This article is part of Public Spirit series on Faith and Social Action.
What does it mean to be involved in faith-based social action? In this article, Riaz Ravat, the deputy director of St Philip’s Centre, a Leicester-based multi-faith charitable organisation, gives an account of the work he and his colleagues do. Against the notion that faith-based charitable work is tokenistic and of limited value, he argues that social action is a crucial means by which people can reconcile the implementation of the teachings of their respective faiths with their duties as citizens.
In March 2012, Leicester paid a colourful and vibrant tribute to HM the Queen on the first stop of her Diamond Jubilee tour. The accompanying Royal party were treated to a show which will long live in the memory for generations to come. The Church of England, which is interwoven into the fabric of this country, displayed leadership through the Diocese of Leicester with Leicester Cathedral as its centrepiece. Here a mosaic of faith communities joined in the celebrations to show that they too are firmly rooted in the identity of this country. Herein lies the story of St Philip’s Centre, a charity with ‘Christian DNA’ which confidently works alongside and provides a platform for other faiths and beliefs to engage with the social and civic life of the UK. It is this very ‘confidence’ which has enabled people of other denominations and faiths to become part of the staff and volunteer base of the organisation.
“Social action is the medium which can build and bind while dialogue can expose undeveloped relations.”
The ‘Year of Service’ initiative of the same year encouraged faiths to work with each other to deliver charity efforts to needy causes. ‘Confirm us in service to the world of humanity, so that we may become the servants of Thy servants, that we may love all Thy creatures and become compassionate to all Thy people’. These words of Abdu’l‐Bahá, the eldest son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith, were delivered in 1912 and it was fitting that the Bahá’í community were instrumental in the launch of ‘A Year of Service’.
One of the many points to note from the latest Census is how the word ‘minority’ is becoming redefined in some parts of the UK, Leicester being an example. The presence of smaller groups in our conurbations, such as the Bahá’í and Jewish communities, poses challenges to larger communities which goes to the heart of what it means to be a decent and progressive society. This challenge is to enable these minorities to express their confidence and to contribute their fullest, to the life of the city, county and country.
At St Philip’s Centre, social action enables us to provide this platform of confidence and belonging to the rich depth and breadth of faith communities whether large or small. Inter-faith is not simply about dialogue, it can be and is often so much more. In many ways, social action is the medium which can build and bind while dialogue can expose undeveloped relations. We have witnessed Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Humanists, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and those of no professed religious belief coming together for the selfless service of others. Whether this motivation is inspired by God, political creed or human concern, we must begin to address the designing of shared values, purposes and the nature of ‘good’ not only for today’s world but also tomorrow’s.
Leicester would not be Leicester unless social action was delivered in Leicester’s own unique and cosmopolitan style. It is all too easy to run campaigns for individual faiths by individual faiths. The St. Philip’s Centre method, however, is to innovate, include and excite. The aim was not only to do ‘good’ but to enable dialogical encounter across communities.
St Philip’s Centre with its Christian heritage has co-ordinated distinctive efforts for several major charity events which are rooted in other traditions. Our Mitzvah Day campaign brings together the Jewish community on a day of social action for the benefit of wider society. Examples have included engaging shoppers to donate toiletries for uprooted victims of domestic violence. Sewa Day serves as a reminder about the longstanding efforts made by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs to maintain the social fabric of the UK. Our work has included feeding and socialising with elderly folk from other faiths. The annual Inter Faith Iftaar together with the Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO) is an opportunity for the Muslim community to publicly open its hand of friendship and hospitality to faith and civic leaders.
“Social action is a key instrument if we are to reconcile the implementation of the teachings of our respective faiths with our duties as citizens here and abroad.”
Sceptics would argue that these sorts of initiatives are tokenistic and of limited value. But try telling that to one of the elderly ladies who said that our presence made her feel ’Royal’, or the shopper who was once a victim of domestic violence that we must ‘keep going because there is still so much of this violence happening today’. For those at the forefront, our efforts were welcome and worthy.
In addition, the Centre is one of only a limited number of areas of the UK running the Near Neighbours programme. The scheme funds activities which build and bind communities in neighbourhoods through faith connections. Grants are available for community projects, dialogue and Catalyst – a young adults’ leadership programme delivered in Leicester and East London. Catalyst invests in young people by building their confidence, skills and potential to become active citizens. Many have subsequently volunteered on numerous social action projects.
One of the more remarkable acts of multi-faith charity witnessed took place only a few weeks ago during the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan. Having been affected by the plight of children in Syria, a local resident took it upon herself to engage Leicester’s faith communities to launch a toy collection. The collected toys were to be given to children in refugee camps and hospitals. The Diocese of Leicester played a key role in providing strategic support for this effort in which the Muslim community contributed many volunteers. A staggering 10,000 toys were collected. I attribute the word ‘remarkable’ to this cause because of the various narratives witnessed. A local business donating a van to transport the goods to the depot because of the overwhelming and unexpected response, Muslim children giving up their Eid presents because children in Syria deserved them more, churchgoers sewing dolls especially for the cause and the a prominent member of the progressive synagogue packing toys alongside young Muslims. Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and others all rallied to connect with children who they will never know.
Social action is a key instrument if we are to reconcile the implementation of the teachings of our respective faiths with our duties as citizens here and abroad. The spiritual richness of service and compassion – which faith communities possess, undergirded by their respective ‘golden rules’ – is all too often tainted by humanity’s thirst for selective salvation.
Riaz Ravat BEM is Deputy Director of St Philip’s Centre, a leading charity working in the field of inter faith relations. His responsibilities include managing the delivery of a range of local and national public sector training and education programmes and community engagement. In HM the Queen’s 2013 New Years Honours List, Riaz was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to interfaith understanding and named by De Montfort University as Alumnus of the Year.
All photos courtesy of The St Philip’s Centre, Leicester.