Friday, 29 October 2010

ONE LEICESTER: FAITH FOR THE FUTURE



At Holy Trinity Church, Regent Road, for "One Leicester: Faith for the Future", an RE conference for gifted and talented children in Leicester schools. There are 135-140 pupils, from a dozen or so city schools (including Ash Field, Babbington, Beaumont Leys, City of Leicester, Fullhurst, Rushey Mead, Moat, Samworth, Sir Jonathan North, Soar Valley, St Paul's). I've been asked to put up a small display for the Council of Faiths. We're happy to do so and show our support for Leicester SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education), which is behind this event. The day is activity-based and participatory, with pupils joining in a variety of workshops, each one offered a number of times in the morning and afternoon. Among the workshops and activities, some of the titles are:

  • "Are You Committed?"
  • "How Do We Know What is Right and Wrong?"
  • "How Green Are You?" 
  • "The Island"
  • "A Sensory Experience"
  • "The Trading Game"
  • "Welcome to Leicester"

The biggest single activity is "Breathe" (in photo above), a multi-media presentation used by the Cathedral. I've heard a lot about it, but this is the first time I've seen it in action.

Teachers and pupils raid our display of leaflets. A few teachers stop and chat about what the Council of Faiths might be able to do for, or with them, such as adapting our leaflets to reflect the make-up of their school community.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

my management group

Meeting with my management group at the Welcome Centre. We do this every six weeks or so. Not quite full attendance today (one of the members is visiting family overseas) but still a rich and diverse mix: the four members here today are from the Anglican, Bahá'í, Hindu and Orthodox Jewish communities respectively.

This is our first meeting since the demonstration in Leicester by the English Defence League (EDL) and, not surprisingly, much of our time is taken up with the work I did in relation to that event. We also review activities for Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week) and look forward to the next big event on our calendar: National Inter Faith Week, at the end of November, when we have our exhibition again in Highcross.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Humanists launch "no religion" census campaign


It's a while yet till the 2011 Census, but the religion question will be the most important issue related to it for Leicester Council of Faiths (as you can imagine). Large scale public debate has already begun about how respondents should complete that question (which is the only one in the Census that is voluntary - meaning it's the only one that can't be left unanswered). While I wouldn't go so far as to say that battle lines have been drawn, there can be little doubt that things will get a bit heated before this is over.

Here's a piece on that very topic from The Guardian's News Blog, posted there today by the paper's Religious Affairs Correspondent, Riazat Butt (photo of the Atheist Bus by Frank Baron). I imagine that this one's going to run and run ...
Humanists launch "no religion" census campaign

The British Humanist Association wants non-believers and the seriously lapsed to stop ticking the Christian box

The British Humanist Association has launched a campaign to encourage non-believers and the seriously lapsed to tick the "no religion" box on the 2011 census with the aim of challenging religious privilege in Britain.

According to the organisation, public figures have spent the last 10 years claiming that most people in this country are religious to justify the money or attention spent on these communities.

While the statistics show that 37.3m people stated their religion as Christian, these figures are not reflected in church attendance.

The beef the BHA has with the census is manifold but, principally, it is that it underestimates the number of non-religious people and inflates the Christian population. The official figures show that in 2001 15.1% of respondents did not answer the religion question (which was voluntary) and 7.8% of the people who did said they had no religion.

That equates to 22.9% of respondents – approximately 13 million people – who were either non-religious, did not want to answer the question or failed to spot it. The no-religion group exceeded the Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu populations combined.

Since the last census was carried out, the BHA believes the numbers of the non-religious have increased. And there have been high-profile campaigns by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the group behind the Atheist bus.

The BHA says it is time for people who never go to church or who never think about religion to 'fess up: " ... what people do not realise is that by ticking the 'Christian' box rather than the 'no religion' box – which would more accurately reflect their identity – they have contributed to data used to justify an increase in the number of 'faith' schools, the public funding of religious groups, keeping Bishops in the House of Lords as of right, and the continuation of compulsory worship in schools." Yes you fickle and lazy lot, the humanists blame you for all that.

While some might argue that humanists have no more place to tell you what to do than religious institutions, it will be interesting to see what difference a decade of high profile campaigning and posturing front has done to the thorny question of religious belief in Britain.

Read this story on The Guardian's website, along with a number of reader comments:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2010/oct/27/humanists-no-religion-census-campaign?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

THE AMPLIFIED RESILIENT COMMUNITY


This evening's presentation for Amplified Leicester at Phoenix Square Film and Digital Media Centre is Thilo Boeck (photo above) on The Amplified Resilient Community. Thilo is a Research Fellow at De Montfort University, with special interest in social capital and community cohesion located within a social justice and social inclusion perspective embedded in ideologies of democratic empowerment and change that are sensitive to people’s rights and civil liberties. Thilo has been one of the central figures in Amplified Leicester since its beginning and is a regular contributor and commentator on issues to do with community cohesion in Leicester and beyond. In a nutshell, The Amplified Resilient Community is about how social networking increases a community's ability to absorb shock and bounce back, stronger than before. If ever there was a time when we need to consider such a topic ...

Monday, 25 October 2010

Centre of Excellence in Community Cohesion (3)

At St Philip's Centre this afternoon, for the latest in a series of meetings intending to present Leicester as a "centre of excellence" in community cohesion. The full meeting begins at 1530, but first we have a meeting of the smaller working group which is charged with carrying the ideas and proposals further - and closer to being a practical reality. That smaller group is made up of Jasbir Mann, head of Leicester City Council Learning Services (who is coordinating this group), Dilwar Hussain, from the Policy Research Centre, John Hall, Director of the St Philip's Centre (deputising for Riaz Ravat) and me. We have a short position paper that Jasbir has put together, based on discussion at the first meeting of this smaller group (see blog entry for Thursday 2 Sep). We divvy up this paper among us, for presentation to the wider group. I'll be speaking on the topic of having a "virtual" centre, as opposed to somewhere based on bricks and mortar.

