Any language learner will know that language mirrors culture and often reveals the values which underpin the life of a group. I had a fresh insight of this when I wrote in my Arabic homework book: “ my neighbourhood is friendly.”
In correcting my work, my teacher explained that the adjective friendly isn’t needed in the Arabic because the word neighbour /neighbourhood implies friendliness within it. So the concept of a neighbourhood as unfriendly is an oxymoron in the Arabic…Neighbours are to be known, to share life’s ups and downs with, to work together with and for the sake of each other. Neighbours are ‘friendly’ by definition.
A recent blog challenges those of us who work and engage in diverse, multi-faith and multi-ethnic neighbourhoods to consider whether and how we can create safe spaces where the other is welcomed, categories forgotten and they become known as the person they are. There’s a question, too about the role of bridge building that enables meeting across differences. https://whenwomenspeak.net/blog/a-line-in-the-sand-or-a-bridge/
It’s all too easy for a church community to take a paternalistic approach when imagining the activities they might “put on” for people in the neighbourhood. One of the ways I have been thinking about is how we move from “working for” to encourage a “working with.”
A church-led refugee drop-in which serves a weekly meal to their (Muslim) clients chooses to buy their meat from the Madina halal butcher’s shop across the road. Within a month the butcher offers to sell the meat half- price as his sadaqah[i] for those in need.
A city-wide Sudanese women’s association needs a venue for their weekly gatherings. The church offers a room with refreshment-making facilities at minimal rate to the group. They try us out and the group grows rapidly: “people feel safe here.” They arrange their own programme of information, advice and guidance given to their group members through inviting health, education and employment representatives to come and speak to them. Some of the women take up the additional offer of attending a Prophets’ Stories dialogue group which opens up the possibility of on-going faith conversations. When, in 2015, there is a serious national terror attack and once again there are spates of Islamophobia in our newspapers and on our streets, one of the women leaders expresses the deep sense of security she feels in that “We know you and you know us and can vouch for us and that gives us confidence.”
A Somali woman who works as a cleaner at the local church community centre asks whether money can be raised for the drought ravaging her country. We provide the community space but we work together on planning, preparing and putting on the event. There are some misunderstandings as to who will arrange, pay, cook or advertise but we work through them together. The result is a true community event, the centre bursting at the seams, all enjoying a vibrant, cultural evening of food and fun which also raises £600 for the cause..
It occurs to me that praxis[ii], in this context, involves an element of risk for both parties: the meeting people on the margins; the possibility of rejection; the crossing over borders/boundaries of experience and ideas; the stretching beyond one’s own horizons hitherto met; the reaching forward to the possible/projected future – which attempts to inspire new ways of thinking, doing and of being. This is not simply action based on ideas, theory or even reflection. It is action which embodies certain qualities.
What might these qualities be, I wonder, in this place of cultural, faith and economic diversity in which I engage? Respect for others; Empathy; Hospitality of space, conversation and spirit, which reaches beyond the comfortable and the known; Humility borne out of a willingness to be vulnerable; and a Commitment to be consistently holding out Hope for all.
Some within the church community would wonder that there is no spiritual input being insisted on into the Sudanese women’s group that meets. I find myself talking with another about how to use the opportunity of hosting this group for Kingdom purposes before I pause to remind myself that Jesus was always the guest. In the homes of Peter and Jairus, Martha and Mary, Joanna and Susanna, he was always the guest[iii]. What might it be like for me to attend the group as guest? To join in with their conversation rather than lead with mine? To be open to them asking me questions rather than me asking them? To see where the Spirit takes us, together?
Working with rather than for my Somali friend on the fund raising evening involved several points of quite significant mis-communication, and correcting of assumptions made by us both. At times it was tricky and it certainly felt that it would have been easier, more time efficient and much less stressful to have arranged it for the community rather than with. However, in doing that I would have missed the opportunity to see the strength of ties of family and relationship networks within which my friend operates. What, in my eyes, were chaotic and “just in time” arrangements wove themselves into a beautiful result where more and more people were invited to participate and acts of huge generosity were shown not only in monetary terms but in either cooking, serving or washing up. The community space which we offered became theirs, too.
Working together as partners in activities enables inclusion, allows people to contribute their own gifts and brings about a deeper, more connected sense of belonging and commitment to each other as neighbours. Could this building of bridges across faith and ethnic divides, the breaking down of barriers the world would want to insist on, the possibilities for transformation which these connections trail be part of the vision Jesus cast for us when he urged us to Love God and love your neighbour?
[i] Sadaqh – an Islamic concept of charitable giving
[ii] Praxis – the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. “Praxis” may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas.
[iii] From Wild Goose liturgy.
© When Women Speak … September 2021
Miriam Williams: Miriam has settled in the UK but has a long experience of cross-cultural living and interaction in a range of contexts. Knowledge gained from these experiences have been brought to bear on her current work and interest in enabling faith conversations between Muslim and Christian women at grass-roots level. She is passionate about seeking to ensure inclusion and accessibility to the things that matter so that transformative spaces are open to all; and sees links here to the way we do discipling.