This evening is the first in a new series of publicly advertised meetings, open to the general public, that we've been hoping to get under way for several months.
For 25 years now, Leicester Council of Faiths has been working to promote trust, understanding and cooperation among the city's faith communities. Much of this has taken place quietly and effectively behind the scenes, depending on personal networks and connections between individuals built up over long periods. Recently, however, we've come to enjoy a higher public profile, reaching out to cooperate with the various communities, cultures, religions and traditions of Leicester, with the Voluntary and Community Sector, with students and teachers, with those promoting the regeneration of the city through public service or private enterprise - with members of the public, whatever their religion or belief.
In 2012 we hope to be working even more openly and inclusively, focusing the distinctive and diverse strengths of the city's faith communities on matters of common interest to the people of Leicester.
We're delighted that City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby has accepted our invitation to be guest of honour at this first one.
This meeting has been on the cards for some time before the English Defence League applied to march through Leicester city centre this Saturday (4 February). Despite this being the case, we can't deny that this subject will come up this evening - and that some of those attending are coming to hear and talk about that topic over and above anything else. Indeed, we have a reporter from the Leicester Mercury with us this evening, whose primary interest is in what may be said about the demonstrations on Saturday. Normally, we can't get coverage for our activities in the Leicester Mercury for love nor money.
We were hoping for an audience of 40 or so this evening. I stop counting at 75, although people were still arriving. A reliable source after the meeting tells me that there were 84, a figure arrived at by counting the chairs after the meeting (everyone had a seat and there were no empty seats). In mentioning the event two days later, the Mercury stated that there were 100 people here.
Our eight member faith communities (Bahá'ís, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs) are strongly represented here. People from other communities of religion or belief, not formally associated with Leicester Council of Faiths, identify and introduce themselves: Brahma Kumaris, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Pagan, Secular Humanist.
Following a shared moment of silent reflection, Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths Cllr Manjula Sood opens proceedings. She begins by reminding us that this is the 25th anniversary of Leicester Council of Faiths, harking back to its foundation in 1986, under the direction of Cllr Janet Setchfield, who was Lord Mayor of the city at that time (a position that Cllr Sood herself filled in 2008-9, when she became the first Asian woman to be Lord Mayor of an English city).
Vice-Chair Fayyaz Suleman moves the meeting along, offering evidence of the involvement of faith communities in wider society (since that’s the sort of thing that we wanted this meeting to focus on). I've provided him with one headline activity from each of our member faith communities:
Baha’is The smallest member community on the Council of Faiths has run a Sunday morning club for underprivileged children at Northfields Community Centre, using arts, sport and fun activities to help nurture moral values.
Buddhists The Amida Trust has, for several years, run a Monday drop-in group for adults at the Methodist Church in Bishop Street.
Christians The Street Pastors initiative has helped preserve the health, safety, well-being and dignity of young people enjoying the city centre’s night-time economy at weekends.
Hindus Across the city, many Hindu families are actively involved in health promotion activities, aimed at changing lifestyle choices of South Asian communities.
Jains The Jain Centre on Oxford Street, one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, hosted a national conference for RE teachers: Sacred Spaces Inside Out, Learning Outside the Classroom.
Jews Leading in the city’s commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, working with young people in schools and colleges to promote the message of tolerance of compassion.
Muslims The Flashmob Iftar helped feed many homeless and vulnerably housed people during the holy month of Ramadan, an initiative continued throughout the year through “Picnic in the Park” and “Eat and Meet” projects.
Sikhs The Sikh tradition of hospitality as expressed in the langar (The Guru’s Kitchen) which we’ve experienced here this evening means that large numbers of citizens of Leicester who are not themselves Sikhs know that they can come to one of the gurdwaras for hot food when they can’t provide for themselves.
The first question (asked by an elderly Sikh gentleman) rather takes everyone by surprise - but pleasantly so. It goes some way toward setting the tone for what follows:
- "Should Leicester Council of Faiths take steps to improve the local environment, in particular by planting trees?"
- "What can be done to integrate the growing influx of students more effectively into general community?"
- "What can Leicester City Council do to increase the availability of social housing and reduce the waiting list for occupancy?"
- "Is it really necessary for Leicester City Council to raise charges for burial and cremation to the extent that they have?"
- "How can faith communities engage more effectively with Leicester City Council's policies and strategies on mental health?"
- "How can faith communities engage better with Leicester City Council's policies and strategies on domestic violence?"
- "Can the City Council or City Mayor do anything to bring empty buildings in Leicester city centre into active community use?"
- "How can it be ensured that the growing number of Free Schools & Faith Schools doesn't increase cultural, geographical and social divisions in Leicester?"
It's not just people speaking from the background of religion or belief who get up and speak. We also hear contributions from who identify themselves with organisations such as Leicester City Council, Leicestershire County Council, LOROS, Midlands Dialogue Forum, Rushymead Foundation, Schools Development Support Agency, University of Leicester. Rather than ask him to prepare a formal speech, we've invited the Mayor to participate in a more off-the-cuff manner, responding to points from the floor as he sees fit. This helps promote a comfortable, informal atmosphere. Inspector Rich Keenan of Leicestershire Police speaks about proposed events in Leicester city centre this coming Saturday. Rich has a lively awareness, engagement and interest in religious and cultural affairs in the city and regularly attends occasions such as the Faith Leaders Forum. He tells the meeting how he trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood, qualified as an RE teacher and taught within a Jesuit setting before joining the police.
Our Vice-Chair closes the meeting by inviting all attending this evening to come to the multi-faith vigil at Leicester Cathedral on Friday. There's a vote of thanks to Gur Panth Parkash Gurdwara for making us welcome this evening - and to Gursharan Kaur Thandi for taking the lead in organising this event.