Advantages of doing this virtually: it can be run without the need for meetings of everyone round the same table, it should be easier to involve other relevant groups and/or individuals on ad hoc projects; it should be less expensive (though not cost-free); easier to tap into the experience and knowledge of relevant groups, individuals or projects with their own virtual presence.  When interested parties come to Leicester, they'll want to meet people of course, but a virtual Centre of Excellence should be the thing that wins their positive interst and encourages them to come here.

When the larger group gathers, we're joined by Mike Burden (Chair of City of Leicester Governors Association), Nick Carter (Chair of Prospect Leicestershire and of the Multicultural Advisory Group, which was responsible for the Community Cohesion Charter that's been going the rounds in the city and county), Councillor Mohammed Dawood (Leicester City Council's lead on community cohesion), Iris Lightfoote (from the Race Equality Centre and Chair of the Regional Equality and Diversity Partnership). We're chaired by Sheila Lock (Chief Executive, Leicester City Council) who brought the original group together several weeks ago to discuss this project. Inevitably, some of our time is given over to debriefing about the recent demonstration in Leicester by the English Defence League (EDL) - a process that seems to be ongoing continuously in one form or another across the city at the moment.

By the end of this afternoon's meeting, our position paper has been presented, discussed and amended. Our working group is charged with turning it into a set of propositions that can be used to bring on board more likely partner organisations and that can be used also to attract funding.

Friday, 22 October 2010

is this the right place for ...

Surprise visit at the Welcome Centre from Beverley Dewar, Humanities teacher at Gartree High School (with her daughter Lily), looking for leaflets on the different faith communities. She's preparing some stuff for school on the festivals observed by different religions. Well, she came to the right place.

Family Intervention Project Diversity Day

At the Oak Centre, Braunstone, this morning to take part in a “Diversity Day” sponsored by Action for Children Leicester Family Intervention Project. We were invited to be here today by Claire Glanville, Project Worker with FIP, whom I met when we were both exhibiting at the Leicestershire Cares “Sport and Support Day” at Braunstone Leisure Centre, 2 September (see blog entry for that date).
Action for Children Leicester Family Intervention Project offers a range of help for families at risk of losing their homes because of anti-social behaviour, offending or other difficulties. Their services help families develop personal and parenting skills, so they can cope better and react in a more positive way to problems. Action for children Leicester Family Intervention project is a service with professional, caring staff who put the needs and safety of children and young people before everything else. While they don’t judge, they do challenge families to be responsible tenants and neighbours and give them the practical and emotional support they need to achieve a safer, stable and more rewarding life.
Action for Children (one of the UK’s largest children’s charities) is committed to helping the most vulnerable children and young people in the UK break through injustice, deprivation and inequality.
Also on display here today: an African-Caribbean information stall; Braunstone SureStart Children’s Centre; St Peter’s Church Braunstone Park; Leicester Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Centre; Traveller Women’s Group; Vista; Saffron Arts; Family Action (showcasing two projects: “Break the Cycle”, for dads and “Two Halves, One Whole”); Children’s Council; Wot Box Participation; Leicester City Council Children’s and Young People’s Services.  It’s a busy, friendly, fun sort of event, with balloons, henna tattoos, drumming (there's always drumming at such events these days!) and an arts and crafts activity table for children.

We're treated to a performance by local dance group, Angel Delight (been ages since I've had that ... my favourite was butterscotch).

Pleasant conversations with the Revd Canon J. Christopher Burch from St Peter's Church and Nayna Mistry from Sri Vedmata Gayatri Pariwar. Must line up a couple of visits to both of them soon.

Today, the blog itself becomes the main feature of my contribution. I posted a blog entry about this event within the first hour or so of it starting, which was then picked up and reposted by by leicesterblogs within little more than five minutes. I point that out to some of the folk from Action for children and before I know it, lots of people want to read the blog and make a fuss over it (which was nice).
Find out more about Action for Children:
http://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/

Find out more about St Peter's church, Braunstone:
http://www.stpetersbraunstone.org.uk/

Find out more about Sri Vedmata Gayatri Pariwar:
http://www.svgpuk.org/

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Annual General Meeting


Our Annual General Meeting this evening in the Council Chamber, Town Hall. I'm in here an hour beforehand, to set up our exhibition banners. Although we've had this for almost a year now, this evening will be the first time that many members of the Council of Faiths will have seen it up close.

The theme of our guest speakers this evening is "Faith Communities and Health". First up is Maqsood Ahmed, Director of Inclusion, East Midlands Strategic Health Authority. Maqsood began his presentation by reflecting on his experience of equality and inequality in his personal and professional life. He shared the benefits of his current experience of working with the NHS in the East Midlands. He commented on the central role of religion or belief in recent legislation establishing equality and the role of faith communities in relation to "Big Society". He identified as a major challenge for the NS the need to  engage the Voluntary and Community Sector on behalf of patients, partly with the purpose of holding the NHS to account. He said that Leicester is ahead of the game in terms of community engagement and can export good practice to other parts of the East Midlands (and further afield) as exemplified in the policies and practices of our Council of Faiths. He expressed concern about future development of the NHS in general and, in particular, the necessity of assuring diversity of representation on commissioning boards. He raised the topic of relations between faith communities and the forthcoming GP consortia and bodies like Healthwatch. He described how equality and diversity is not an issue about minorities, but about the majority of the community, no matter their race, religion or other characteristics.

I'm sure that each time Maqsood mentioned the Equality Act he prefaced it with the word "ghastly". This is the second time I've heard him address a meeting and I thought he did this last time too. I intended to ask him if I were hearing him correctly and what he meant by that, but he left before I was able to do so.

Deb Watson, NHS Leicesrter City Director of Public Health and Health Improvement, officially launched the "Faith Communities Health Champions" initiative, on which I've been doing some work since she and her deputy, Rod Moore spoke to a full meeting of the Council of Faiths earlier this year.

