One church doing our bit for religious diversity

A colleague from the local council asked our Minister, Philo Kinera, to put something in writing about Durham Street Methodists and how we saw our role in promoting inter-faith understanding, this is what we offered as the beginning of an explanation.

Coexist Interfaith Soxiety and Peace Bell

When terrorism hit our little city, on this small country on the edge of the world, on 15 March 2019, we could no longer pretend Aotearoa New Zealand was safely isolated from such threats. (Indeed state-sponsored terrorism had already come to our country 34 years earlier when the French foreign intelligence service (DGSE) blew up Green Peace’s anti-nuclear protest ship, Rainbow Warrior, and killed an activist on board.)

The attack on our city’s two mosques this year directly touched many among the friends and relatives, school-mates and work-mates, and neighbours of the 51 people killed and the many others injured in the shocking attack. There is something especially terrifying about faithful people at prayer being so ruthlessly shot down. Imam Gamal Fouda, of Al Nor Mosque, and the whole Moslem community provided such an example of compassion and forgiveness in response, our whole city almost without exception could not help but reciprocate and demonstrate our solidarity with our Islamic sisters and brothers.

Along with many others, our church’s leaders and many members immediately joined in providing whatever practical and emotional support we could. And we deliberately used our church website and social media to promote messages of support and solidarity. It was fortunate that we already had strong links with the local migrant and refugee organisations, and were long-standing and active members of Christchurch ecumenical and inter-faith associations.

The immediate, overwhelming response of the community was positive towards Muslims in general and the two mosques in particular. However, some members of our church, along with a couple of local community organisations were concerned that the city not readily slip back into an easy, casual racism and Islamophobia, as the impact of the initial shock wore off. With the help of Community & Public Health, we convened a meeting of like-minded people across the city, committed to building on the sentiments of compassion and understanding. We called this informal group Being Unbreakable, after a reference in the Imam’s message at the special public Friday Prayers one week after the attacks: “This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with an evil ideology. … But, instead, we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable. We are broken-hearted but we are not broken.”  The informal group shared ideas and encouraged each other over two meetings and helped support three or four low-key projects to build relationships and promote tolerance in an ongoing way in the city. One of these projects was Tauiwi Tautoko.

A member of our church volunteers with a national organisation that had already piloted in another city this evidence-based programme to train allies to respond to online racism and hate. He, along with other supporters, helped bring Tauiwi Tautoko to Christchurch with an added focus on responding to Islamophobia. Over an eight week programme (face-to-face and on-line), up to 20 volunteers were trained and supported to more effectively address hate and intolerance, racism and Islamophobia on social media. 

As a church, in the immediate post-terror attack period, we also supported ideas initiated by others, including the memorial Peace Train Bike Ride (initiated by a survivor of the mosque attacks), which visited a variety of places of worship of different faiths around Christchurch, and the Inter-Faith Society’s Friday morning Meditation and Prayers at the Peace Bell in Christchurch Botanic Gardens, held in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and an Inter-faith Picnic. More recently in August we supported an Inter-Faith Society & Multicultural Council event at St. Marks Methodist, The Imam and the Pastor – two visiting Nigerian religious leaders who found peace and reconciliation together after spending years as the leaders of violent militias fighting each other.

We have found plenty of opportunities to promote religious diversity and understanding, just being open to adding our solidarity and support to others, without having to come with all the ideas for collaboration ourselves. We also make a point of active participating in the special occasions of other faiths, most recently with the Jewish, Buddhist and Islamic communities, supporting the regular meetings of the local Inter-faith Society, and a monthly breakfast with other inner-city Christian clergy.

In November 2018 we helped host, in collaboration with a diverse group of women from a range of faith backgrounds to celebrate 30 years since the first Women’s Spirituality Conference in Christchurch. Out of this emerged a number of conversations about how an inclusive ‘soulfulness’ can be rekindled in Aotearoa New Zealand today. With the official backing and fiscal sponsorship of Durham Street Methodists, a small group from around the nation has, this year, developed plans for a national Spiritual Health Project. Plans are currently underway to strengthen partnerships with tangata whenua, and a multi-ethnic, multi-faith hui is planned for Christchurch next year.

Our church community has been ‘homeless’ since the 2010 Christchurch earthquakes. When we first started thinking about what kind of new facility we might need to fulfil our mission to the city, we immediately thought of working collaboratively with others. We were aware of two other inner-city faith communities, also made homeless and with which we had much in common as well as a history of working together. Our ambition was that the three of us might build a new centre together. Unfortunately not all efforts at collaborative activities come to fruition, and after a year or so of talking together and trying to hammer out a way we could work together, our best hopes did not eventuate.  So we had to reluctantly go it alone in building our new centre for faith and social justice at the heart of Christchurch. 

We are committed, however, now more than ever, that this new building, Aldersgate (which opens in 2020), supports religious diversity in our city. We want the venue to be well-used by people of all faiths and none. We are investing time in our local Inter-faith Society, and building relationships with other faith communities. How can we support diversity if we don’t know each other. For the opening of our new centre, for example, leaders of a number of other faith groups have committed to presenting us with icons or symbols of their faith, to have a permanent place in the new building. In part, our hope is that people from as wide a variety of faiths may find in these gifts a point of connection or recognition that makes them more comfortable using the facilities. 

We have also tried to design the new building so that it is welcoming to all, and so that it doesn’t overwhelmingly feel you are coming onto someone else territory if you are not Methodist. For example, as well as the banners gifted by other faiths, the massive stained glass window facing the busy inner city street, has been deliberative designed to incorporate symbols that resonate with a wide variety of faiths – the dove, rainbow and tree of life – rather images that may divide. 

But this is not just a recent development for us. Even in our old church building prior to the Christchurch earthquakes, we offered space for midday Mass by a Catholic priest for inner city workers, and set aside a space for prayers for Moslems working in the inner city, and for whom getting to their mosques during lunch or other breaks was difficult.

One big advantage for us at this time is that we have a Minister who has direct experience of living in a multi-faith environment in Asia (before she came to Aotearoa New Zealand).

John Wesley, Methodism’s eighteenth century founder, was himself influenced by at least five different faith traditions. “In many ways, Wesley was a mediating theologian, both in thought and practice. He synthesized Eastern and Western Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism, Calvinism and Arminianism, tradition and innovation, reason and experience, spirituality and service. He brought together rich and poor, men and women, free and slave, and united Christians of various denominational commitments… For Wesley, the key to fruitful theological dialogue is to seek agreement on the essentials and practice gracious tolerance on the non-essentials, not that one should avoid formulating opinions on these matters, but one should leave room for disagreement and tension.” Franklin (2008) John Wesley in Conversation with the Emerging Church

As a progressive, Methodist, inner-city church in an increasingly diverse environment, this approach and spirit of openness has been developing among us for many years. Two years ago we formally adopted a new church logo, which expressed these aspiration for us, as: “Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors.”

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