Monday, 17 June 2013


The Faith Awareness series of summer visits to places of worship and other faith-related sites in Leicester continues this evening at Neve Shalom, the synagogue of Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation. As well being contracted to work 20 hours a week for Leicester Council of Faiths, I now do a day and a half a week with Faith Awareness, the inter-faith programme of Christians Aware.

Neve Shalom means "Oasis of Peace" (Isaiah 32:18). The Synagogue is named after a village near Jerusalem known as Neve Shalom / Wahat al Salam, where Jews, Christians and Muslims live and work together for the common good. The village is an inspiration to Jewish people, in Leicester and farther afield. The distinctive building, designed by celebrated Leicester architect Ernest Gimson, has an interesting history of its own. This is hinted at in an article by Olwen Hughes, published in the Leicester Mercury in January 2013 and reproduced in my blog.

I've made half a dozen visits to the LPJC Synagogue since my first time in July 2011, and have always enjoyed the hospitality of the community there. 

We're keeping up good numbers on these Monday evening visits. We've brought along a dozen people this evening (half of them newbies) and we're matched one-to-one by members of the LPJC.

The original theme for this series of visits was "food and festivals". Our hosts this evening have stuck to that theme. Dov Stekel gives a short talk about the theory of kosher food and its place in the life of the community. That's followed up by a practical demonstration, with a delightful spread of food and drink linked to different occasions in the Jewish calendar.

This is the fifth of six Faith Awareness visits planned for Monday evenings in May and June, the others being
I may not be able to attend every visit personally, but I hope to arrange for a blog post on each of them. Watch this space!

Saturday, 15 June 2013


This evening I'm at The Buddhist House, Narborough, for a vegetarian barbecue and garden evening. It's been raining quite heavily, off and on, for most of the day, and there's quite a downpour on the way here (hailstones in the middle of June, for goodness sake). But it stops and the sky clears around 1830, so enjoyment of the evening isn't dampened.

The Buddhist House is home to the Tariki Trusta community of people who believe that Buddhism is something to be lived, not merely a practice to be fitted in during a busy day. The name Tariki means "other-power" in Japanese, a fundamental concept in Pureland Buddhism. It's the basis for Other-Centred Approach, the model of psychology underpinning the psychotherapy taught on Tariki courses, which are offered at The Buddhist House.

 It's a fine, rambling house of character and distinction, dating from around 1900, with a garden to match. There's a Buddha statue nestled under a lime tree.

I get the chance to chat with some interesting people, each of them with different manners of association with The Buddhist House or for being here this evening. I also discuss briefly with Carolyn Brazier tentative plans to start an informal collective group bringing together the many and varied groups of Buddhists in Leicester and Leicester. I've been asked to help get that going as an "honest broker" working with and between most of these groups.

I also propose that The Buddhist House be fitted into next year's programme of Faith Awareness summer visits to places of worship and faith-related sites in and around Leicester. I'm sure we could fill a minibus for an evening visit here.

This is my first visit to The Buddhist House, though it's not for want of being asked. I honestly can't think why I haven't made the short trip out here before. I mean, the Arriva number 50 bus from Leicester city centre comes straight to the door, for goodness sake! So I have no excuse for not coming again.

Monday, 10 June 2013


Some of the group at the Islam Information Centre this evening
The Faith Awareness series of summer visits to places of worship and other faith-related sites in Leicester continues this evening at the Islam Information Centre, Highfield Street.
I was last here less than a week ago, helping out with a group of Year 5 pupils from Sandfield Close Primary on a visit arranged in association with The Mighty Creatives. The children had cameras, digital voice recorders and all kinds of art materials, to capture their experiences and impressions visiting not only here, but also the Jain Centre, Leicester Cathedral and BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir. Back in the classroom they'll be producing material for a display entitled "Faith in Neighbours" that will be on show in Curve during An Indian Summer later this month.

I'm glad to say that we have the biggest turnout so far for these Monday evening visits, with an even dozen of us at the start. Had any more arrived, the group would have had to be renamed "Christians Galore"!

Each of the three floors in the Centre has themed rooms. The ground floor and reception area is "Discover Islam". On the first floor are two rooms, "Status of Women" and "Islamic World of Science". In the last of these, we watch a short DVD feature, Library of Secrets, starring Sir Ben Kingsley, which reveals some of the contributions that Islam has made to some of the most essential aspects of the modern world. We're introduced to illustrious figures from the Golden Age of Muslim civilization (roughly coinciding with what is still called the Dark Ages in European history) who pushed back the frontiers of theory and practice in matters such as
This is very well made, à la Harry Potter: accessible, enjoyable and interesting for children and adults alike.