Deb (centre left) and Maqsood (centre right) are holding the form on which attendees were invited to come forward to be involved in the "Faith Communities Health Champions" initiative. To the left is Councillor Manjula Sood (Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths), to the right, Fayyaz Suleman (Secretary).

Friday, 15 October 2010

Leicester Speaks: Hindu / Jewish dialogue

Fourth and final meeting this morning presented by the Council of Faiths for Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week). This one is a Hindu / Jewish dialogue at Phoenix Square Film and Digital Media Centre, 1100-1200.
I arrive just at 1050 (ten minutes before kick-off), hot-foot from the final planning / first debriefing meeting of the Steering Group at the Adult  Education College in Wellington Street. When I get there only our two speakers, Ramesh Majithia and Tony Nelson, are in the Phoenix Café Bar, along with Marion Kennedy, who has kept a 100% attendance record at these dialogue meetings (and who also made a such a good contribution from the stage at our launch event in Humberstone Gate on Monday morning).
We’ve been given the use of the Screen Room this morning, the smallest of the actual screening rooms on the ground floor which can hold up to 30 people. Shortly after we move in there and start the meeting, our numbers increase. Minou Cortazzi arrives, then two guys from TouchRainbow Productions to record the event in video and stills, then Manjula Sood (our Chair) arrives to bring our number up to eight.
I must say that I've probably been looking forward to this session more than any of the others this week. That's partly because of the setting but also because I felt like I couldn't predict what direction the dialogue might take. I don't think I'd ever sat through a dialogue meeting between in all the years I've been involved in inter faith work. If you've been keeping up with these entries, faithful reader, you'll have seen that the could be said about every one of these meetings - that the topics covered and direction followed have been unpredictable, but I have felt something different and special about this one, ever since the notion came into my head to plan our contributions along these lines. I'm glad to say that the meeting itself doesn't disappoint.

A few days later, an eight-minute extract from this session is posted on YouTube. This is what I'd have to say is a turning point in this kind of activity for us - and, more the point, for me. The significance of the fact that a meeting can be held with hardly a handful of people present, but for it to be recorded and posted online so that any number of people can see it, at any time. I'm not expecting thousands to watch it, but it does have massive potential. This realisation is what I'd have to call a game-changer - much as I don't like the term, it certainly gets the meaning across. And it shows the benefit of partnership working as I'd never have had the kit or the skills or the daring to do this by myself.

For some reason the sound quality of the recording is poor, but I think it looks terrific. You can find it on the Council of Faiths YouTube channel:
http://www.youtube.com/counciloffaiths#p/f/1/WTcysU3EvXM

Thursday, 14 October 2010

PICNIC IN THE PARK


After our Buddhist/Muslim dialogue this afternoon (part of the Council of Faiths contribution to Leicester Speaks - AKA Local Democracy Week) I'm at the Pavilion in Victoria Park, to witness some of that social action we spoke about earlier today.

Some local Muslim friends have organised the latest flashmob meal here at 1800. Going under the title, "Picnic in the Park" this time, it follows on from the flashmob iftar, held here recently three times during Ramadan. Yasmin Surti, who gave the Muslim perspective in the dialogue this afternoon, is here too.

A young fellow from BBC Radio Leicester is doing some interviews for the Ben Jackson's show. He gets me to speak for a minute or so, giving an inter faith perspective on what's going on here this evening. If they use this recording, it will be the third time I've been on Ben's show this week!

LEICESTER SPEAKS 2010: BUDDHIST / MUSLIM DIALOGUE

This afternoon we have the third of four meetings presented by the Council of Faiths for Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week). This Buddhist / Muslim dialogue is being held in the Welcome Centre, 1400-1500. Susthama Marion Kim is speaking for the Buddhist point of view, Yasmin Surti for the Muslim. As was was the case in yesterday’s meeting, a theme of common interest emerges: this time it’s social action. The Amida trust, which is the brand of Buddhism to which Susthama belongs, has been running a drop-in project for vulnerable people on Mondays at Bishop Street Methodist Church, next door to Pilgrim House, in which the Welcome Centre is located. Yasmin has been involved in the flashmob iftar events, in which local Muslims broke the fast at the end of the day, each Thursday in Ramadan, with food that they shared with homeless people and destitute asylum seekers beside the Pavilion in Victoria Park. this has developed after the end of Ramadan into flashmob meals, sharing with the same groups, in the same place. In fact, they're having one there this evening.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

LEICESTER SPEAKS 2010: BAHÁ'Í / CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE

Second of four meetings that Leicester Council of Faiths is presenting for Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week). It's a dialogue between representatives of the city's Bahá'ís and Christians on the topic, "What our Community Brings to Leicester" at the Welcome Centre, 1100-1200.

Today, Minou Cortazzi (member of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Leicester and former Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths) speaks first. Beverley Farrand (from Leicester Cathedral Education team) follows with the Christian viewpoint. Interesting differences here in that one of these two communities is the longest-standing and largest of the eight on Leicester Council of Faiths, the other is the most recent arrival in the city and the smallest. (Though it's little known that, after the Christians and Jews, Bahá'ís were the first faith community to have their own official meeting place in Leicester; there was a Bahá'í centre on New Walk from 1957 to 1963, when the couple who owned the property, John and Vera Long, moved to Oakham to establish the first Bahá'í community there.)

I keep my ear open for common themes emerging from the conversation. There's a very clear common thread about the two communities contributing to the education of young people - empowering them to exercise some degree of meaningful control and direction over their own lives and to help those younger than them do something similar. At the Cathedral, of course, this is done on a considerably greater scale: last year, more than 2,000 children and young people undertook educational visits there on official school trips. Many of these involved participation in the multi-media "Breathe" activity, which is usable for children and young people from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. But despite their comparatively meagre resources, the local Bahá'ís have made whole-hearted efforts in providing spiritual and moral education not only to their own children and young people, but also extending this to similar age groups in some of the deprived areas of the city.

