News from the
Newsletter of the Grassroots Programme May 1999
Building Plural Communities

The majority of violent conflicts in the world today are between people living within the same national boundaries. Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Mexico, East Timor are just a few of the places where different cultures and ethnic groups are finding it impossible to live together. The conflicts are easily internationalised and there are global connections between groups engaged in struggles in many of these countries, but they are fuelled by tension between people who are different within one country.

In a world where movement of peoples is greater than ever before the tensions which relate to ancient historical events will be compounded by the arrival of new cultures and faiths. Those who are different may be regarded as problems that need special control. Policies will be designed to ensure the assimilation of different cultures so that countries become mono-cultural.

Grassroots is part of a project called Building Plural Communities which has brought together representatives of ten plural communities across Europe. The understanding of a plural community is one where different cultures or faiths co-exist. Some of these communities share their experience in this Newsletter and over the next few years it is hoped to explore how the creativity and richness of such communities can be enjoyed and the tension and conflict avoided.

One of the concerns already recognised is that of Identity. How is it possible to affirm ones own identity without threatening the identity of the other? In religious terms how can the affirmation of the supreme truth in one religion be reconciled with similar claims of other faiths? The ten communities that have started on this journey will not discover all the answers but they are convinced that searching together has to be a better option than those on offer in Kosovo.

The human and financial cost of the disaster in Kosovo is enormous. We cannot wait until other Kosovos occur. Now is the time to increase efforts at building new understanding. Governments and faith leaders must be persuaded that addressing these issues is an urgent priority. The following pages tell the stories of many people who are already making their contribution.

A Soul for Europe
'We are drifting to a lower version of ourselves' was the sombre assessment of European society according to Michael Higgins, Irish parliamentarian and former Minister of Culture. The occasion was a symposium organised by the European Commission on, 'In search of European Identity.' In the information and misinformation about Europe with which we are bombarded there has been little reference to the debate about ethics, values and spirituality. It may be a surprise to know that there is a project funded by the Commission called 'A Soul for Europe' which involves Christians, Humanists, Jews, Muslims and others with the aim of promoting reflection on the spiritual and ethical dimensions of European integration.

The movement towards European integration has three components - securing peace, encouraging economic co-operation, and building social cohesion. The economic agenda is the one that is driving the process at present, which is why the words of Jacques Delors in November 1990 are even more relevant today.

'It is impossible to put the potential of Maastricht into practice without a breath of air. If in the next ten years we haven't managed to give a soul to Europe, to give it spirituality and meaning, the game will be up.'

Michael Higgins suggested we are further away from this goal now than we were in 1990. 'How can we talk of a Europe of citizens when we are creating a Europe of consumers?' The New Europe faces more fundamental questions than the success of the Euro. 50 million people in Europe live in poverty, 18 million are unemployed. The religious landscape is changing dramatically with 8 million Muslims and significant numbers of those of different faiths. The churches and those of different faiths have to respond to the challenge. Cynicism towards European institutions has to be overcome. Passive acquiescence to a process which is in danger of destroying those higher qualities that make us human has to be reversed. The reality is that no national government is strong enough to control the economic power of the financiers or the information power of the media. We are in a world which is changing so fast that many of the structures are obsolete. Europe has the potential to offer a new model of society:
- where the energy and creativity of a plural community can be released;
-which develops new structures of accountability and control that are strong enough to deal with the economic powers
- which recognises that economic prosperity is only sustainable if linked to economic justice,
- where its people find satisfaction in their search for meaning and purpose.

David Cowling attended the Soul for Europe symposium on behalf of Grassroots. The Building Plural Communities project receives funding from Soul for Europe.

Two hands have a voice
Aso Agace and Sukriye Dogan are working with Hinbun, an organisation for Kurdish and other women in Berlin which serves to build bridges and shows migrants and Germans ways out of ethnic isolation. They attended the Plural Communities workshop in Luton.

For us from Hinbun as a Kurdish institution it was always important to network with multicultural institutions. We have been working there since the establishment of Kairos Europa in 1992.

People from all over the world come to Europe for many reasons. One reason for coming is seeking asylum because of violent political methods used by their government, such as physical punishment, prison and exodus. As refugees in a different country they don't suffer physically but the psychological torture does not stop. The countries of their refuge often make it very difficult because of restrictive asylum laws (e.g no possibiliites for therapy).

