A report from our Secretary, Tony Brewer
At the invitation of Peta Cubberley, the Stakeholder Relationship Officer at Royal Borough of Greenwich, I participated in an Interfaith Seminar organised by the borough on Thursday 18 March 2021. It was held via Zoom and there were 53 participants from the various faith communities in the borough.
The seminar opened with short prayers offered by three faith leaders – a rabbi, a Buddhist priest and a Christian pastor.
There was then a presentation by Jane Connor, Head of Public Health for the borough. She said that the supposedly reassuring message from the government in the early days, that ‘we are all in this together’, was far from true. She referred to the 2010 Marmot Review of health inequalities & said that the inequalities identified ten years ago had been exposed even further by the Covid pandemic. Curiously, she noted that religious communities had been hit particularly badly, partly because of the collective nature of religious events and partly because the participants tend to be from front-line services and involve people from the BAME communities. We therefore need to build on the principles of social justice to reduce inequalities, do things differently and so reduce the impact of the virus.
Three faith group leaders then described the experiences of their communities during the pandemic:
Juginder Singh, from South London Sikh Youth, summarised their activities, including providing 9,500 hot meals on a free and public basis, delivering meals bi-weekly to vulnerable families, providing tablets for patients in hospital maternity units and ICUs to enable patients to maintain contact with their loved ones, helping the council to provide meals for children during the winter holidays and providing mental health support.
Father Matthew Ndibe, from St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, described its food bank and the provision of friendship and support for families affected by the virus.
Ahmed Farah, from Greenwich Islamic Centre (GIC), mentioned its food bank, the 24/7 telephone call centre for advice and support, its YouTube channel and the provision of meals to enable affected people to break their fast during Ramadan. He also mentioned that the GIC had carried out a review of how it will be affected when the pandemic finally abates.
The seminar then divided up into six breakout groups for around 45 minutes of informal discussion. Their agenda was to share experiences, identify key issues and the kinds of support needed from the council. In my group of nine participants the experiences included:
- The loss of physical contact;
- An initial shortage of volunteers (although this problem seemed to sort itself out);
- The value of an online presence which, in many cases, had led to an increase in participation – one speaker described how an online funeral had attracted a congregation from all over the world;
- the closing and release of premises;
- the need for help from the council in finding premises suitable for religious services;
- the problem of disinformation about the virus and vaccination, and the value of trusted advisors – one speaker pointed out that although the council has the ability to communicate messages to the general public, faith communities can reach out to individual contacts;
- the usefulness of Covid friending services.
Running through all of these experiences was a recognition of the value of online services, but with the corresponding difficulty of making them available to everyone, and also that the challenge of the pandemic, and especially of the lockdowns, had led faith groups to think hard about how to innovate. There were several examples of how innovation had led to growth and other benefits.
Summing up, the co-host Shola Oladipo, from Food for Purpose, said that the seminar had celebrated the role played by faith leaders, had highlighted the need to communicate trusted information to vulnerable groups, and had emphasised the importance of dialogue between the council and faith communities.
As a Humanist participant at a seminar for faith leaders I felt very aware that their mindsets, based on faith and the role of religion, were very different from mine. However, there was no sense of exclusion – everyone was very friendly, there was no tension between different faiths, and everyone was keen to listen and learn from everyone else. I enjoyed it.