A few days after this event, the Leicester Speaks website carried a blog entry from Kenton Hall, who attended this session in the Welcome Centre as part of the multimedia team who are making a record of the week-long event as a whole. I was really taken with what Kenton had to say about this dialogue session and asked his permission to reproduce his blog entry on this page. He said yes, so here it is below in its entirety.
Cards on the table time. I am not a man of faith. Okay, I occasionally veer towards the belief that a centuries-old being in a bow tie is whizzing round the universe in a police box righting wrongs, but that’s as near as I get these days. The vast majority of my truly religious experiences have resulted from my being chivalrous enough to spring for dinner and a movie. However, I was brought up to be very religious indeed and if there is one aspect of that which has never left me or, at very least, for which I have occasionally pined, it has been the sense of community that comes from shared belief: shared goals, shared ideals, a shared sense of the shape of the universe.

Nonetheless, it has been of increasing concern to me – as I’m sure it has been to many others – that when any group of people subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, there too often follows in their wake a sense of entitlement, a sense that if they are right then others must be definitively wrong. And it is this that has led to the violence and dissent we too often associate with organised religion.

So, when I was asked to cover one of a series of events in which members of various faiths were invited to speak, in dialogue, with the idea of exploring common ground, rather than differences, I was understandably dubious.

The Leicester Council of Faiths is an organisation which strives – by its very remit – to promote understanding and cooperation between the many faiths – Christian, Muslim, Jain, Hindu, Jewish, Ba’hai, Sikh – that make up Leicester’s spiritual life.

Today’s event was a discussion between representatives of the Christian Church and the Ba’hai Faith, outlining the positive aspects and programmes provided by each to the community at large.

In an age where even the word “religion” is too often a harbinger of violence, disorder and war, it was reassuring to see such a positive spin being put on proceedings.  And while I may, personally, not see or understand the need for an organised belief system, it is difficult to argue against the good work presented in evidence today. Impossible, in fact.

Nor can it be considered in any way a bad thing to see disparate groups, with different and occasionally contrary cultures and backgrounds, coming together in the quest for commonality and the promise of a brighter, less contentious future.

Whatever your feeling about religion in general, or any particular faith specifically, the point of today – as indeed of this entire week of Leicester Speaking – is to allow all those good, concerned people out there to hold up their hand and say “This is what we are doing for our city’s well-being. Care to join us?”

I remain unconvinced by the form, but I am utterly convinced by the ideals and the motivations of the people concerned. And when we accept people for who they are and what they do, rather than what they are or where they’ve come from, then we have a chance at putting our quarrels behind us and moving forward as a city, as a community, as a race.

And to that I intone a hearty – if secular – Amen.

Kenton Hall

"Thank you, 'One Leicester'. We belong to you."

This is the text of a letter in today's Leicester Mercury which deserves to be reproduced here, without need for any comment from me.
Muslims: We Belong!

The EDL induced anxieties and nervousness in the Muslim community in the city.

The last few weeks and days were not easy, pressure continued to mount and everyone in the community was concerned to find constructive and positive ways to face this challenge.

In this difficult time, we were not left on our own. From the Bishop of Leicester to leaders of all faiths and no faiths, from the community groups to all the agencies, politicians, MPs, councillors, council officers and police, people engaged with us on supportive terms. The local media, including the Mercury, acted in a most responsible way in dealing with many sensitive issues.

Last Friday evening the peace vigil and multi-faith prayers at the St Martin's further demonstrated solidarity of unprecedented nature. The Hope Not Hate event echoed a message of unity, togetherness and "One Leicester". We were not allowed to feel isolated.

What we have experienced in the last few days is a genuine spirit of "Oneness" in Leicester: the unprecedented nature of engagements, partnerships and co-operation, we never experienced before. History will record this event with pride.

Leicester has shown the way forward and set a shining example of harmony and peace. On behalf of my community, I thank everyone of you for your support.

The Muslim community and its leadership faced this challenge with full of dignity, hope and optimism. This was only possible due to morale-boosting support and assistance from all of you.

I want to congratulate my community and its committed leadership for showing restraint and courage.

Our young people, at time full of anger and frustration, showed the admirable restraint and followed unanimous decisions taken by us all. Well done, all of you.

If the EDL had come to Leicester to learn about us on peaceful terms we would have treated them as our guests and offered them a curry treat of this wonderful city. The opportunity is missed. "One Leicester" defeated them in dividing the communities. We have come out stronger than before in our resolve. Thank you, "One Leicester". We belong to you.
Abdulkarim Gheewala
President, Islamic Education Trust, Leicester
There's also a full page "Thank You" notice from the Federation of Muslim Organisations in today's paper.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

LEICESTER SPEAKS 2010: JAIN / SIKH DIALOGUE


This is the first of four meetings that Leicester Council of Faiths is presenting for Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week). It's a dialogue between representatives of the city's Jains and Sikhs on the topic, "What our Community Brings to Leicester" at Leicester Adult Education College, 1400-1500.

All across the Leicester Speaks programme, we've given ourselves permission not to judge success or failure just by numbers attending meetings and events. The Council of Faiths meetings are pitched deliberately low key; being involved in Leicester Speaks has given us a platform that we'd have found it hard to obtain on our own - and we don't need to worry about carrying responsibility for success or failure on our own shoulders.

Today, Gursharan Thandi presents the Sikh perspective (that's Gursharan on the right in the photo above, with Marion Kennedy), while I am speaking for Leicester's Jains. The Jain community hasn't been able to put up a speaker, so for the second time in a week, I'm speaking on their behalf (I also did the Jain reading at the Vigil for Leicester in the Cathedral last Friday).

Monday, 11 October 2010

LEICESTER SPEAKS 2010 LAUNCH EVENT


Less than 48 hours ago, this part of the city centre was held to ransom by the visiting English Defence League (EDL). Less than 24 hours ago, Billy Bragg and friends played a free gig on this spot to a crowd variously estimated at anything between 2,000 and 10,000 as citizens gathered for the We Are One Leicester Festival. At 1100 on this chilly Monday morning, we launch Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week) in Humberstone Gate.