Other people come to Europe for social reasons. It is not a matter of life and death but a question of quality of life, bringing families together etc.

Another group of migrants includes those of the second and third generation.They are born in Europe and have grown up in Europe. They don't know anything about the country of their parents. But under German law they are still foreigners and experience discrimination. None of the countries are felt to be home. This can lead to growing nationalistic and fundamentalistic groupings, as already exist in European countries.

Kurds, men and women have been living in Europe for centuries in exile. In nearly all of the countries they have not many rights as ethnic minority, because they are not legitimately accepted as an ethnic group. Because of that they have been fighting for the acknowledgement of their own language and culture, e.g.official translators, official registration in statistics, basic laws, which other minorities already have. The Kurds experience in exile is a continuation of the discrimination which prompted them to leave their country in the first place.

It is absolutely vital for Hinbun to work together with multicultural groups within the EU against racism and discrimination. When political opinion swings in the opposite direction it is especially important to get together and provide the basis for a just Europe.

With our work together with other multicultural groups we like to bring the problems of the Kurds to the surface and also to learn from different experiences.We understand differences as cultural enriching and as positive stimulation for our work. Through a deeper understanding of our common problem we can find solutions together and strengthen our power and resources. Additionally to our political activity our meetings give us hope, strengthen our faith in peace and justice. According to a Kurdish slogan: "One hand alone is nothing, but two hands have a voice"

A Series of Snapshots
Annie Harrison lives in the Hulme area of Manchester and attended the Building Plural Communities consultation.

The begging bowl that belonged to Jaya’s grandfather was put into my hands and it was warm. The touch of all of us had brought it to life once more, and recalled within it the hot Indian sun. I felt it’s roundness and weight. And afterwards, I could still smell the sharp taste of metal on my hands. It had left something of itself with me.

Sitting in the bar, I tell Colin that I am fearful that the history of Ireland will repeat itself, that the paramilitaries will splinter, one part will reach a settlement, but others will continue to fight. I ask him whether he is still hopeful that peace will come. 'Yes’ he says, 'It’s like a divorce and the Governments are the parents. Once the parents have made their peace, the children can carry on squabbling, but really the war is over.’ I feel a wave of relief.

Seunghwa Chung told us that Koreans have always kept themselves to themselves. Even when they left their homeland, they created their own communities, they never mixed much with other races. Then he exemplified the exact opposite!

‘I was impoverished by a superior Western mentality’, said Sr Lucina. Her words moved me. How easy I have found it to miss out on the rich cultures, histories and traditions of the peoples of South Asia who I have lived amongst my whole life. I sit in the Sikh Gurdwara and realise I have never been inside one before, or a Mosque, or a Hindu temple. I have never learnt anything of their religions. I have insulated myself from the difference, the challenge of difference, and have missed out on the richness of diversity.

Towards Intercultural society
Jaya Graves lives in Manchester and works with Southern Voices.

I came into a society where non-white people were excluded from jobs, housing, social and political life for this simple reason- they were non-white. The old demons are no longer visible- ‘no black need apply for this job.' ‘Room not available to coloured people.' Paradigms are shifting and what was stable 30 years ago, is under siege now.

Clearly, we are not a singular, Anglo-Saxon society.

If we are not yet a plural one in terms of justice and access, we are one in composition and must move accordingly.

We who belong to the so-called minority cultures live and work here. We contribute to this country. We produce. We do business. We trade. We challenge irrelevant assumptions and attitudes and are also challenged. We enrich it with our cultures and expand its understanding. We cannot accept second class status. Once released, the dragon will not return to its cave. And if it is not directed, it will burn. We argue for a plural society informed by the specificity of our particular cultures. We also know that these cultures must change and metamorphose as must the dominant culture.

When I came to England, the discourse was about, ‘what to do’ about these immigrants; about assimilation and integration. How do we absorb the newcomers. This was a policy that failed. We could not be culturally or physically absorbed, so we were relegated to an inferior status. How easily the exotic and mystic become the demon at close quarters. The ‘other’- not easily endured.

Today, there is no talk of assimilation in the UK (though it is distressing to hear about strategies for integration with regard to refugees-those most in need of the support family and familiar structures.) Today, the discourse is about plurality, multiple identities and intercultrality.

