From November 2020 to March 2021, the Faith & Belief Forum delivered a community dialogue project in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham with funding from MHCLG’s Race and Faith Hate Crime Fund.
The aim of the project was to:
To achieve these aims we worked with seven local faith and community organisations to deliver a series of trainings and dialogue sessions and engaged 113 local people.
The faith and community groups included two Christian, one Hindu, two Muslim and one Sikh faith and cultural groups and a community organisation set up to support the African Portuguese speaking community.
This report captures two case studies that share the experiences of four partners and the dialogue sessions they co-facilitated with us.
Cross Continental Local Connections in LBBD – Sikh Women’s Alliance and African Portuguese Speaking Community
The Sikh Women’s Alliance (SWA) was set up (in October 2003) with the aim to empower, inspire and inform Sikh women to join the mainstream of UK society. They were linked with African Portuguese Speaking Community (APSC) which was set up (by the Community Connector (in 2019) because he “saw [his] community lost in a multicultural society” and sought to increase their community participation, empower and build the capacity of vulnerable groups, and build a vibrant, sustainable community.
On the face of it, the two groups were vastly different coming from different cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages, having different religions and, perhaps most significantly, having a stark age difference: the Sikh Women were all senior citizens who have been settled in the UK for many decades, whereas APSC predominantly brought along groups of young people.
To our pleasant surprise this group gelled more than any of the others. In the first session the 16 participants shared experiences of migration and their hopes of visiting their countries of birth after the pandemic. The Identity Cupboard gave them the opportunity to delve deeper into less obvious aspects of their identity, finding similarities and building friendships with their linked partners through the session. The atmosphere throughout both sessions was energetic and friendly, but this did not preclude them sharing challenging experiences in their local areas including racial abuse and antisocial behaviour.
The groups ended each of the sessions, of their own accord, by singing to each other in their native languages and one person even sang a song from the other group’s culture which they received with immense warmth and encouragement. It was clear from the discussion at the end of session 2 that both communities wanted to continue this relationship and want to meet in person both for more discussions and something more light-hearted like a picnic in the park.
The interaction between the CCs at the final Community Connector Training clearly indicated that they had become good friends; both complimented each other openly with one saying “we were linked with an amazing group” and they even invited another CC and her community to join them in future meetings.
Strengthening local relationships – Al-Kawther Academy and Kingsley Hall
During the outreach and recruitment phase of the project we spoke to the lead Pastor at Kingsley Hall, a Church and community centre in the heart of Dagenham. The Pastor shared that they have in the past worked and met with the local Muslim community at Becontree Masjid and that this project may offer a means to strengthen and maintain that relationship. On this recommendation, we were put in touch was a Trustee of the Masjid, who also runs a local Islamic education academy, Al-Kawther Academy. This Trustee echoed the Pastor’s desire of re-establishing a relationship.
Both centres nominated a community member to become a Community Connector and were paired up to deliver the dialogue sessions in partnership with F&BF and receive interfaith and online facilitation training.
Through two community dialogue sessions, 11 residents met to share their experiences of living and worshipping in Dagenham. Participants shared how good it was to reconnect with neighbours to build their understanding of each other through activities such as the Identity Cupboard. One Christian participant also shared fond memories of a previous connection with the Muslim community, recalling a time a Muslim neighbour knocked on her door to invite her to a community Iftar that the Muslim community was hosting, leading to an interesting conversation about religious celebrations and community outreach. During one of the breakout rooms, when sharing their special objects, many participants shared rings which bore religious and personal significance such as wedding rings. This opened a discussion on marriage and its importance in both of the religious traditions. Participants exchanged personal stories and laughter as they spoke about the theological, personal and social levels of marriage in Christianity and Islam. One of the participants reflected on this experience at the end of the session and how she loved learning about the other community’s beliefs about marriage.
At the last dialogue session, participants shared how unique the conversations had been, especially in a time when everyone’s social circles are greatly reduced, but that there is so much more they would like to explore. There was a shared interest in increasing their religious literacy of the other religion and to also discuss social issues that affect their community – especially young people. They also shared a wish to meet socially around a shared meal to build the friendships started.
Reflecting on the project, one Community Connector shared, ‘It’s funny that we needed someone from outside the borough to come and start these conversations, but I am grateful for your (F&BF) project as it has sparked a relationship. We now have a reason to connect with one another and a better foundation to build on – I look forward to continuing our conversations after the lockdown and look forward to meeting in person and working together’.