At the start of proceedings, John Coster (Editor of Citizens' Eye Community News Agency) and I, as Joint Chairs of Leicester Speaks, open the event on stage in front of the giant TV screen (which is, thankfully, inactive this morning). John delivers a typically fine opening spiel, hands me the microphone, tells me I'm doing a great job, slaps me on the back and steps off the stage.


I'm MC for the next hour, in which we encourage people to come up off the street, take the microphone and speak for 60 seconds on any subject of importance to them. We have a few ringers in the crowd, just in case we don't get enough people come up to fill the hour, but we needn't have worried about that. In the end, we have more than enough contributors. Some of these folk have probably never had the opportunity to speak in public like this before. Their contributions were recorded on video and posted online, so they're available to a huge potential audience. In the photo at the top of this blog post, I welcome Lord Mayor of Leicester Cllr Colin Hall on stage, to launch officially our week of activities across the city.


Cllr Manjula Sood, Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths, speaks on the stage this morning - while I do a not particularly good job of hiding behind a pole (photo above).

Leicester Speaks has its own blog, where you can read about today's event and watch a short video about it. Recordings of all contributions from the stage at our launch event in Humberstone Gate are available on the Leicester Speaks channel on YouTube. I'm sorry to say that my amusing improvised links from the stage haven't survived the editing process. I'm holding out for the extended version, with deleted scenes.

Leicester Speaks: on the air

At BBC Radio Leicester this morning, to be interviewed live on air by Ben Jackson about Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week). I go on at about 0840 for five minutes or so. A short prerecorded Vox Pop is played before I go on which (from an insider's point of view) misses the point entirely, in which a few local people say that there's no point in voting, all politicians are the same and so on - and one woman says that you can't say anything in Leicester these days are you get your wrist slapped by the politically correct brigade. Not one of them positive and not really what Leicester Speaks is about anyway. I do my best to correct that misrepresentation and give the week a right good puff up, especially for the launch event taking place in Humberstone Gate later this morning. At the end, Ben asks me to take off my Leicester Speaks hat and put on my Council of Faiths one, to say something about the events of the weekend gone by.

On the way out, I bump into Sheila Lock, Chief Executive of Leicester City Council, who's waiting to go on air next. She's still wearing such a big grin after how it all turned out, especially the "We Are One Leicester" celebration on Sunday.

Find out more about Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week):
http://www.leicesterspeaks.org/

Sunday, 10 October 2010

WE ARE ONE LEICESTER FESTIVAL


The day after the demonstration by the English Defence League and counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism, several thousand people gather in Humberstone Gate for the We Are One Leicester FestivalThis major event in the life of our city has been organised by Leicester City Council and Hope Not Hate.


Undoubted highlight of today is a free gig by Billy Bragg, who includes a rousing rendition of "We Shall Overcome". Indie rockers Reverend and the Makers perform at the end of the day. In between these two sets, various entertainers and local worthies appear on stage to reinforce our pride in the city's diversity and our commitment to its unity. Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths, Cllr Manjula Sood, takes to the stage to speak on behalf of Leicester Council of Faiths:
Good afternoon One Leicester! It’s so beautiful to stand here and see all of you.
On behalf of Leicester Council of Faiths, I would like to say a big thank you to all of you. Yesterday we showed that we stood united and today is a remarkable day: Ten! Ten! Ten! Tenth of October 2010 when the whole city has come together.
On behalf of all the Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jains, Bahá'ís and Buddhist communities and Jews, I would like to pass on their gratitude.
EDL is defeated yesterday, with a very strong message: you are not welcome here. There’s no room for them, even to stand there among us.
Our long and proud history of Leicester – of love respect, understanding, respect, our heritage; many cultures, beliefs, neighbourhoods –  have proved nobody can come and divide us. Our community cohesion cannot be challenged.

You can see her full speech (four minutes long) on YouTube along with a variety of other videos on a playlist there, offering extensive coverage of contributions from the stage and among the crowd.


Humberstone Gate is rammed this afternoon. There are many displays and activities put on by local community groups, local authorities and service providers from the city and county. Artists and performers are out in force too including some of my personal favourites, the stilt-walkers (photo above). There's a lovely touch of autumn sunshine and a palpable sense of relief that yesterday's events are behind us and togetherness about going forward.


Leicester Council of Faiths has space in the  marquee, where we set up one of our banners and hand out loads of leaflets. You can get a good look at it in a short video posted by pappukadri on YouTube (listen for Grace's distinctive shoot-out for her brother at 0:38). We have a good spot, near the front and next to the fellow blowing up the helium balloons - but the folk on our stall spend more time tying and tethering balloons than anything else!

I also get out and about with fliers for Leicester Speaks. We're kicking off that week of activities across the city with our launch event on this same spot tomorrow morning.

BBC Radio Leicester covered the event on its website. Links to several examples of media coverage of today can be found on the web page, Uniquely Leicester.


As far as our small contribution to this big event went today, thanks to Barbara, Celia, Lucy (and Harry and Gracie) for helping.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

TODAY'S THE DAY


Today's the day of the demonstration in Leicester city centre by the English Defence League and counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism.


I've been asked to act as a "Single Point of Contact" for Leicester Council of Faiths, receiving hourly emails from Leicestershire Constabulary and frequent tweets from officers on duty today, updating me on the situation. If any urgent information needs to be communicated, it's my duty to pass it on to my contacts in the Council of Faiths. Of course, many of them are involved in this day in their own right. There's a criss-crossing of networks, which should ensure that no one gets left out.


