similarly, pleasant conversation with some of the other folk who have come to promote their services today. Oh and I can't close this entry without commending the Freemen's Park catering services on their blackcurrant crumble and custard, which topped off a very nice lunch.

Friday, 12 March 2010

LEICESTERSHIRE GIRL SAVED FROM FORCED MARRIAGE AS POLICE SECURE PROTECTION ORDER

This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Leicestershire girl saved from forced marriage as police secure protection order
Detectives have secured a groundbreaking court order against the family of a teenage girl who was tricked into going abroad and forced to marry a stranger.
The 16-year-old, from Loughborough, sought help from the police after she was taken to Bangladesh in November.
Officers said she was told she was going to a family wedding – but found it was to be her own.
Family members threatened to abandon her in Bangladesh if she refused to marry the older man they had chosen.
Officers said the youngster, who is not being named, contacted police on her return when her family tried to make her sign papers that would allow her husband to move here.
The police went to Leicestershire County Court within two days of her complaint to secure the force's first Forced Marriage Protection Order.
They put the girl in safe accommodation in a location unknown to her family and used the order to seize her passport so she cannot be removed from the country.
Every member of her family has been banned from harassing her for two years. If they breach the order, they could face up to two years in jail.
Detective Constable Keeley Mansell said details had been released in the hope those in similar situations would seek help.
Det Con Mansell said: "Many people are not aware this legislation exists or that we can use it even after someone has been forced to marry. Here, we have been able to use it to protect a vulnerable girl.
"If anyone is experiencing a similar situation, we will do everything we can to help."
Sgt Kev Wright, from the police's domestic abuse team, said: "Consent is essential to all marriages.
"The new legislation gives individuals – female and male – who find themselves being forced into a marriage a way to protect themselves and their future without criminalising their family."
Det Con Mansell, Sgt Wright and colleague Det Con Clare Hill all received a Chief Constables Certificate of Service Excellence this week for their work.
The police's domestic abuse investigation officer can be contacted on 0116 222 2222, extension 4022.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

TRANSFORMATIVE CONVERSATIONS IN ECUMENICAL AND INTERFAITH DIALOGUE


At Leicester University early this evening, for the Annual Chaplaincy Lecture, which is being delivered by Dame Mary Tanner, European President of the World Council of Churches. Her topic is "Transformative Conversations in Ecumenical and Interfaith Dialogue". The talk is in the Ken Edwards Building, Lecture Room 3, starting at 1730. Despite the fact that I did the second half of my Masters Degree at Leicester University in Ken Edwards, I can't find lecture room 3. So I'm a little late (in my defence, it was only one session a week and it was several years ago).

The World Council of Faiths came into being in 1948 from the efforts of several earlier ecumenical movements, to develop closer understanding amongst the various Christian churches of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant traditions. At the same time it also built up experience of intger-faith dialogue amongst Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The talk starts off in ecumenical territory, regarding what Dame Mary called "inner-Christian" dialogue, quite a lot of which concerns dialogue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans (there are some Lutherans whom she seems to know in the audience, which might account for that emphasis). In this context, our speaker outlines a number of precepts for successful dialogue:
  • having the rght attitude when entering dialogue (i.e. commitment to inclusiveness for others and to loyalty to one's own tradition);
  • the ability to give an accurate and fair account of one's own faith;
  • the desire to move beyond dialogue in words to dialogue in action; 
  • that dialogue should be lived out by (and within) whole dialogic communities in actions for reconciliation, justice and peace.

Moving on to consider dialogue between communities of different faiths, Dame Mary presents four principles that the churches came up with in the 1980s to guide Christian response to the growing presence and prominence of other religions in Britain. these are not unlike those she has already presented when discussing dialogue among differing Christian communities:
  • dialogue begins when people meet. (This is not as simplistic or trite as it sounds; the more genuine the meeting, the more genuine the dialogue)
  • dialogue depends on mutual understanding and mutual trust;
  • dialogue gives us common courage to enter into service to the community;
  • dialogue can become a medium for authentic witness of our own faith, in any tradition.

