Sunday, 23 September 2012


Today Leicester Council of Faiths is hosting a visit to the city by our counterparts from Peterborough. Their party of 31 (including seven children) arrives an hour late due to circumstances beyond their control, as their coach has broken down not long after setting off, and they've had to wait for a replacement one to turn up.

In the photo above, Rosemarie Fitton and Narendra Waghela (both members of Leicester Council of Faiths) await the arrival of our visitors at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Gipsy Lane. Narendra represents the local Swaminarayan community on our Council of Faiths and often acts as guide to visitors here at the Mandir. Rosemarie is Senior Lecturer in Interior Design at De Montfort University, her specialism being sacred spaces in public places (that's not what it's called officially, but I made up that diescriptionand I'm going to keep using it). Rosemarie's company, Heterarchy, designed the interior of the Mandir. She's on hand to speak to our visitors today about the work Heterarchy has done in this site - and both she and I will be accompanying the Peterborough group on the other stages of their visit.

Stage 1: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

As the Peterborough group arrive an hour late, it's more of a speedy dash through the Mandir than we would have liked. Still there's time to take in some of its many pleasures and treasures and to whet the appetite for a return visit.

Stage 2: Masjid Umar, Evington Lane

Despite having lived in the area for a couple of years, I've never set foot inside Masjid Umar before today. We arrive just in time to observe worshippers taking part in afternoon prayer. By a happy coincidence, Fayyaz Suleman, Vice-Chair of Leicester Council of Faiths, is among the congregation today. He joins us for a Q&A session, responding to comments and questions from some of the visitors.

Stage 3: Jain Centre

Our final stop is the Jain Centre on Oxford Street. We arrive just at the end of a major event in the Centre, as the community has come together to celebrate the end of Paryushana, an eight-day period of fasting and one of the two most sacred periods in the Jain calendar. Smita Shah, past President of Jain Samaj Europe and a Director of Leicester Council of Faiths, shepherds the group round the centre (see photo above). I'm glad of the chance to meet some members of the Institute of Jainology, who are demonstrating their online resource, Jainipedia - and we're all glad to end the day by sharing in a vegetarian meal here, provided through the generosity of the Jain community. In the photo below, Smita Shah is talking with Jaspal Singh, Chair of Peterborough Inter-faith Council.

It would be remiss of me to end this blog post without mentioning a few things I noticed about this Peterborough group that distinguish it from ours here in Leicester.

Firstly, the size of the group: 31 is an impressive number, but even then their Chair, Jaspal Singh, informs me that there were would have been even more of them, if it were not for the fact that their local Buddhist and Jewish communities are involved in events of their own today, so have been unable to come along. A fortnight ago, we struggled to fill a minibus with less than half that number on our annual Peace Visit to three places of worship: and only three actual members of Leicester Council of Faiths were amongst that number.

Secondly, the composition of the visiting group: this was certainly different from any lineup that we could have drummed up from our membership. There were children present - seven of them. The only kids that show up at anything organised by Leicester Council of Faiths are mine! Once you subtract the children from the total number of visitors (leaving 24), a third or so of the adult members of the group were young people, of typical student age. Leicester Council of Faiths has long experienced difficulty in engaging young people in our activities (so much so, that we've recently been toying with the idea of appointing a volunteer position of Young People's Champion to try and get some movement on this issue). The Peterborough group had five Nepalese people, none of whom could speak English (one of the main group translated into Urdu, and one of the Nepalese women translated for their group from that).

Thirdly, membership and structure: Peterborough Inter-faith Council seems a looser and less formal entity than Leicester Council of Faiths - even, it might be said, less hierarchical and rigid. As far as I can see from today's visit and from the contacts leading up to it, the Peterborough group doesn't seem to have issues about who is there to represent local faith communities. The group appears to be made up of a diverse membership of people, brought together by their interest in finding out more about what other religions stand for and how their followers live. However, it might be fairer and more accurate to compare Peterborough Inter-faith Council with something like Dr Russell's Interfaith group in Leicester. Our more formal, more representative nature may be the key to opening doors for engagement with local authorities, service providers, schools, colleges and universities. Although it often gives cause for complaint, it may be the very thing that elevates Leicester Council of Faiths to the position where it can actually do some good for the city as a whole. It's horses for courses, innit?

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