We're taking Harry and Grace out of town today, as we've decided it's best to keep their minds off events in the city centre. Yesterday evening, when the kids were dropped off for the weekend, they could hardly wait to tell me that we have to stay out of town on Saturday afternoon, because something terrible is going to happen. When I asked them what that might be, Harry told me that the word around his school is that Muslims are going to set off a bomb in the city centre. He's indignant about this, to put it mildly. He tells me that he was angry with his schoolmates for saying this, that he knows Muslims, that he knows I work with and for Muslims - and that they're good people, who wouldn't do such a thing ("Would they Dad?") How do these stories get started? That's rich, even for schoolkids.


So we go to a comic book drawing workshop with professional artist Kev F, being held at Countesthorpe College. Kev F Sutherland writes and draws for The Beano, Doctor Who, Match, Marvel Comics, Viz, 2000AD, Funday Times, Red Dwarf and more. He's appeared at Leicester Comedy Festival with the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre. He's full-on, funny and a very entertaining turn. You'd think he'd been engaged specifically to keep all our minds off events in the city centre (though I'm checking my messages regularly of course). We all (children and adults without exception) have to write and draw a page to be included in a comic book that we create today and is printed in the school, so we all get to take away a copy.

FAITHS HAVE BEEN BROUGHT CLOSER

This letter appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Faiths have been brought closer
As a newcomer to Leicester I have been impressed by the way communities get along together, and as the Director of the St Philip's Centre, excited by the togetherness of the faith leaders when they face common concerns.
Today's planned English Defence League (EDL) demonstration has brought us even closer together recognising that an attack on one faith is an attack on all. Our common message is that what the EDL stand for is not welcome here.
In a time of economic pressures on households and public bodies, it is sad to see so much local money having to be spent to protect people and property because the EDL's record is that they cause mayhem wherever they go. Surely, alongside their right to speak and demonstrate comes the responsibility of citizenship. Will the EDL be refunding the hard working tax payers of Leicester?
Failing this, will they at least be respectful, orderly and peaceful when they visit? We shall see.
Tomorrow St Philip's Centre is entering an inter-faith team in the Leicester Marathon for the first time. It is this kind of event which truly reflects our wonderful multi-faith city, not the discordant presence of the EDL.
Canon Dr John Hall, Leicester

Friday, 8 October 2010

MULTI-FAITH PEACE VIGIL IN LEICESTER CATHEDRAL


There’s a major event at Leicester Cathedral early this evening. A multi-faith service and vigil is being held, in advance of the demonstration by the English Defence League (EDL) and counter demonstration by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) in the city centre tomorrow.

Canon Barry Naylor, who has planned the Order of Service and is officiating this evening, asked me to bring in a representative from each of the member communities on Leicester Council of Faiths. Each one would be asked to give a short reading from their scripture or sacred text (lasting no more than a minute). And I should ask them to resist the temptation to speechify when they get behind the microphone.

Even though this had to be done at short notice (doesn't everything these days!) I'm concerned that with hardly five minutes to go, as I enter the Cathedral we don't have a Hindu representative and our Muslim speaker is late. I didn't know if a Jain was going to be able to attend or not, but I'd proposed to our Jain friends that if this were the case, I'd be happy to represent them and read from their scripture. They were content with that, so I was prepared for it. As we're taking our seats, I spot Cllr Rashmikant Joshi come in, so dash over and buttonhole him about doing the Hindu reading. Barely a moment’s thought clouds his face before he accepts. I see Abdulkareem Gheewalla (President of the Islamic Education Trust and Chair of the Indian Muslims Association) speaking with someone in the pews, and when I ask him if he'd come forward as the Muslim speaker, he proposes his young friend, whom I've never met before. He accepts (brave soul) and comes down to the front with me. In the event, our invited Muslim speaker turns up in good time after all, so our substitute has no need to step up.

Early in the service, Barry Naylor asks the representatives to come forward one at a time, bringing with them a length of ribbon (each of a different colour) to be tied to a tall candlestick, then move forward to the lectern and read. First is Eleanor Davison, Humanist Celebrant with Leicester Secular Society. Then Tony Nelson, representing Leicester Hebrew Congregation. Next is Resham Singh Sandhu for Leicester's Sikhs. Then I have the honour of reading on behalf of the Jain community (I stress the principle of non-violence - Ahimsa - which is central to the Jain path and describe the Jain community as being, for most people, the undiscovered jewel among Leicester's faith communities). Dharmavidya David Brazier (in the photo above) is the Buddhist speaker – an impressive sight in his robes. Then Minou Cortazzi, for Leicester Bahá'ís. Sughra Ahmed represents the local Muslim community. Rashmikant Joshi steps into the breach for the Hindus (though you'd never know that he hadn't had any time to prepare). John Hull, Director of the St Philip's Centre is the last speaker, from the Christian perspective.

The oddest feeling of strength and vulnerability (at one and the same time) come to the fore during the singing of the hymn, "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace". I find this a rather odd, subdued number at the best of times, but here it has a genuine  sense of radiant acquiescence about it: not of surrender to ravenous wolves at the door, nor of submission to something inevitable though undesirable, but of some business altogether more mysterious and unfathomable, of strength coming from making oneself vulnerable.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;In giving to all men that we receive;And in dying that we're born to eternal life.

This was a quiet moment of transcendence - perhaps a real "you had to be there" moment, but real none the less. Even so ... I couldn't help but be reminded of those 1950s sci-fi movies (like the Gene Barry version of War of the Worlds) in which the last remnants of humanity unite in prayer at the climax of their crisis while, outside the church, the aliens are gathering to bring about their destruction.

Cllr Manjula Sood (Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths) reads from the Book of Isaiah 2:2-5.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.

Following on from the last lines of that reading, "let us walk in the light of the Lord", we're invited - one and all - to come forward, light a tea candle and place it on the floor in front of the screen, making a carpet of light. Judging by how long it takes to complete this part, very few here turn down the invitation!

