The challenge of interfaith dialogue and interaction has at its heart a number of important implications for Australia’s communities.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that head of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Sitting with the Rev. Manas Ghosh, minister of St David’s Uniting Church, Lindfield, conversation turns easily and readily to matters of interfaith encounter.
“You know, we studied Tagore right from primary school. He was mainly a poet but also a polymath and was the first Asian recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This poem is great motivation for me to be involved in interfaith dialogue.”
Taking seriously his ministry of reconciliation has led Mr Ghosh to locate himself at the heart of points of “fragmentation”.
An obvious example of one such point can be found at the division caused by misunderstanding between the faiths. Working to build understanding between the various world religions has been a lifelong passion.
Born and raised in India, Mr Ghosh was truly immersed in a kaleidoscope of religious practice. This is something that he views as a great privilege.
Neighbours and friends were Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, Jewish and Zoroastrian. Mr Ghosh and his family shared Christmas and Easter with the community and the family in turn experienced the joy of Diwali, Vesak and Eid through the celebrations of their friends and neighbours.
Having the opportunity to mix with people from all different backgrounds, both cultural and religious, provided ample foundation for reflecting on his own beliefs and practice.
“With interfaith work, that’s the great thing about being born in India… It’s there, you breathe it. It’s your everyday life. You rub shoulders with people of all faiths. You know them, you understand them and you really don’t find a difference.”
In India, plurality was the norm. It would make sense, then, that in Australia Mr Ghosh would seek to continue his journey of encounter and discovery with people of other faiths and he has always found motivation for this journey in the Christian imperative to “love thy neighbour”.
“And really, when you have the courage to begin talking about matters of faith with people of other religions, you find that, while of course there are differences, and important differences, there are also reciprocal teachings.
“If I respect your religion and you respect mine, we will find the warmth of friendship just as we would among people of our own respective religions and hopefully find a greater understanding of each other, and of ourselves.”
When Mr Ghosh became a minister in the Uniting Church, he found that provided him with further opportunities to deepen his interfaith work.
Undertaking chaplaincy work in various contexts has often meant offering care to people from a number of different cultural and religious backgrounds.
Further, his congregation members at St David’s Lindfield are not newcomers to matters of interfaith engagement. Last year saw the implementation of a World Religions class, with several participants enjoying the opportunity to visit a Sikh gurudwara, an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple and a Jewish synagogue.
“Every time we have gone to these places, the warmth, the hospitality we have been offered is just unbelievable.”
The participants from St David’s took part in the community meal served at the Sikh gurudwara and took the opportunity to talk about common concerns such as issues of social justice.
“Issues such as care for the environment and human rights, these are all things that are of concern to people of various religious communities. We have the great opportunity in interfaith work to partner and work together on these areas of common interest.”
AsvAustralia becomes increasingly multicultural and multi-faith, crossing the boundaries becomes a necessary and inevitable part of people’s experience.
“It is at the points of intersection, where we find areas of common interest, that we can begin journeying together. One of the great common goals of the major world religions is the desire for peace.”
With this in mind, eight years ago St David’s began a tradition of holding an Interfaith International Day of Peace Service in the Lindfield church hall.
Last year’s celebration, held on September 21, found St David’s hosting leaders from 12 different religions, demonstrating a shared aspiration for peace in all facets of life: in the home, the community and ultimately the world over.
The reflection was given by Dr Natalie Mobini of the Baha’i community, who in turn invited Mr Ghosh to the 50th annual celebration of an equivalent service at the Baha’i Temple.
Dr Mobini’s reflection focused on three main points.
The first was that prayer and reflection are important. If we pray and reflect on our sacred texts we ourselves will be transformed and better able to bring peace about in our lives and our world.
Gathering together is important. Religious prejudice has caused problems in the past but coming together is in itself an act of peace-building.
And religion is important because religion is part of the solution to the challenges we face.
Reflecting later on those three points, the Rev. Seforosa Carroll, Convener of the Assembly Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths, said, “Religion can both be a solution and a problem to peace building and bridge building. The responsibility we are faced with is choosing how our faith or religion can be a catalyst for peace building.
“My interfaith encounters and conversations constantly challenge me to think more deeply about my faith and compel me to become more articulate in expressing it.
“Interfaith conversations don’t always mean we must agree with each other; in fact usually we don’t as we are coming from different viewpoints and starting points.
“The point is learning to see and hear the account of the Divine and life from the perspective of the other. This I believe leads to a deeper understanding of the other’s faith, a transformation of the self and one’s own faith and a hope for a better, peaceful society and a sustainable future.
“Often, I find people of all faiths usually want to achieve the same objectives: peace, a sustainable planet, alleviation of poverty and many want to contribute to the society they are living in a meaningful way.”
The service ended with Mr Ghosh bidding those assembled, of all faiths, to continue building bridges between our communities.
“In a number of places, interfaith activities are taking place and they are really, really joyous. Today is a glimpse of religion’s true purpose in our community.”
Communities of hospitality
Members of the National Assembly Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths, including Mr Ghosh, are keen to see more deliberate interfaith activity at the grassroots level.
This hope led to the development of “Interfaith September”, an initiative that seeks to encourage congregations to create a community of hospitality, conversation and friendship with people of all faiths throughout their neighbourhood.
How does it all work?
There are two facets to Interfaith September. The first takes place in church each Sunday during the month. To facilitate this aspect of Interfaith September the Working Group has developed a series of worship resources, themed for each Sunday of the program.
The second facet involves members of the group or congregation coming together to plan and take part in an activity of their choice.
A “Tool Box” has been created to provide “how to” information for a number of possible activities. Congregations or groups are invited to select one or more of those activities to carry out during the month.
What themes are covered in the worship resources?
The first Sunday of the month has been named “Interfaith September Sunday”. On that day, the multi-faith nature of contemporary Australian society is explored and congregations are invited to select an activity to complete throughout the month. That might be as simple as completing a book study or as ambitious as hosting an interfaith festival.
Week Two marks the anniversary of September 11, 2001. The worship resources for this week explore the theme of nonviolence as a part of Christian discipleship.
Week Three is a reflection on the International Day of Peace, our call to be peacemakers, and furthering our relations with other faiths.
The month culminates in congregations bringing their chosen activity to life on “Interfaith Community Sunday”, when they reflect on peace in community.
On this day neighbours become friends and a deepened understanding of each other blossoms.
For more information, see www.assembly.uca.org.au/relations-with-other-faiths