'Women, Faith and Dialogue'

11th November 2018 - by Nathalie Marytsch

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Mauricio Silva, IRD coordinator for the Columbans in Britain, shares about an Interfaith Event held on Saturday 10th November in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, part of celebrations to mark 100 years of Columban mission.

A celebration of Women’s Faith, Solidarity and Commitment to Equality

A Church in Sparkbrook – a heart of diversity in the city of Birmingham – was the venue for an interfaith event organised as part of the centenary celebrations of the Columban Missionaries. On a sunny autumnal Saturday morning more than seventy people gathered in there to listen to inspiring stories of women of faith, to enjoy beautiful music and to share with each other a delicious ‘intercultural’ lunch.

In light of the fact that the Columban centenary coincides with the commemoration of the 100 years of women’s vote in UK made the organising team decide that the theme would be ‘women, faith and dialogue’ and that it would explore issues of equality. Nowadays, interreligious practitioners worldwide acknowledge that the absence of women on interfaith discussions and fora hinders the effectiveness of any dialogue and peace effort.

The organising team was comprised by Henna Rai from the Faith Encounter Programme plus Columbans Catherine Bridgwood Nathalie Marytsch and myself.

The morning started with the soothing harmonies of the local Sitarist Waseem Hussain. His music set a helpful reflecting tone for my introduction to this event, which focused on the efforts of many Columban Missionaries who have engaged over the years in dialogue initiatives in places as diverse as Pakistan, Fiji, The Philippines and Australia.

As an example of this commitment I shared with the attendees the story of Fr Rufus Halley who was killed in 2001 in Mindanao; a short clip of Rufus expressing his motivation to engage with people of different faiths was also shown. But because dialogue also happens in Britain (and Ireland), I mentioned the efforts of Columbans running Fatima House in Birmingham as a concrete gesture of our commitment to both, welcoming the stranger and promoting the rights of the vulnerable women we host.

A group of four women of faith were the main speakers at the event: Catherine O’Neill (a Presentation Sister and congregational leader), Mahmooda Qureshi (a community organiser for Hope not Hate), Abda Khan (a solicitor, writer and public speaker) and Rosemin Ahmed (a community leader in East Birmingham).

Each one of them – within their own context and neighbourhood – is involved in initiatives which promote justice, equality and combat prejudice and marginalisation. In turns, each spoke of the role of faith in their personal lives and how this informs the commitment they have. It was very touching for all the participants to hear how they ‘ opened their hearts to us’ and spoke with pride and honesty about their faith journeys.

Then, Catherine Bridgwood – the Columban Faith in Action Volunteer – contributed with a beautiful and evocative rendition of Jo Boyce’s song Magnificat, an expression of the faith of Mary, as a woman and mother of Jesus.

Next, the speakers gathered again to have a ‘meaningful conversation’ about the challenges and joys of being women in the context of their own faith communities as well as in wider society. The problems arising from patriarchy and male dominance in structured/institutional religion were addressed. Personal experiences of dealing with these issues exemplified the courage and resilience of these and of many women. The panellists agreed that faith plays a central role in their lives and that faith encourages them to fight injustice and inequality – as well as to dispel misconceptions and ignorance about the teachings on women in their religious traditions and scriptures.

The programme continued with an opportunity to hear briefly about the organisations that Columban Missionaries partnered with to deliver this interfaith event. Those speaking were representatives from the Faith Encounter Programme, the Muslim Educational Consultative Committee, The Communitas Project, Hope not Hate and Tell Mama UK . Dr Peter Rookes, the 3rd Sector Liaison Officer for the Birmingham Council of Faiths,  and Shenaz Sajan, the Interfaith coordinator for Clifton Rd Mosque also spoke and both praised the relevance of this successful event.

Finally, everyone was invited to have a lunch with freshly cooked chicken biryani, vegetable samosas and a variety of sandwiches. In a festive atmosphere it was wonderful to see ‘women and men of different faiths’ sharing food and thoughts about the event. A wonderful team of volunteers made sure everyone was fed and above all made to feel welcomed. Columban colleagues attending had a chance to mingle with the ‘wonderfully diverse’ people taking part.

Fr Ray Collier, who also contributed with contacts he has made in his ministry in East Birmingham, sent me this morning his thoughts about this event. Fr. Ray says, “I rejoice. I never thought I would witness a day like yesterday. Where women of faith from different faiths and social context would come together in public to share their faith journeys. They have courageously created their own space within their own faith and social context and given voice to their concerns and in doing so have created a togetherness for the common good of humanity and for the caring of God’s creation. You have given these faith women a public platform to challenge us all and for their own encouragement and support as well as for the enrichment of us all and to create a space of solidarity.”

Indeed, at this event we could all have a glimpse of that common vision of equality and solidarity which ‘faith filled’ men and women must work for. This interreligious event to celebrate the Centenary of the Columbans was also an opportunity to increase awareness about the need to ‘hear more attentively’ women’s voices – a task which, I think, is central to any contemporary missionary endeavour.

Mauricio Silva
Interrelligious Coordinator
Columbans in Britain