Bishop Christopher, Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Leicester, prays for the city:
We thank you for the rich diversity of our city and pray for its unity, and a true desire to pursue the common good. We thank you for all who, in past years, have contributed to the flourishing of this city.
We pray for all involved today, in its governance; may they perceive the needs of those they serve, uphold what is right and do always what is just and noble.
May the people of Leicester work together in the building of a city where all may live safely, all may experience true hospitality, all may have a just share of the blessings you give and all may know and enjoy life in its fullness.
We pray for all who uphold these values, that their hearts and minds may be emboldened and we pray for those who seek to destroy them, that their hearts and minds may be enlightened.
We ask these prayers in your most holy name.
AMEN

This is a beautiful, rare and timely event. I feel privileged to be involved in it, to have played a small part in helping make it work. One might say it's a pity that we have to wait until our harmony and friendship is threatened before we do something like this, but this is really what happens in Leicester every day, writ large right now. Because of the strange circumstances which beset us right now, everything we do is under the microscope, everything that we take for granted in our city is being picked up, turned over and shaken, to see how - or, indeed, if - it works. It's when the things we love are threatened that we realise just how much they mean to us. These are special times, times of heightened awareness, when we realise just how much we mean to each other.

PEACE VIGIL AT CLOCK TOWER


The Clock Tower is the location for a Peace Vigil at 1630, in advance of the demonstration by the English Defence League and counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism in the city centre tomorrow afternoon.


Cllr Manjula Sood, Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths, addresses the crowd (in photo above). You'll see that she's wearing the lime green that has been adopted as the visible expression of the city's united objection to the protest. This colour is much in evidence in the city centre this weekend. In the photo below, Liz Kendall MP (Labour, Leicester West) is in black with the green scarf. Documentary film maker, Lucy Bianca Peel, is on the far right (of the photo, not politically!)


The vigil has been organised by Hope Not Hate. You can read Nick Lowles' blog post about it. Photos by Citizens' Eye Community News Agency, used here with permission.

return of the karma police


A couple of weeks ago, BBC Radio Leicester asked me to provide a member of the Council of Faiths to come into their studio for a live interview at eight o'clock on the Monday morning. I prevailed upon our Chair, Manjula, to do it, even though she protested it was too early for her.

This afternoon, Peter Bradley (of Speakers' Corner Trust), sends me a message to say that BBC Radio Leicester has asked him to be in their studio for a live interview about Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week), 0730 this coming Monday. He told them that they'd be better off interviewing me. Wouldn't that be so?

'Nuff said!

Council of Faiths statement re 9 October

Almost as soon as it was announced publicly that the English Defence League was going to be mounting a demonstration in Leicester, the Council of Faiths went public with a response. In the Leicester Mercury, 8 September, our Chair, Manjula Sood, was quoted as saying,
We saw what happened in Bradford and we don't want the same thing here in Leicester.
We have built a reputation of community cohesion. We are not perfect but other cities look to us as an example of cohesion and we don't want to damage that.
Anything which disrupts the harmony of the city is not welcome - and that includes extremism in all its forms.
However, a lot has been said since then. Over the past week or so, an increasing number of community-led organisations in Leicester have been issuing public statements ahead of the demonstration by the English Defence League (EDL) and counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) in the city centre tomorrow (Saturday 9 October). We woouldn't want to make it look as if we have nothing to say on the matter, so we've produced a formal statement of our own. The text, which was sent to our contacts Leicester City Council, Leicestershire County Council and the Leicester Mercury this afternoon for wider distribution, reads as follows:

"WE HAVE FAITH IN LEICESTER!"
A statement by Leicester Council of Faiths
Friday 8 October 2010

Since its formation in 1986, Leicester Council of Faiths has worked to promote trust, understanding and co-operation among the city’s faith communities. It is recognised as a key player in establishing, maintaining and promoting Leicester as a place where people of different religions and beliefs co-exist peacefully. Leicester Council of Faiths works alongside other groups and organisations which encourage mutual respect, community cohesion and a world-embracing vision. It has long been a leader in informing, consulting and engaging civic institutions, local authorities and service providers on issues affecting the faith communities, as well as offering support and inspiration to our city’s ongoing regeneration. Its members include representatives of Leicester’s Bahá'ís, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.

As we approach our twenty-fifth anniversary, it becomes clear that the spirit of mutual support among our faith communities is lively, robust and strong – particularly in the face of the challenges currently facing our city. Leicester Council of Faiths presents a united voice in expressing our opposition to any attempts to spoil the good relations enjoyed by the diverse communities who go to make up our “One Leicester”. We see an injury to one as an injury to all. Likewise, we are committed to joining our fellow citizens in a collective effort to heal the wounds caused by bigotry, intolerance and prejudice – from whatever source they may come.

We express our confidence in Leicester City Council and in Leicestershire Constabulary to keep the streets of Leicester safe and the people of Leicester secure this weekend. We urge members of Leicester’s faith communities to carry on with their normal lives as much as possible and not to join in confrontational activities. Better to let this pass, then return to business as usual. The Council of Faiths will be joining in the city centre celebrations on Sunday tenth, then playing an active role in Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week) beginning Monday eleventh October. These are the kind of activities that show Leicester at its best; we’ll gladly put our energy into them.

Councillor Manjula P Sood MBE
Chair, Leicester Council of Faiths

LEICESTER SPEAKS: FAITH COMMUNITY DIALOGUES

As its contribution to Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week), Leicester Council of Faiths is presenting a series of dialogues, involving each of our member faith communities. But there’s a twist! These meetings match up groups who don’t normally get the opportunity to speak in public, so we’ll experience some new and different sorts of encounters, in which new things will be said by new people.

Each speaker will address the topic, “What does our community bring to the city of Leicester?” A ten minute presentation by each speaker will be followed by the chance to respond to questions.