What would such a society look like? I can only imagine elements of it. No child would say of her/his school environment, ‘I feel as if no one understands me. There are no teachers who know how I feel,' because the teachers will be inter-racial. The curriculum will demand that teachers actively seek to reflect and teach plurality not exoticism. There must be some provision of non-European languages. This is not to say that there can be a detailed exploration of all cultures but there will be an ethos which recognises the value of all. The workplace will be equally accessible to all precipitating a spiral of change in organisational, political and business culture which will be informed by the values of many peoples. Currently, we are expected to ‘perform,' to a different value base. We can never do this as well as people who are born into this. Why should we? We come from different cultures. We work differently. We value different things. Our spiritual assumptions are different. Some people say they want this to become a ‘colour blind’ society. This is a nice aim if it means that we do not have to become black and brown reflections of the dominant society. It will only work if we all ‘give’ a little; change a little; and keep as much as we want without prejudice and xenophobia. There are aspects of culture which all cultures must lose.

The fact that there is unrest, violence and murder indicates that people are frightened of change and do not see the richness. It also shows that it matters enough to fight for. My perception of an intercultural society is one which is informed by the values of its diverse peoples. One thing for sure, society is dynamic. Change is its life. If it doesn’t, it stagnates to the point of death.

I come from a society that was born with many dimensions and its continual struggle is that it should not be devoured by its own diversity. There are checks and balances and counterbalances that prevent this but sometimes this breaks down and violence erupts.

There are always tensions in plural and diverse societies. They can be points of conflict. Have been. Probably will again. Or they can be points of creative experiment. Dynamic tension. Learning. Challenge. New shoots from which a mightier tree can grow. The moment is here and already there are people working from both positions. In truth the only choice we have is how we approach these points of tension.

A Christian response to plurality
The challenge of building plural communities is particularly important to people of faith. Religion is often a factor in conflicts and in some cases part of the cause. The role of religion in conflict resolution and community building is attracting increasing attention. There are those who take the view that the only solution will be to persuade others of the superiority of your faith. At the opposite extreme are those who argue that we are all the same really, and all religions are an expression of one faith.

Our view in Grassroots is that a way forward is in plural communities where values and difference are recognised. This has important implications.

All human perceptions of truth are partial
Many faiths recognise the mystery and majesty of the Divine energy at the heart of creation. In Christianity this mystery has been progressively revealed throughout the centuries. The understanding of God has changed with the experiences of people. Even the understanding of Jesus has changed. It would be a contradiction to accept that the finite mind of a human person could contain the understanding of the infinite Divine. We all experience a reality that is true for us but it can only be a partial reality which can be enlarged through the experience of others.

Our understanding of the truth needs to be continually reinterpreted
Our understanding of the truth will be shaped by the situations we face in life. At times of suffering and pain we experience a God of compassion and healing. At times of injustice and oppression we experience a God of righteousness and liberation. We need to discover the understanding of truth that is appropriate for this time.

Dialogue is a way to truth
Because all have some experience and understanding of the truth we can enlarge our understanding through dialogue. Dialogue with those who think differently from us can be more creative and productive than dialogue with those who think the same as us.

Love is key
At the heart of the Christian message is the idea of love. The sacrificial love of God for the world and the love of the Christian for his/her neighbour. The key to relationships between those of different faiths in plural communities must be, ‘Does this understanding help express the love that is at the heart of creation?’ ‘ Is this understanding life giving for ourselves and others?’

Those who wish to pursue these arguments in more depth might be interested in the following book ‘The Uniqueness of Jesus - A Dialogue with Paul F Knitter’ edited by Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes. Published by Orbis ISBN 1-57075-123-4

Plural Communities in the Sudan
Kennet Fanan is originally from South Sudan but now living in Khartoum where he is involved in the Sudan Education for Development and Peace project in partnership with Grassroots.

If there is a country that understands the difficulty of reaching the goal of becoming a plural community, it is mine, namely Sudan. We have many diversities: it is believed that there are 700 distinct ethnic groups speaking 113 languages. We are also categorised as either Muslims, Christians or Pagans.

Perhaps, the major difficulty to be overcome is the different ethnic barrier. The truth remains that a typical Sudanese thinks of himself as member of a tribe first before anything else. For example, in politics what counts is not whether you are Muslim or not, but what tribe you belong to. Even Churches are sometimes named after tribes, that is, Moru Church, Dinka Church etc.

Ours is an ‘idolatry of ethnicity,' which has not been touched by many years of Christian evangelization. Some people simply have to suffer because of their tribe. The massacre of Dinka people at Daein, Western Sudan, in 1987 is a case in point.

