A Ministry of Friendship

Introduction

One of the great characteristics in the life of Jesus which I pick up from the Gospels is that Jesus had many friends and loved parties. "Of course he loved parties", said a Jewish friend of mine - "He was a good Jew".

For all the world

It is this Jewishness of Jesus that we need to hold in our minds and hearts. The message of reconciliation which Jesus proclaims is for all the nations of the world but somehow Christians have often transferred him into the European culture and then tried to hold him prisoner. Jesus is for all the world but we have so hedged him round by doctrine that we have made him in many ways a symbol of Western imperialism and unacceptable to people of other faith traditions.

How can we reach out to other faith traditions and cultures?

We urgently need to correct this distortion and ask ourselves how we can reach out to people of other faith traditions and cultures in these troubled days.

Being a celibate, friendship has played such an important part in my life. I could not be a balanced and happy human being without it. It is friendship with a wide variety of people of all faith traditions and none which makes my life such a rich experience.

Use the contacts already in place

There are many Christians who do want to reach out in friendship but don’t know how to make the approach. They may be afraid of giving offence through being unaware of customs and traditions. I think the first thing is to use the contacts already in place through work or trade or neighbourhood.

Slow down a little, smile

Ordinary human contact in the course of our daily lives can yield rich fruit if we will only take the time. We are all in too much of a hurry. As a simple contribution towards making a better world, can we slow down a little in order to have time for the ordinary courtesies of life which have got lost over the past few decades? A smile makes such a difference to a stressful commuter journey. It is so wonderfully summed up in Jim Cotter’s version of Psalm 15:

'a glimpse of compassion in times that are savage’[2]

Notice when festivals such as Divali or Eid occur

We can give more support to our Asian run corner shops which are growing up over much of the country. If we shop there regularly, we can develop real friendships and show an interest in community and family celebrations.

It is a good idea to notice when festivals such as Divali or Eid occur. Next time you buy a diary look for one which gives all the major festivals. Then you can have an awareness of what is happening amongst the different faith communities. Many faith communities do want to foster a better understanding of their customs and practice and therefore have some of their celebrations open to visitors.

A local interfaith group

Your local interfaith group, if there is one, would know of such opportunities. It is important to contact such groups in order to coordinate overtures of friendship otherwise one could find minority communities wearing a hunted look! It is important to be well briefed about customs and etiquette, otherwise offence can unwittingly be given.

Local churches or neighbourhood issues

If there is no interfaith group in your area it may be possible to make contacts through a local church. Some enlightened clergy talk about their parishes overlapping and have networks of cooperation on local issues. If that is not so in your area and you want to make contacts, get involved in local neighbourhood issues and make sure that minority groups get a voice in local debates.

If we take an interest in any local ethnic minority groups we will become alert to their particular needs. At present Muslim communities are feeling under threat so a simple message of support from a local church can be an enormous help. From that gesture may come opportunities of meeting. We are all human and have the same concerns over such issues as the safety of our streets and the the welfare of our children and it may be that some cooperation can occur in these areas.

Build networks of friendship and support

Ideally, networks of friendship and support need to be built up before a major crisis occurs. It may be that minority groups have no place of their own in which to meet. Here Christian churches can rent their church halls to such groups. This is already happening in many places. This has been happening at a church in Epsom for several years and so it was a natural venue for over one hundred Christians and Muslims to meet to pray for peace during the war in Afghanistan.

Schools and toddler groups

Schools are another important place of contact. Most schools have some children from ethnic minority groups. Parents can have opportunities for friendship at school events. Don’t try too hard, relax and enjoy each other’s children. Mother and toddler groups provide another opportunity. Friendship naturally arises out of interest in each others' children.

At work

Many of us work alongside people from other faith traditions. With so much pressure in the workplace it is hard to find time for friendship but opportunities for support are there if we show ourselves interested in other people’s culture and religious practice. We may be able to support them in applications for special leave that will allow them to celebrate their festivals or just simply arrange respective duties to allow this. All Christians need to be aware of how difficult it can be for minority groups to get the leave they want. They are forced to take leave over the Christian festivals and then have difficulty getting leave for their own festivals.

A multicultural, multifaith world

We all live in a multicultural, multifaith world. There can be very few places where there is no ethnic mix. If that is not so for you then you are very deprived indeed. Multiculturalism is gift not threat. Our lives will be so much richer for the sharing. We need an attitude of mind where the mix is encouraged and the stranger is welcomed.

This is a great challenge for us in Britain where desperate people are seeking asylum. Can we make such people feel welcome and take the trouble to discover their particular customs and needs? Do let’s try to get rid of the attitude of them and us. We are all human in a very insecure world and those of us who are blessed with this world’s goods could feel a lot safer if we were prepared to share.

Concentrate on being human together

We are bidden to love our neighbours and these days our neighbours are often very different from us and this can be threatening for some people. There is only one race - the human race and we need to concentrate on being human together. A good topic for debate, if we get the opportunity is, 'what does it mean to be human?' It is as human beings we need to meet in order to build up respect and trust.

Friendships cannot flourish if there are hidden agendas. If we only take an interest in our neighbours in order to try to convert and make them 'like us' we will only build mistrust and suspicion. We have to take care how we build.(1 Corinthians 3 vv. 10 - 15). If we are to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ we have to have a profound respect for our neighbour and his/her unique identity and being and do all in our power to enable that person to find their true nature.

We have to learn to see something more of the Triune God we worship in our neighbours of other faith traditions.

Footnotes
  1. 'Friends on the Way: A life enriched by engagement with people of many faiths' by Maureen Henderson. ISBN 0-7162-0529-7. Epworth.
  2. Jim Cotter 'Through Desert Places, A Version of the Psalms 1-50', Cairn Publications