The intention is that the meetings will be small in scale, friendly in tone, informal, positive and mutually supportive. These are not meant to be arguments over contentious issues or academic debates about competing truth claims. We’ll have the chance to break down old barriers, build new bridges, make new friends. Meetings are open to anyone, from any background. To listen to some views we may not have heard before and to chat with people who may not have heard us.
Tue 12 Oct, 1400-1500, Jain / Sikh dialogue at Leicester Adult Education College, Wellington Street, Leicester LE1 6HL

Wed 13 Oct, 1100-1200, Bahá'í / Christian dialogue at the Welcome Centre, Pilgrim House, 10 Bishop Street, Town Hall Square, Leicester LE1 6AF

Thu 14 Oct, 1400-1500, Buddhist / Muslim dialogue at the Welcome Centre

Fri 15 Oct, 1100-1200, Hindu / Jewish dialogue at Phoenix Square Film & Digital Media Centre (Screen Room), 4 Midland Street, Leicester LE1 1TG


We're especially encouraging people not just to attend the meeting in which a speaker from their own community is involved, but to go along to another one too. It's the chance to learn something new and do something different.

LEICESTER SPEAKS (8)

Our final planning meeting for Leicester Speaks this morning, at the Adult Education College. Our group today consists of Jitin (TouchRainbow Productions), Tina Barton (Lead Mentor, Leicester Wave and manager of Leicester City Council's Children's Council), Parmjit Basra (Project Officer, Leicester City Council Adult Skills and Learning Services), Max Boden (Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce), Irene Kszyk (Head of Equalities, Leicester City Council), Kate Merrett (Office and Projects Manager, LeicestHer Day Trust), Chris Minter (Head of Leicester City Council Adult Skills and Learning Services).


We discuss the launch event in some detail (including matters of security, health and safety). We're on to the nitty gritty detail now, such as how to get canisters of helium from One Stop Promotions at the top of Granby Street down to the site of the launch event in Humberstone Gate. And our search for a celebrity to appear on stage may have borne fruit - but if what we're hearing this morning is true, then it'll make our launch the most surreal thing seen in Leicester for many a long day! I can't believe Parmjit is reporting this to us with a straight face. We also consider the ever-increasing variety of events on offer throughout the week. There's a very upbeat mood and a sense that we're raring to to get going!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Leicester Speaks (7)

Out and about this lunchtime with a clutch of flyers for Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week). I haven't seen many of these around town, so I leave as many of them as I reasonably can in prominent public places: Crumblin' Cookie; Curve; Fabrika Independent Arts Centre; LCB Depot; Phoenix Square (where there's a handful already, probably from the bunch I gave John Coster yesterday at the Welcome Centre); Tourist Information Centre. I note that the flyers have the magic lime green colour on the front that's suddenly and temporarily fashionable in Leicester. Well, as they say, every little helps (and no - I didn't take any into Tesco!)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Philosophy in the Pub (4)

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which means it's the regular meeting of Philosophy in the Pub (PIPs) at the Swan and Rushes, Infirmary Square. A decent-sized group (seven) this evening, we are given as our stimulus a letter that appeared in the Leicester Mercury yesterday about the demonstration by the English Defence League and counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism this coming Saturday in Leicester. Not sure whether this works or not. For the first time in all the months we've been doing this, I'm wary of talking about this issue in public. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that some other patron in the bar might come by and tip a pint over someone's head during our discussion. We normally have a good few laughs in these sessions, but there are precious few on offer tonight.

Allan and Mike are here from the Secular Society. Mike's the one liaising with the Police about Saturday's events. How ironic that this demonstration, arising from protests against supposed Islamic extremism, will be taking place virtually on the doorstep of Secular Hall - the first venue of its kind in the world, a living monument to the necessity of free speech, but which will be boarded up for its own safety come Saturday.

the next (and final?) Census


Meeting this afternoon at the Welcome Centre with Khudeja Amer-Sharif (photo above), 2011 Census Community Advisor. The next national Census will be held on Sunday 27 March 2011 - and there's talk that it might be the last of its kind. The Coalition Government has floated the prospect of killing off the Census and obtaining information it needs from existing agencies and databases, such as credit rating agencies. The first Census in this country was carried out in 1801 and since then has been held at regular ten-yearly (decennial) intervals. The only exception to this was in 1941, when it was abandoned due to World War II.

Khudeja has been commissioned to find ways of improving the response of the Indian community in Leicester and Leicestershire to the Census when it comes round again. In 2001, this community was one which didn't participate in the Census to its fullest extent (so much so that I've heard it said that one segment within the Indian community in the city might be as much as twice the size recorded in the Census).

For the Council of Faiths in general - and for my post in particular - accurate, up-to-date information about the size, distribution and status of faith communities is essential for many reasons that I'm sure need no explanation.

As well as helping find ways for the Indian community to participate in the Census, we can find other ways for it to have a positive impact locally. The Census has created 35,000 temporary jobs nationally. There was an under-representation among those who filled these posts in 2001 of Indian people, so Khudeja wants to find ways to encourage the Indian community to apply for some of these. So we're looking for ways to publicise the importance of the Census and the availability of these jobs that come with it. Khudeja is interested in getting the chance to speak to our members, as well as organising such activities as "Completion Events" (for those who might be having difficulties filling out their Census forms) in places of worship and community centres for a week or so after the date of the Census.

I provide Khudeja with some contacts, including: Highcross; Oadby & Wigston Hindu Community; Oadby & Wigston Muslim Association; Wesley Hall. What she'd really like is a public endorsement from Leicester Council of Faiths, which would look good in the Mercury with a photograph featuring a Hindu, Muslim and Sikh face. Sounds like the kind of thing we'd be glad to arrange - but after 9 October, as much of our normal work is pretty much on hold till then!

Khudeja is featured on "Faces of the Census":
http://2011mc.census.gov.uk/Faces_of_the_Census.pdf

Leicester Speaks (6)

Short but productive meeting this afternoon at the Welcome Centre with John Coster of Citizens' Eye Community News Agency, regarding Leicester Speaks (AKA Local Democracy Week). John and I have been appointed Joint Chairs of this week-long event. He wasn't able to attend either of the recent planning meetings where we've discussed the launch event and the roles of the Joint Chairs. We talk about this now and come up with a joint plan of action - which largely amounts to "Roll with it"!