I remember when I first heard about characters such as these and their achievements, the glories of the Golden Age of Muslim civilization and how much that magnificent culture has bequeathed to our modern world. That was in 1979, when I was 19 years old. I was astonished at what I learned then and questioned why I hadn't known any of this before. How could I have gone through a liberal educational process, the finest that the Scottish system - long the envy of much of the rest of the world - had to offer, yet been taught nothing about this? Did my teachers even know about these things? Did those who had taught them? I felt like I uncovered these hidden truths, which are now gaining ground as common knowledge, through the writings of William Sears and George Townshend, little known apologists for what was a little known faith in my late teenage years. Sometimes it felt like being a detective or lifting the lid on a conspiracy theory as I found out more and more. It's good that institutions such as the Islam Information Centre exist today to redress the balance and close some of these yawning gaps in our knowledge.

Kamran Qayyuam & Abu Bakar
Kamran Qayyum and Abu Bakar are our guides through the rooms. They're supported by Daud Sameja (Joint Coordinator of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group), who gives a short introductory talk and fields the Q&A at the end. In the photo above, Kamran and Abu are seen with a display of copies of the Qur’án in different languages. To the left of the picture are translations of the Qur’án in Albanian, Chinese, French and German; to the right, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Tamil and Urdu translations. This in "The Noble Qur’án" room, one of the two themed rooms on the top floor. The other is dedicated to a display on "The Prophets of God (Peace Be Upon Them)".

After we've toured the themed rooms, we return to the reception area, where some food is laid on for us. We end with a relaxed Q&A and I present Kamran with a copy of Meeting Muslims, the latest in a series of books on encounters with people of different faiths published by Christians Aware. I checked beforehand that they didn't already have a copy of this. They didn't, surprisingly, since it was done with the help of several friends in Leicester (including Daud) and is published by an inter-faith organization based a mere stone's throw away. I'm glad to be able to rectify that omission this evening.

I get the remaining members of the group to pose for a photo at the front of the building. As we're leaving, I encourage our Muslim friends to join us on the visit to Neve Shalom - Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation's synagogue - next Monday evening. I hope that some of them will be able to take us up on the offer.

This is the fourth of six Faith Awareness visits planned for Monday evenings in May and June, the others being

I may not be ale to attend every visit personally, but I hope to arrange for a blog post on each of them. Watch this space!

Monday, 3 June 2013


The Faith Awareness series of summer visits to places of worship and other faith-related sites in Leicester continues this evening at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Gipsy Lane. I'm obliged to be elsewhere this evening, so much of the content of this blog post has been provided by Barbara Butler (thanks Barbara!)

The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is directly across the road from the place the group's last visit in this programme: All Saints Church, Kerrysdale Avenue.

Our group was welcomed and shown into the main temple, where we admired the beauty and peace of the space. We also appreciated the watercolour depictions of the life of the guru. We were shown round the classrooms and talked to some of the boys who were learning Gujarati. This was made easy because we had a child with us. We finally joined in with the worship of the community.
Frieze in the vestibule at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
This is the third of six Faith Awareness visits planned for Monday evenings in May and June, the others being

I may not be ale to attend every visit personally, but I hope to arrange for a blog post on each of them. Watch this space!

I'm bringing a group of Year 5 pupils from Sandfield Close Primary here tomorrow morning. That will be the third of four visits in two days that these children are making to local places of worship, arranged in association with The Mighty Creatives (a charity based in Leicester's LCB Depot, working across the East Midlands to champion young people's creativity and innovation). Artwork that the children produce as an outcome of their visits will be on display under the title, "Faith in Neighbours" in the Mezzanine at Curve as part of An Indian Summer later this month.

Sunday, 2 June 2013


Nav Aurora, GMB, Cllr Manjula Sood, Debbie from Asda
Late morning and early afternoon today I'm at Sant Nirankari Bhawan, for a Big Lunch event, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Queen's coronation. The Big Lunch receives sponsorship and support from Asda.

This is the first time I've visited the group's centre in Prebend Street, on the site of an old Quaker Meeting House - the second to be occupied by the Society of Friends in Leicester (built 1877, closed 1956).

Sant Nirankari Mission styles itself "an all-embracing spiritual movement dedicated to peace, love and human fraternity. ... The mission is a platform for spiritual awakening with the simple philosophy that God is for all humanity irrespective of age or background, age, gender, political ideology or any other differentiating factor."

