By Liz Carnelley, Programme Director Near Neighbours
Recently, while meeting someone at the offices of the Council of Christians and Jews, I bumped into Agnes. I hadn’t seen her for about ten years. Agnes is a Holocaust survivor; during the autumn of 1944, Agnes, a babe in arms, and her mother Leona, were in front of an unknown official in charge of deporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Inexplicably he sent back all the women accompanied by children. Because of him Agnes escaped certain death in Auschwitz. Later, in November 1944 Leona and Agnes were sent to the Budapest Ghetto. They were liberated in January 1944 when Agnes was six months old.
I first met Agnes when she was living in Sheffield, where I was involved in a project to set up a Yorkshire and Humber Faiths Forum. Agnes was a very positive support during the process and became a member of the Forum.
There are people who seem to think that setting up Faith Forums is easy and simple. It isn’t. Setting up that Forum took several years and once it was established, building trust and establishing relationships which could go beyond pleasantries to tackling real issues of concern took some time longer.
Often funders do not want to hear that simply establishing relationships takes time – they want to see instant results. And yet I know from experience that going beyond “tea and samosas”, a phrase I think was coined by Anjum Anwar (the first Muslim to be employed by a Church of England Cathedral), is incredibly difficult.
The Archbishop of Canterbury recently pointed out in his speech to the Board of Deputies that we need to go beyond bland statements to genuine reconciliation; “there are profound differences too in what we believe and in the outworking of our faith. True friendships and relationships can withstand honestly held differences in values, opinions and religious understandings, and a common commitment to mutual flourishing in diversity.”
Building these true friendships and relationships of trust which can withstand disagreement takes a lot of blood, sweat, toil and tears because there are genuine issues where we don’t agree; there are fundamental differences that divide us.
And yet I know from my work with that Forum and others, and my current work as Near Neighbours Programme Director, that it is possible.
Near Neighbours works on the premise that people of different faiths and backgrounds who live near one another can come together to work on local issues, to transform their local community for the better. So we have seen Muslims and Christians transforming a derelict community garden in Birmingham; Sikhs and Christians running a soup kitchen in the Black Country; Jews providing a safe space for an Eid celebration when a local Muslim group had their mosque burnt down in an arson attack.
We have funded young Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims doing leadership training together; provided community workers in churches, mosques and synagogues. All our work has two aims; to build trust across barriers of faith and ethnicity; and to transform local places.
We don’t do this by starting with difficult issues, but by finding ways for people to come together – through arts, craft, sport, cooking, health projects, youth projects, and work that will have a local impact. Through this relationships are built – relationships which we hope will become deeper and more resilient over time. Resilient enough to allow differences still to divide us, but enabling us to work together.
Agnes was my first experience of meeting a Holocaust Survivor; her courage and indefatigability really moved me as it dawned on me – if she had not escaped Auschwitz, this person I now know as a friend would never have lived beyond a few months. She also taught me that it was possible to have strong opinions but also to have humour, and to be able to have fun; to share deeply but also to retain one’s own integrity. Agnes is no pushover.
It is only through hard work and perseverance that wonderful relationships withamazing people from outside of our own communities, like Agnes, can be cultivated.
Near Neighbours has enabled many people who were once strangers to become friends. This work requires time, commitment and energy, and an ability to share something of yourself with others. But the rewards – deep and lasting friendships which+ can transform our society – are invaluable.
If you are interested in hearing more about Near Neighbours, check out their website – www.near-neighbours.org.uk
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