After her formal talk is over, Dame Mary takes questions from the floor. Here are three of them:
"What new insights into the nature of God and of spirituality are afforded by inter-faith dialogue?"

"How might the visit of Pope Benedict later this year differ from the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982 and what opportunities for dialogue might his visit present?"

"Does inter-faith dialogue have a destination or is it a never-ending journey?"

Her response to the last of these is, essentially, that the end of the journey is not in our hands. The essence of Dame Mary's talk is that we live in an age of increasing convergence and consensus - and that there is no other way for us to move forward into the future except by dialogue.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

VCS assembly steering group (2)

At Voluntary Action Leicester this afternoon, for another meeting of the VCS Assembly Steering group. I'd attended an earlier meeting of this group on 22 Jan (see blog entry for that date) then missed one in February which coincided with one of REDP's involvement events. There are seven of us round the table today - fewer than at either of the previous meetings, maybe because our focus today sounds rather mundane: "Governance and Structure". In my earlier blog entry on this subject, I mentioned that this body hasn't got a particularly catchy name. Today that's one of the matters under discussion. At the February meeting, some names had been suggested and today we choose one of them. I'm not giving away here what it is: there's a time for everything, after all! We also considered a variety of models for the assembly's structure and governance and chose one of them to commend for adoption. One of those attending today expressed the hope that this assembly would be able to maximise skills and opportunities for the benefit of everyone working in the voluntary and community sector in the city and county. In the same terms, the assembly also has the chance to be a great leveller.

Monday, 8 March 2010

mindfulness (7)


Seventh (penultimate) session in the course on "Mindfulness" offered by Christians Aware at Christchurch, Clarendon Park Road.

Having led the group since the first session, Ian Grayling hands over to his colleague from the city's Serence Reflection Meditation Group, Kevin Commons, who's been here, if in a back seat, since the first. Kevin presents us with a plan for the evening. This evening's topic is "Beyond Thoughts and Feelings" and it turns out to be the most overtly Buddhist of all the sessions so far.

We begin with a short period of guided meditation, in which we are able to relax physically and reflect mentally on the themes of the first six sessions. Then, in small groups, we're asked to discuss the question "What is the purpose of religion - or faith?" As usual, we come up with a variety of answers, which reflect both the positive and the negative:
"It gives a sense of belonging"

"It gives a narrative that you can be part of"

"It provides a sense of mutual obligation"

"It provides a framework for human searching and longing"

"It offers transcendence above the self"

"It can offer hope for something beyond this life"

"It can provide membership of a worshipping community"

"It can offer the chance to become sanctified"

"It can help to integrate and interpret"

"It makes us think"

"It helps one understand oneself"

"It can stunt and distort"

"It can provide social control"

"It provides a source of authority"

"It can provide one with the means of 'individuating'"

"It can lead to the loss of ego as one's dominant function"

"It offers the opportunity to grow in holiness"

"It can engender feelings of satisfaction - or dissatisfaction"

"It can transform the experience of suffering"

"It can give feelings of guilt"

"It can lead to loss of a sens of self-worth"

"It can be a source of power greater than oneself"

"It is a pull from eternity"
Kevin leads us through a quarter of an hour or so, where he explains how the practice of mindfulness can be mapped on to Buddhism. Clearly, Buddhism is a very diverse way of thinking and being, so he has to be pretty general in doing this. However, it's definitely useful and interesting. He then takes on the (even more) difficult task of organising us to look at how to map mindfulness and meditation on to our own belief system and practices. Considering that the group this evening is made up of eight Christians (of various denomination), four Buddhists, two Hindus, one Baha'i, one Humanist and one Unitarian, a few of the groups are a bit pik'n'mix. But once again, it's a useful and interesting exercise, which allows us to share with each other and learn from each other.