On entrance, the first thing I see is an interesting exhibition showing a range of community activities: blood donor drive; Easter egg donation; Universal Oneness Community Games; Mystical Musical Events; street shows. 
The programme begins with half an hour of Bhangra dancing, that starts out as a demonstration and ends up a bit of a rammy. There's a nice photo above, taken around the halfway point. A couple of minutes later, I'm up dancing in the circle (I'd time the rammy as starting from that point). I'm not often seen dancing in public, but I'm dragged on to the floor by Cllr Manjula Sood and she's my boss, so how could I refuse? This is followed by a demonstration of Dandiya (below). No way am I getting involved in that: those women have sticks!

After this demonstration, I make my way to the langar and share in the vegetarian food and soft drinks. In the main hall, there's a "laughing yoga" session going on, with audio piped into the room where we're eating. It takes me a few minutes to figure out just what the bizarre noises are for - and when I do, it's a bit of a relief!

I'm moved to say that this is one of the most genuinely diverse, harmonious, joyous inter faith events that I've attended, in Leicester or elsewhere. The congregation here is remarkably varied. Going on visual cues alone, some are distinctly Hindu; others Muslim; others still, Sikh; a few are Christian. This could prompt a debate about the relationship between conventional markers of culture and geographical origin, spiritual belief and religious practice - but everyone's too busy getting along and being happy together for that.
A couple of Police Community Support Officers attending today appear to have resolved that hoary old chestnut about whether members of the emergency services should remove their shoes in a place of worship.
Given that this is my first visit here, I'll be back in just a few days' time. There's a talk on the Bhagavad Gita, given by Mrs Jaya Rowe this coming Wednesday (5 June, 1830).

Tuesday, 28 May 2013


The Gatehouse, University of Leicester Chaplaincy Centre
At the University of Leicester's Chaplaincy Centre this lunchtime, for the summer term lecture sponsored by the World Faiths Advisory Group (WFAG).

The World Faiths Advisory Group exists to promote understanding and co-operation among faith groups on campus, by
  • exploring spirituality in a multi-faith context
  • welcoming students and staff of all faiths
  • working towards equal opportunities in relation to all faith groups

This lecture is part of WFAG's programme of encouraging people of different faiths associated with the university to meet, mix and get to know each other better. Stephen Foster (Co-ordinating Chaplain) tells us that WFAG recently organized a "speed dating" event in this very room, involving representatives of several faith societies on campus (he apologises for using that term, but he can't think of a better one right now - and at least we all know what he means by that).

The title of today's lecture is "Forgive? Forget? Why I still teach the Holocaust". The speaker is Aubrey Newman, Emeritus Professor of History and Past Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester.

Prof. Newman speaks in the Octagon from 1300, following a light lunch, in front of an audience two dozen strong, with Bahá'í, Buddhist, Sikh and several denominations of Christian representation.

Prof. Newman asks us to consider his talk as an Apologia pro vita mea: a defence of one's life. Technically speaking, he is still an academic historian of the 18th century. Even at this late stage, he ponders whether he has taken the right path or should return to a biography of George III that has languished, two-thirds finished, in a drawer for many a year.

He was first invited to teach a special course on the Holocaust at the University of Leicester in the early 1980s. He muses that we'd be hard pressed to find someone who has spent so long teaching a subject which he abhors.

Two quotations feature prominently in the presentation:
"Those who do not know history's mistakes are bound to repeat them." (George Santayana, 1863-1952)
"You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to give it up." (Rabbi Hillel, c.110 BCE - 10 CE)

Turning to the title of his talk, he asks: can he forgive? No. Can he forget? Definitely not.

The refusal to forgive does not denote any kind of vindictiveness on the part of the speaker. Prof. Newman doesn't accept the notion of vicarious forgiveness, any more than he accepts the notion of vicarious sin. As we are responsible for our own behaviour, so the only people who can forgive are those against whom the act has been perpetrated. Therefore the only people with the right to forgive the Holocaust are the victims themselves - and forgiveness cannot be obtained from the dead.

And as far as forgetting goes, it appears that much of Europe has forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust, if the rise of far right extremism is anything to go by.

During the Q&A I ask Prof. Newman a question. In his answer he refers to the Jewish community in Scotland with what sounds like first hand knowledge. After the meeting is over, I push him a little on this and he tells me that his family went up to Glasgow to escape the Blitz (arriving just in time to experience Glasgow's own), that he was educated at Queen's Park School and took his first degree at the University of Glasgow.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013


Anthony & Ann Gimpel
At Quaker Meeting House, Queens Road, this evening for the launch of Anthony Gimpel's new book, My Jewish Soul (published by Christians Aware).