Is there any way out? Fortunately, today, more than any time before, many Sudanese are concerned with creation of plural communities. They seek inspiration in the fact that their differences benefit and sustain oppressive structures. To give one example, Women Action Group (WAG) started building bridges between southern and northern Sudanese women in 1996. Today, there are southern women who can call a northern woman a true friend, and vice versa.

What must be done? We must stop explaining all our problems by pointing our fingers at other people. We must acknowledge our complicity, to denounce evil by name and to work to transform our situation.

To accomplish this task, different communities need time to critically analyse their situation, identify root causes of their problems and seek creative ways to respond to them as groups. When different ethnic groups come together, they do not only find ways to respond to issues but they also learn to appreciate their differences. The training workshops organised by SEDEP are a good example of this.

Of course, it will take time, It is difficult, I admit, to persuade people who fear and distrust all that are different, to abandon tribalism. But the end result will be a united and stronger Sudan; which every Sudanese will be proud to call their own country.

The Rainbow People of South Africa
Pamela Parenzee is an Anglican ordinand from South Africa who joined Grassroots in December

There are eleven main languages in South Africa. This gives an idea of how multi - faceted the population of S.A. is. In an attempt to be inclusive, the new government tried to make a space for each tribal and language group within its borders. And I dare say, people are beginning to feel included and demanding their right to be so. It is of course a very painful struggle to keep all these groups reasonably happy, integrated and valued.

Although the official langauge is English, there are still many people whose first langauge is not English and therefore communication can be a very real difficulty . All schools have now opened their doors to everyone and it is with the younger generation that real change will materialise.

However, the variety of language is just a beginning of some very vibrant and life - giving worship and cultural celebrations. Colour of clothes (including headgear ), symbols used, musical instruments, movement and dance , together with the expressive and unrestrained nature of the people has prompted Archbishop Desmond Tutu to refer to the peoples of S .A . as THE RAINBOW PEOPLE OF GOD - a very apt description of some very real deep struggle.

Just living in a theological college for one year where we received students from all parts of Southern Africa and other places like Namibia, Mauritius, Seychelles, Lesotho, made us constantly aware of differences, yet in some strange way, the Spirit of God hovered over us all as we found new and very meaningful ways of communicating and relating to each other, especially in our worship.

There is no doubt that this is the way forward for the continent of Africa, if we are all going to survive in any meaningful way. Holding on to our diversity as we face the enormous problems confronting us as a continent.

I have always been totally overwhelmed by the potential to overcome great obstacles, and the tenacity to endure and win the battle against Apartheid by so many of my fellow citizens. It has and will always be a trememdous honour and priviledge to be part of a continent so deprived and demoralised, yet with so much courage of not only surviving but beating the odds which life dishes out and also of creating a community of people who know and love the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY!

Learning a new language
Jackie Gleeson is concerned about finding new ways of responding to the spirituality of those outside the churches

In 1989, in an attempt to find the right context within which the Gospel could operate, I returned to my roots in inner-city Nottingham. My aim was to create a space and not try to fill it myself. This meant waiting for the right moment.

Once it felt right I soon found a job as a machinist in a local textile factory, making leisurewear and underwear for Marks and Spencer.

I wanted to relate on an equal footing and become accepted as an equal, without labels, just as myself. I hoped to draw religious life out of a ‘servicing’ and into an incarnational, experiential mode of missioning; of ‘being with’ rather ‘doing for.' I made basic decisions about my lifestyle that would help me to be more authentic and congruent.

I needed to get rid of the trappings of religious life, for example, title, dress, and status. So when I started at the factory, I decided not to tell the women that I was a nun. Why should I? It was irrelevant to them. And I didn’t tell them for four years. I also needed time to learn how to communicate on all levels, to unlearn ‘church talk,' to learn a new language that spoke to the unchurched and allowed them to express their own experience of ‘faith.'

During this time I attempted to inculturate myself into the frightening yet fascinating world of the factory, a world full of passion, agony and good fun. From the word go, I was in awe of the women. They were good, proud, courageous folk carrying out an incredible and complicated routine of work, that mesmerised the likes of me, coming, as I was, out of a much easier, professional, comfortable world. They then went home to cook, clean and manage a family, struggling with little support and few material means.