In our discussion, I recall that for a few years when I lived in Oakham, I was involved in a monthly meeting of the Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer, which I found very beneficial.

Find out more about the Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer:
http://www.contemplative-prayer.org.uk/

Sunday, 7 March 2010

FLYING SIKHS



To Phoenix Square this afternoon to see "Flying Sikhs", a history of Sikh fighter pilots, presented in association with the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail. To say that I learned things from this film that I hadn't known before would be stating the obvious - after all, what's a documentary for? I would rather say that I learned stuff that has never formed part of anything that could be described as common knowledge for people of my background. I consider myself well-educated, well-read and well-informed - definitely more so than yer average punter. So naturally I'm surprised and annoyed when I realise such things as this are missing from my knowledge set. I feel like I should know about something as important as this - and so should everyone else for that matter. Though I'm not much of a one for quoting Churchill, I do like this: "We owe our lives to those who wear the turban."

The following paragraph is taken from promotional material for this film:
"Flying Sikhs" provides an intimate portrait of Sikh pilots who valiantly contributed to British success in both World Wars. The history of the Sikhs who flew in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Air Force and the Indian Air Force has been forgotten, yet their bravery was recognised widely both within the armed services and the public during the dark days of the Blitz and the Japanese invasion of South East Asia. Included are interviews with the last remaining Sikh pilots from WWII. Flying Sikhs was written and directed by Navdeep Singh Kandola, an award-winning filmmaker specialising in ecology, ethnicity and Punjabi culture in a career spanning over twenty years. It is produced by the Sikh Art and Film Foundation.

On a personal note, something unexpected happens this afternoon which I find strange and pleasing in equal parts). As I enter the Phoenix, I see Rakesh Parmar (Head of Marketing here) chatting with three young Sikh women in the cafe. I go to get a drink from the bar then join them. But as I pass their little group, I hear one of the women saying something that sounds unsettlingly familiar. Hang on a minute, she's quoting directly from my blog! That made me pull up short, as you can imagine, faithful reader. On the entry for the Cultural eXchanges Launch Event (Fri 26 Feb), I noted that Rakesh had talked with me about "some interesting and unusual challenges he's faced when promoting this film within Leicester's Sikh community." These were the words that I heard this young woman use; so I had to ask her where she'd found that quote. She told me she'd googled for any reference to this film and had been led to the page with those words. I, of course, couldn't help but announce, "Well, that's my blog!" then pulled it up on my iPhone to prove it. You never know who's reading this ... I'm glad to see it's not Mr Nobody!

When I enter Screen 2, where the film is showing, I see Noel Singh (Policy Officer with Leicestershire County Council) and go sit with him. I got to know Noel during the run-up to National Inter Faith Week and have been glad to stay in contact with him since. After the film, Noel describes it as a sobering experience; that he'd heard many of these stories from older family members down through the years, and this was the first occasion on which he'd seen dosumentary evidence of people and deeds who had assumed legendary or even mythic status.

After the screening of  "Flying Sikhs" is over, another, shorter film, "The Prisoner's Song", is shown. Described as "A gripping story of sacrifice, suffering, and ongoing injustice, it tells how, in 1916, German scientists made an 80-second audio recording of a Sikh soldier captured at the Battle of Flanders during WWI and held at the Half Moon POW camp. The starving soldier, Mal Singh, yearns to return to his home in the Punjab, the "land of butter and milk." Retired Indian Col. Perminder Singh Randhawa reflects on Mal Singh's fate, and locates his descendants still living in the ancestral village, hoping to receive his long-forgotten pension. The thing that stuck in my mind most about this genuinely touching film was the description of how the original recording of Mal Singh was made, when he spoke into a cone that transmitted the vibrations of his voice, via a needle, onto an acetate disc. Then we saw Col. Perminder Singh Randhawa listening to the recording on an iPod Nano!