There are more than 60 people in the room when Barbara Butler (Executive Secretary, Christians Aware) opens the meeting, inviting David Patterson to speak first. David is a neighbour of Anthony Gimpel and his wife Ann in Loughborough. He speaks about Anthony's influence on the way that Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated there and how this is informed by Anthony's personal engagement with the Holocaust, as described in the book.

In the worldview Anthony espouses in his book, forgiveness must come before understanding, not the other way round as has long persisted in the classic British liberal model espoused by influential figures such as George Eliot and John Stuart Mill. Understanding oneself comes before understanding others. So  it follows that in order to understand oneself, one must forgive oneself.

Anthony - and of course his book - are deeply influenced by Quaker spirituality. The book is a search for his own inner soul, but at each stage of that search, it shows how he is engaged with the outer world: family, community, society, the world, always leading back to himself.

Next to speak is Ruth Fraser. She, in common with Anthony, describes herself as a Jewish Quaker. She offers the memorable observation that for a Jew to dwell on the Holocaust feels like applying a Brillo Pad to the soul.

David Clark, speaking next, says that he would locate the essence of Anthony's book on page 57: but he won't say what that is, or read the passage to us. If we want to find out for ourselves, we should buy the book! For the sake of the blog, I prevail upon him later and he points out the following paragraphs:
A friend was asking me about prayer. I answered saying that perhaps prayer is what happens when your heart genuinely wants something and the universe responds. It is instructive to hear my friend's comment: She said something like "you mean when I really want in my heart to do something." No, that is not what I meant. You may think it is what I said but listen carefully and notice the addition of one little word in her comment: I. It is quite different for your heart to want something and for you to want something in your heart. In the first case the universe responds: in the second the universe remains silent. That is why "I want never gets."
So what then do I mean about the universe responding? Being aware of what your heart is saying may allow you to be aware of the response of the universe but that is not a given. The response may or ay not accord with your conscious understanding. You may or may not want what the universe if going to give you. Do you really know what your heart wants? Is your ego happy with this? Will you accept the consequences? Only you can know and the universe is not particularly bothered whether you do or not. The key is your self awareness. Your ego and your conscience are irrelevant. It is neither here not there.

Just before this meeting, early news reports of the incident in Woolwich begin breaking. I get the feeling I'm the only one who knows about it, from the simple fact that no one else mentions it. Something of a contrast to what's been going on here this evening, I'm sure you'll agree, faithful reader.

Monday, 20 May 2013


The Faith Awareness series of summer visits to places of worship and other faith-related sites in Leicester continues this evening at All Saints Church, Kerrysdale Avenue. I'm obliged to be elsewhere this evening, so much of the content of this blog post has been provided by Barbara Butler (thanks Barbara!) 
The visit gives a welcome insight into a multicultural and international community who worship here. The majority of the congregation is from the Punjab, from both India and Pakistan. They worship at 1500 every Sunday and offer opportunities and support for all age groups. They have also made collections of money and goods for Christian communities in Pakistan who have lost their homes in violence. There is a separate Tamil congregation.
We enjoyed a lively discussion about interfaith work and the reasons for it. We talked about the value of understanding each other and of working together for peace. We were asked to remain in contact with the community and to invite members to our meetings. We were also invited to attend the church and to give a talk about Christians Aware and Faith Awareness. Hopefully this will take place in July.
A carving of the angel Gabriel, above the entrance to All Saints Church
On 15 June the church celebrates its first anniversary, marking the date when the membership of Leicester United Christian Fellowship became a Church of England congregation with its home in All Saints Church (which used to e St Gabriel's). We've been invited to attend the celebrations.

All Saints Church is directly across the road from the place the group's next scheduled visit in this programme: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Gipsy Lane.

This is the second of six Faith Awareness visits planned for Monday evenings in May and June, the others being

I may not be ale to attend every visit personally, but I hope to arrange for a blog post on each of them. Watch this space!

Monday, 13 May 2013


The Faith Awareness schedule of summer visits to places of worship in Leicester begins this evening at the Jain Centre in Oxford Street.

I must have visited the Jain Centre more than a dozen times. I think I first came here in 1988, only a year after I moved to this part of the world from Dumbarton. On each visit I see something new and learn something new. I don't know how anyone can say, "Oh yes, I've seen the Jain temple" and just tick it off their list. This place seems to change, develop, evolve in ways - and at a rate - that set it apart from most other faith sites in Leicester.

