By Andrew Smith
In recent years the idea of people from different faiths entering into dialogue has gained momentum around the world and now draws in people of all faiths (and sometimes none) as well as people from different denominations and traditions. We’re used to the arguments that dialogue promotes understanding and peace, enables an honest telling of one’s faith story and enables different faiths to work together for the common good. Whilst, clearly, not everyone has bought into this agenda, the breadth and depth of engagement now compared with a decade ago is extraordinary.
My work in the UK, and to a limited extent with people from Lebanon, has in the main been with young people aged 13-18. Having just stated that the diversity of people engaged in interfaith work has grown, the under 18’s is a group that is still almost entirely unrepresented. Since 2000 we have run events for this age group and in 2008 set up an organisation called The Feast that works exclusively with the under 20’s and predominantly with the under 18’s.
When recruiting for events with this age group one has to, not only appeal to the young people, but also reassure and get permission from parents, church and Mosque leaders and other influential adults. Invariably they have questions about what will happen or what our motives are. These questions are often a variation on any one of the following: Will there be halal food? Why can’t they do evangelism when they are there? Will there be boys and girls present? Won’t it confuse them?
These may be questions you would have if your child wanted to take part in such an activity. But what I find quite interesting is that they are all looking for reassurance. Essentially parents want to know if their children will be safe, if their needs will be catered for and if they’ll come home basically the same as when they went. Yet in all the years I have undertaken this work no one has asked what the benefits of coming along will be. What will their young people miss out on if they don’t come? Until recently, if someone had asked this, I would have said all the usual things listed at the start of this post. I’d have mentioned understanding and building a better world (with some parents I’d have used language about building the Kingdom of God). But talking to young people about their experience of meeting people of a different faith on a regular basis has produced some surprising results, and given me a new set of answers.
One of the joys of this work is seeing young people not just gaining understanding but overcoming a very real nervousness or even fear of meeting someone from a different faith and culture. For some who come along it’s a huge step to take to be willing to spend time with people from a different faith. The nature of the work means that we spend time on breaking down barriers between groups so that the young people feel comfortable being in the group and then have confidence to speak about their faith and listen to the faith stories of others.
Coming to a dialogue event requires for many, courage to go into an unknown situation, boldness to speak to people they haven’t met before, confidence to tell their own faith story, willingness to listen to others even when they disagree and an openness to new ideas and the possibilities of working together. Many of the young people we work with would not see themselves in this way which is why coming along is such a significant step for them. This is why we spend so long building up trust with the young people and their leaders before the event in order that they have the confidence to participate.
Having stepped out and been willing to engage in this way. We are finding that the skills and attitudes required for good dialogue are being transferred into other areas of their lives. We hear young people say that they are more confident to meet people different to themselves or to speak up in group discussions. Others have gone on to speak in front of their schools for the first time. We are also hearing how the behaviour of some young people is better at school as a result of going through this process of learning to listen and have their own faith story taken seriously. Dialogue, it would seem, is not just for people of faith to have an interesting time, but has the potential to give people skills and attitudes that will benefit them and wider society whatever context they are in.
But is it still too confusing? According to the young people we work with it actually affirms their faith. Being in a place where they are encouraged to identify publicly with their faith and to tell their faith story to people who are interested and uncritical is both affirming and confidence building. Hearing the stories of others in fact makes people go back and re-look at their faith. Many church leaders are telling us that this is a good discipleship exercise, giving their young people a new confidence in their faith whilst maintaining openness to others.
So perhaps we need to start seeing dialogue as more than just a useful discussion or a way to get things done in the community, but also as a way of building the skills and attitudes we need to negotiate a world where we constantly have to live with difference and disagreement.