Focus on Vulnerable Brings Faiths Together

23rd January 2013 - by Mauricio Silva

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Mauricio Silva is a Columban Lay Missionary from Chile, working in Birmingham, and one of the  leaders for the Communitas project in Birmingham.

Communitas is a new two-year project where a Christian church and a Muslim organisation have become partners to promote the wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of both communities: the elderly. These are specifically the elderly who live side by side in the Sparkbrook and Springfield wards in Birmingham. The church and the organisation – namely English Martyrs RC Church and The Muslim Educational Consultative Committee(MECC) – wish to overcome the history of separate and isolated provision for people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds by bringing together older people from the two faiths to develop positive relationships and by sharing good practise of preventative and advocacy work.

Leaders from both the English Martyrs and the MECC looked closely at the generic and specific needs of older people in the neighbourhood and realised that here the elderly face particular challenges to their health and overall quality of life. Some of the main issues found were associated with poor housing conditions (increasing risk of fall and ill health) and lack of networks and methods of support regarding medicine, food and cold weather; lack of social/spiritual/relational contact with the wider community; low confidence in accessing community based health services, cultural isolation and communication barriers (e.g. English as a second language and illiteracy).

That reality led English Martyrs and the MECC to seek funds to provide for these common needs in the community. With the help of Birinus-a Catholic charity which promotes regeneration and community development – they put together a bid to the Third Sector Commissioning Team of Birmingham City Council. The bid was successful. The funds will allow them to offer a menu of quality services to support the elderly and to create greater interaction between the two groups. As in most community projects, volunteers will play a vital role in the development of the project.

Communitas and Dialogue of Action
Back in 1984 the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue defined ‘dialogue of action’ as all those actions of collaboration between Christians and people of other faiths which are ‘geared to the liberation and integral development of humankind’. This ‘Mission and Dialogue’ document further explained that this dialogue could happen at international, national and local level, whenever people of different faiths were faced with the same problems. Above all this document helped encourage Christians to join people of other faiths to ‘defend and promote together social justice, moral values, peace and liberty’, in tune with the teachings of Vatican II.

The Communitas project represents an effort to enact this dialogue of action and develop relationships between Christians and Muslims at the level of collaborative action. As described above, the area which both groups aim to serve presents us with innumerable challenges associated to socio-economic and cultural deprivation, which affect the elderly very profoundly. Acting together to tackle these issues seems to be a sensible approach, considering especially the wealth of experience of these two groups to deal with issues in a culturally appropriate way. Besides, this empowers the two communities to promote with confidence to their members the urgent need to build greater understanding between people of different faith and cultures.

Common Good
From the Christian side, Communitas is one of many church initiatives which serve and bring together people from different backgrounds and faiths. The significance of this project lies in the fact that in Communitas Muslims and Christians come together as equal partners, each community offering and receiving the gifts brought by the other; each community challenging and supporting the other. This is not the case of one faith organisation welcoming the ‘outsider, the stranger’, but more of a partnership between friends who share a need and who need each other.

MECC brings in a long history of service to the British Pakistani community in the area, which sprung from the founders resolute efforts to help friends and families to integrate and positively contribute to this society. On the other hand, English Martyrs brings a history of compassionate service to the local people, particularly to the Irish population who have felt welcomed and spiritually encouraged there for more than a century. Nowadays, English Martyrs church welcomes other migrant groups which have made their home in the Sparkhill area.

Communitas has just one ‘big, open agenda’, which is that of joining hands to serve the needs of a population facing deprivation and marginalisation. We know that in doing so we contribute to further mutual understanding and eventually promote greater peace in our society. We also know that,for us as Christians, this gives us a precious chance to witness to the radical call of Jesus to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark12:31;Matthew23:39; Luke10:27

As Christians, we participate in Communitas with the conviction that this action will bear fruits in the challenging field of dialogue between people of different faiths. As stated in the document Faith and Proclamation (1991),of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, ‘contacts in daily life and common commitment to action will normally open the door for cooperation in promoting human and spiritual values; they may also eventually lead to the dialogue of religious experience in response to the great questions which the circumstances of life do not fail to arouse in the minds of people. The Communitas project has started this journey of dialogue filled with hope and openness to discern future directions.