Our small group is taken on a guided tour of the Centre by Dr Ramesh Mehta and Pradip Mehta. As well as giving us an overview of the history and teachings of Jainism, they describe the history of the Centre itself and discuss the community's plans for celebrating the 25th anniversary of its foundation this summer. Many of the occasions associated with this anniversary are taking place in London, because it's central for the many participants coming from overseas and because Jains in Leicester don't have access to venues here large enough to be able to hold the number of people taking part. The Centre has a flag flying above it, which is renewed annually on 14 July, the date of the founding of the Centre. The flag which will be raised there on 14 July this year (precisely at 12:39), marking the silver jubilee of the Centre, is currently being taken on a circuit of Jain community centres, homes and places of worship around the country. At each stop, it becomes a focal point for practices of devotion, meditation and purification. Dr Mehta said we could think of it as being like the Jain community's version of the Olympic Torch relay. Dr Mehta helped me write the Council of Faiths leaflet on Jains, which was one of my first tasks in that post. Now that it's time to prepare a new edition of that leaflet, I hope to call on his help again.

Carved pillars of Jaisalmer yellow sandstone in the worship area of the Jain Centre 
When I was first looking for information about Jains and Jainism for my work, nigh on six years ago, I could find little that was accessible or reliable online. That has changed recently with the appearance of professional sits created by Jain organisations such as the Institute of, the Jainpedia Project, a comprehensive section on the BBC Religions website, thorough representation on Wikipedia and on more specialist sites such as the New World Encyclopedia. Even Kew Gardens Plant Cultures website has a section on Jainism.

The hand represents fearlessness and symbolizes the attitude of ahimsa (non-violence) to all living creatures

Dr Mehta tells us that if we want to understand the Jain way of life in a nutshell, we should remember the three "A"s:

He also gives us a mnemonic by which we can remember the principles of this ancient religion with a message for the modern world:
  • "J" is for justice
  • "A" is for amity
  • "I" is for introspection
  • "N" is for nobility

Two of my favourite Jain Centre facts: the building accommodates several sects of Jainism, each with their distinctive interpretations, identities and practices. The different sects have their own spot set aside in the Centre for their use.

My other favourite Jain Centre fact: it's the only Jain place of worship in the world with stained glass windows. Rather than brick up, cover or replace with ordinary glass the stained glass windows from of the original Congregational Church, the local Jain community decided to create a series of windows of their own, telling the story of Mahavira (599-527 BCE), 24th and latest in the line of Tirthankaras. A contemporary of Gautama the Buddha, Mahavira is credited with establishing Jainism in the form we know today.

Detail from one of the stained glass windows in the Jain Centre, illustrating episodes form the life of Mahavira
I love that word: Tirthankara. The best translation into English is "ford-maker". Think of this life as a fast-flowing river which can only be crossed by means of the ford made by the Tirthankara. To ignore the ford that the Tirthankara has made and try to cross otherwise means being caught up in the currents and risking being swept to your doom!

Monday, 11 March 2013


At ChristChurch, Clarendon Park, for the seventh session in the course, "Going On Beyond: Meditation and Mysticism in the World Faiths". This nine-week course is an interfaith opportunity presented by Christians Aware, as part of its Faith Awareness programme. It is presented in association with Leicester Serene Reflection Meditation Group.

This evening we're expecting to receive a presentation on "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" but our speaker fails to appear. So Kevin Commons and Ian Grayling (from the Serene Meditation Group) and I speedily organise a DIY session in place of the one advertised.

We set up three groups of five to discuss three related terms that impact on theory and practice: "meditation", "contemplation" and "concentration". Lively discussion ensues over the next half hour or so, during which we raise such points as those listed below:
  • Is there a hierarchy of these terms?
  • Do commentators or practitioners consider any of them superior or inferior to the others?
  • Does one have to go through different levels before experiencing each one?
  • Once you reach one of these stages (e.g. “concentration”) are you done with the others that come before it?
  • How do they relate to other terms used to describe similar experiences (e.g. "absorption", "reflection")?
  • What is there relation to states of mind where there is an absence of mental processes?
  • These terms are defined and redefined in complementary or contradictory ways according to the disciplines, paraphernalia and style of practice.
  • We should beware of falling into the trap of believing that we can use these (or any other) terms to describe or express experiences which are beyond words – especially as they are themselves translations.
  • We end with a short spell of meditation practice after the zazen (“just sitting”) form that we experienced last week.

I think we did alright this evening, for a spot of DIY.