Fear, Friendship and the Fellowship
Do we really need interfaith work in the UK? As I look back on my year as a Faiths Act Fellow in the UK I have not worked amongst ‘real’ religious conflict. People here aren’t physically fighting over their beliefs and the immediate need for interfaith work might be difficult to see. But in the UK I feel there is an increasing sense of misunderstanding, “Us vs. Them” dichotomies flared by Nationalist groups or otherwise. The need for interfaith work stems from poor religious literacy and a lack of balanced religious views in the British media but I think most of all, it has a lot to do with fear.
Since I’m no psychologist, I turned to the internet (thank you Jimmy Wales, friend of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and founder of Wikipedia) to research. Fear can be described as a “distressing negative sensation induced by a perceived threat.” In its most base form, fear manifests as a decisions between confront or flea, fight of flight. But as humans have developed, this base reaction seems to have developed. We’re no longer fearful of being eaten by dinosaurs or chased by wild beasts. We are no longer fearful of the land beyond the horizon, rather fear in 21st century Britain has manifested in our perception of difference. Who are the strangers next door who dress strangely, speak another language, eat odd things and pray in an unfamiliar way? We fear what is different. We fear ‘The Other’.
No matter how liberal a worldview I claim to have, I confess that these kind of fears creep into my subconscious from time to time. And being part of the Fellowship has regularly pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. But in engaging with people who are “not like me” my comfort zone has significantly widened. As such, the year has taught me two valuable life lessons which I’ll take with me well beyond the Fellowship year. First of all I have confirmed what I always suspected; those people who are “not like me” are actually a lot more like me than perhaps first thought. Second, when I confront ‘The Other’, when I am open-minded and engage in reciprocal learning, I am able to learn so much more about the beauty of the world and to learn so much more about myself than when I stay in my safe little bubble.
Interacting, working with and growing in deep friendship with people of other faiths this year has strengthened my own faith. Through discussing worship and actually praying together with other Fellows, my own practices have been transformed and deepened. By observing the example of others I have been forced to reflect on the intersection between my beliefs and actions, one practical example of this is that I decided to stop eating meat this year. And through working with people of other faiths I have confirmed that my passions lie in improving my religious literacy and building a career within the interfaith sector.
And so friends I warmly encourage you to meet a Muslim, befriend a Buddhist and hug a Hindu! But my experience goes well beyond these fluffy stereotypes of interfaith work. This year I have dived out of my comfort zone. And in doing so, I’ve made some of the most wonderful, inspiring and life-changing friendships I might ever know.