Faith without frontiers
by Alastair Ballentyne
As part of my continuing mission to explore the diverse melting pot that is Leicester, I have inevitably come to a part of our community that is rarely discussed and often considered taboo - faith groups.
In recent times, religion has garnered a bad reputation partially through attempts to legitimise war and unpopular foreign policy.
There is an as-yet unexplored gulf between religion, belief and blind faith and in this day and age I believe it is important to question which one of these terms most accurately refers to the code of conduct by which believers live.
It’s interesting that something that has been part of civilisation for thousands of years has become such a taboo in the sensationalist times we live in, but then a person’s beliefs should never become their social bracket. I am more interested in what people in the ‘faith communities’ are doing to help improve the quality of life for the wider community as a whole.
To fairly represent this I met with two individuals - Pastor Samuel Gapara, founder of the Emmanuel Apostolic Gospel Choir who are currently based at DMU and my father, George Ballentyne the equality and diversity officer of Leicester’s Council of Faiths. Both of their organisations are different but ultimately their common goal is to assist in sustaining healthy relationships between all citizens of Leicester, and keep the people of the city well-informed about the diverse society they are part of.
The Emmanuel Apostolic Gospel choir began by chance when Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East visited Aylestone leisure centre. He stumbled upon Pastor Samuel holding a service there, as he and his compatriots don’t currently have a church building of their own. Vaz’s mission was to find singers for his mother’s funeral and asked if the congregation could provide the voices he was looking for. As a result they started rehearsing as a choir. They remained on good terms with Vaz after performing at his mother’s funeral, and he has since invited them to sing at different functions for dignitaries and celebrities such as Ed Milliband, Cherie Blair and Jackie Chan! After this the choir members embarked on community projects to help people who had fallen into prostitution and drug addiction.
The choir is open to people of all ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds and by Pastor Samuel’s own admission he feels that religion can segregate people and wants the choir to transcend this boundary. As testament to this he told me about how they once had a member of the Hindu community playing Tabla to add a different musical dimension instead of it being religiously motivated.
Ultimately the choir experience is about more than just religion – it is to maximise happiness and enjoyment in people’s lives rather than the beliefs that may govern them.
Of course part of the choir’s purpose is to spread the message of belief but Pastor Samuel feels that if people are introduced to faith groups in this way, then it allows them to maintain an open mind and form an unbiased opinion of their work.
Being based at DMU, Pastor Samuel feels that universities are key to the development of the choir and DMU has allowed them to use campus facilities to provide educational resources to disadvantaged individuals. During our conversation he placed emphasis on the importance of receiving good quality education, which unfortunately in this day and age is still not available to all.
The choir have been engaged in many fundraising activities and have been known to sing late into the night in the city centre at the weekends as they wish to raise enough money to build a church. Their vision is that it will be a beacon to those in need regardless of their background. The church will be open 24/7 (Pastor Samuel stressed that the building will never be locked) for anyone who needs a place to go regardless of their circumstances. It will also house recording studios and classrooms for tuition in subjects ranging from the academic to the artistic. This is of the utmost importance, as the Pastor explained that people from different ethnic backgrounds might find it hard to attend higher education institutions and their educational needs are not always adequately met.
Whatever your preconceptions of a gospel choir may be, it is impossible to deny that they are working to improve the quality of life and facilities available for individuals living in the community. Their work is not just Leicester-based; I was informed that they have members working far afield as Zimbabwe, Ghana and Jamaica. They are operating on a scale that most local philanthropic organisations could only dream of.
As Leicester is a city of multi-faith, I felt it necessary to discuss the work of the Leicester Council of Faiths, which is currently celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary and is a very important, yet often unsung local organisation. It doesn’t make interfaith events happen or claim credit for such events but it provides a public face for activities that might normally go under the radar. It is made up of community leaders from each of the different faith communities (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Baha’i’s). It brings together and encourages interaction of the different faith communities to promote a peaceful co-existence; it also helps bring together white British culture with modern Asian culture and within that bringing Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs together. It also importantly acknowledges the differences within the different religions as people too often put all members of a faith under one umbrella without regard for their cultural differences.
Leicester is one of the most diverse European cities and that is something to be celebrated. The Council of Faiths promotes the idea that everyone is human with different hopes and ideas that can transcend cultural boundaries.
It is also interesting that people of Leicester are happy to partake in different cultural festivals such as the Mela, Divali and the St George’s day regardless of their heritage. It is as if they are able to do this because they share a common ‘spiritual heritage’ just by being from Leicester.
Last year, the EDL cast a dark shadow over Leicester’s proud multi-faith community when they descended on the city. It brought people from different backgrounds together as a community because they love and value Leicester’s multiculturalism and united when it came under threat. There was a rather touching "peace vigil" in the cathedral the night before the march where people from all faith communities gave readings from all manner of religious texts. So well attended was the vigil, there was only room to stand. Over the past three years the Council of Faiths has held an exhibition in the Highcross shopping centre with the main purpose being to present a ‘fuller and accurate’ understanding of faiths in the city. The exhibition takes place as part of ‘Interfaith week’, which ran from November 20-26. It is an important event in the local calendar as people seem to be wary of interfaith dialogue but as the exhibit is manned by a constantly changing group of people from different communities, it is a change to see cross-cultural cohesion in action and allows people to find out more about what each religion is about. Although the work of the Council of Faiths is important for the community, it is run on a shoestring budget and is the only organisation of its kind in Leicester.
It is important not to write off the faith communities’ efforts in our perceptions; their work in developing the resources available to all of us is invaluable. Groups like the Emmanuel Apostolic Gospel Choir are more honest and committed to their aims than a lot of groups offering some similar services that are nothing more than self-styled professional time wasters. The Council of Faiths is important because it campaigns for social issues such as better healthcare and provides a platform for people’s voices to be heard and encourages multi faith dialogue by engaging directly with the city as a whole.