If church or ‘ecclesia’ is 'the place where God is’ then the factory was an interesting congregation. We were a good ethnic mix: a majority white English, non-religious, nominal Christian; about 15% Asian, first and second generation, equal mix of Indian and Pakistani, Muslim and Sikh, speaking mainly Punjabi and Urdu; approximately 5% Afro Caribbean, mostly second generation Jamaican, devout Christian Pentecostal; plus 3 first generation Vietnamese.

The underlying racial, ethnic tensions were serious but rarely surfaced; the women came to work mainly to earn a living and partly to escape domestic boredom, and so kept antagonisms largely under control. When racial tension did rear its head, the flash points were often around language. For example, the Indian Sikh women had a strong community identity, in and out of work, being devout members of the same local Temple. In work they kept to themselves partly from choice but also of necessity, being largely isolated by the English women. They communicated enthusiastically amongst themselves in Punjabi, to the disgust of the English women, who were threatened by this, thinking they were being talked about! They were critical and intolerant and said that, as they were living in England, they should speak ‘our’ language!

Those years involved sharing experiences of oppression, listening with great care and attention, being sensitive and compassionate, building relationships of trust without judgement or moralising, forgiving and being forgiven; in other words ‘practising my faith.' I began to understand their insecurities and fears, They really were ‘like sheep without a Shepherd.'

Responding to this image helped me to accept the role of Union representative for KFAT in 1995. However, after nearly ten years, with so many issues to address, I still feel I hardly scratched the surface.

Chancing one's arm
In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormonds and Kildares, were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormond, and his followers, took refuge in the chapter house of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, bolting themselves in. As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare concluded that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families worshipping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and, as an inscription in St Patrick's says today, 'undertooke on his honour that he should receive no villanie.' Wary of 'some further treacherie,' Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his spear, cut away a hole in the door and thrust his hand through. It was grasped by another hand inside the church, the door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. The expression 'chancing one's arm' originated with Kildare's noble gesture. There is a lesson here for all of us who are engaged in 'family feuds', whether brother to brother, language to language, nation to nation. If one of us would dare to 'chance his arm', perhaps that would be the first crucial step to the reconciliation we all unconsciously seek.

Chancing one's arm is from a postcard featuring the 'door of reconciliation' at St Patrick's Cathedral Dublin; © used with permission .

Comings and Goings
Grassroots Office. We have moved again and our new address is at the bottom of this page. We only moved a few doors along the road so the only part of the address to change is the number but the upheaval was the same as moving across the country. We hope that we will remain in the present office a little longer!

Reynaldo Leao has been accepted as a Candidate for the Methodist Ministry in Britain and will be leaving Grassroots in August to pursue this stage in his journey. We are delighted that the Methodist Church will have the benefit of such a person in ministry and we expect the links between Leo and Grassroots to continue. He will be editing the next issue of the Newsletter and reflecting on his time with Grassroots so we do not need to say farewell yet.

Eliza Jones made a second visit to Khartoum in March to review the progress of the Sudan Education for Development and Peace project. The situation continues to remain very difficult in Khartoum but our partners are developing their plans in income generation, health and education.

Kairos Europa is working with Christian Aid and other partners in Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland to follow up issues raised at the World Council of Churches Assembly in Harare. A Workshop is to be held in Copenhagen on May 10/11th to review progress in the search for alternatives to the neo-liberal economic system. It is hoped to develop a strategy which will enable co-ordinated action between churches and social movements in Europe and the South.

Kairos Brussels Event A planning meeting was held on April 15th for this event which will involve a Hearing with members of the European Parliament and Commission on Alternatives and Globalisation. The dates are October 21st - Hearing, 22/23rd Community Festival. Further information will be available from the Luton office in due course.

European Advisory Group. The work of Grassroots in different parts of Europe continues to expand and we are conscious of the complexity. To provide more support for this work a European Advisory Group has been formed which includes people who bring expertise and experience to help plan and evaluate the work. One of the proposals was to explore the possibilities of appointing a European Mission Partner and conversations are in progress with the Institute for Ecumenical Studies in Prague concerning such an appointment.

Link with Poland. As a result of the Plural Communities consultation, Grassroots has been linked with the Right Time Association in Poland. We already have many contacts and Artur Zielinsky has visited Luton. Shanthi and David will be visiting Poland in July to learn more of the situation and understand what are the issues in plural communities. It is hoped that this will enable exchanges to develop so that the experiences of both countries can be shared.

Grassroots Programme, 102a Dunstable Road, LUTON LU1 1EH
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