Ye have seen his Natal Star

An exceptional storm

On Christmas Day 1497 Vasco Da Gama first reached the South Eastern shores of South Africa.  He named the area Natal.  It is now called Kwazulu Natal.  Recently, I visited the area on behalf of Christian Aid to explore issues around HIV/AIDS in conversations with theologians, including those living with HIV/AIDS.                 

On the day I arrived in Pietermaritzburg, as I shared a meal with staff from the School of Religion and Theology in the University of Kwazulu Natal, the challenges raised by HIV/AIDS began to confront me. Bongi Zengele quoted Mark: 4: 37-38.

“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 

Bongi said this Gospel story aroused a lively debate as people living with HIV/AIDS discussed it in a Bible Study with her.  “HIV/AIDS is the storm,” they said.  “What gives us strength and removes some of our fear is the knowledge that Jesus is with us.  It is the Church that seems to be asleep and not caring about the storm. It is time to wake up the Church.”

The storm in South Africa is extreme.  UNAIDS estimates that, at the end of 2003 there were 5.3 million people in South Africa living with HIV/AIDS, 21.5% of the population.  Nowhere is the storm worse than in Kwazulu Natal, where 37% of the population have been diagnosed HIV positive. 

These are alarming figures.  The Revd. Dr. Colin Jones, HIV/AIDS Programme Co-Ordinator, S. African Anglican Church said to me, “The exceptionality of HIV/AIDS requires an exceptionality of response.  Nothing less will do.”

An exceptional response?

What would an exceptional response involve? It would begin by acknowledging that people living with HIV/AIDS enjoy the “Hermeneutical Privilege”.  God’s will, way and word are discerned more clearly in those who tend to be dismissed as ‘victims’ and ‘the poor’.  Recognising this, the Churches’ response would be distinguished not by frozen silence or frosty judgmental attitudes, but rather by a profound respect for and embrace of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Such a response would be consistent with Jesus’ style.  Jesus was inclusive and refused to despise, judge or exclude those whom society rejected. When I met with a group of Zulu Christian women they immediately turned to the Gospel story where Jesus challenged judgemental leaders: “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  (John: 8:7.)

An exceptional response would go further, and display a readiness to listen to what people living with HIV/AIDS have to say.   Betty Govinden Devarakshanam is a lay Pastor in the Anglican Parish of St. Aidan’s, Durban, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Durban.  She said that people living with HIV/AIDS teach us about living and dying and suffering.  Using Henry Nouwen’s phrase, she said that “the churches need to listen to the ‘wounded healers’ who can be prophetic voices to question the structures that keep HIV/AIDS in place.”

An exceptional response would be based on an understanding of the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Methodist Church in Britain has produced a document entitled “The Body of Christ has AIDS.” Does Christ identify with us to the extent that His Body and Blood are HIV Positive?  Phumzile Zondi is a member of staff in the School of Religion and Theology, University of Kwazulu Natal.  She has disclosed her status as HIV Positive.  Phumzile said, “ I need the Body and Blood of Christ to be HIV/AIDS free.  I, as HIV Positive, need the Body and Blood of Christ to give me strength. I need to know that He stands with me, embraces me, holds me, loves me. I need the HIV/AIDS free Blood of Christ to make me whole.”  The Body of Christ which is the Church may have HIV/AIDS.  But the Body of Christ who is the Second Person of The Holy Trinity does not have HIV/AIDS.  The Blood of Christ of which we partake at the Eucharistic Table is not HIV Positive. 

Finally, an exceptional response would involve changing ourselves, as individuals and as churches.  Colin Jones says that “fundamentally, HIV/AIDS latches on to our most basic needs for respect, embrace and fullness of life.  It is not just about sex and individual behaviour.  It is about how structures and institutions behave, especially churches.  Churches must wake up to the fact that their patriarchal, hierarchical, parochial structures and theologies are destructive.  If we do not wake up to these realities we will not be life giving.” 

I left South Africa convinced that, as followers of Christ, we have no choice other than to wake up, and see his Natal Star.

Inderjit Bhogal
1st December 2004                       

 

If one member suffers, all suffer together

Millions of people across Europe observed the three minute silence on Wednesday 5th January 2005 at Noon.  I chose to join the silence in Castle Market, Sheffield.  At 1200noon precisely a bell rang.  Everyone stopped doing what they were doing.  Shoppers stopped in their tracks.  Stall holders stopped serving.  The usual hubbub of the Market Place was hushed.  The full three minute silence was kept.  People of different ages, colours, cultures and creeds stood still and silent alongside each other.  Language is no barrier in the eloquence of silence.  This mark of respect for people of many backgrounds who died so far away in the Tsunami disaster, and survivors who continue to suffer, was deeply moving. We stood together like members of a global Family mourning the loss of loved ones.  Tears were shed..

There is psychological trauma that follows tragedy.  This is normal.  It is expressed in shocked silence, denial, and anger which includes questions like why has this awful thing happened. There is also theological trauma.  This is when religious belief sincerely held is shaken.   It is well expressed in the words Jesus Christ spoke as he hung on a cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This is a real question.  Most of us can identify with it.  It is a real human experience.

This question is being raised and discussed widely at present.

The Tsunami Disaster began to unfold along the coasts of Asian and African countries as many people were celebrating the Christmas festival of giving and sharing, and focussing on the good news that God is with us.  As the scale of the tragedy began to confront us there has been a phenomenal response of compassion and generosity.  Photos and Video films taken by British and European tourists in Indonesia and Sri Lanka have made the Tsunami and its trail of death and destruction visible to us.  Many questions have also been raised.

For example, how God could allow such destruction, death and suffering.  Many ask how it can be possible to believe in the existence of God in the context of overwhelming tragedy.  If God does exist has God abandoned us? 

There is value in engaging with questions like these.  Discussion is not about providing answers, but rather to provoke further exploration and clarification of the questions.

What kind of a God is it that “allows” suffering and tragedy, and who believes in such a God?  Is God some remote, powerful Being, sitting on a “sapphire throne” and who by some obscure criteria chooses to intervene in earthly matters to prevent or promote particular events?  Is God sometimes present with us and sometimes absent, if so how does God decide what to do?  Where is God when not with us?

Human reaction to tragedy is often accompanied by the need to find reasons for it, and someone to blame.  When there is no human culprit to point a finger at, it is not just a natural disaster – it must be an “act of God”.  Insurance companies use this language.  Does this practice not promote bad and irresponsible theology?

Biblical witness to God opens with a story of God creatively using the chaos that is there to make a new world. Here God does not cause the chaos or allow it but works in it and calls people to share in the task of  caring and construction.  In the New Testament, the sufferings of Christ, shows God who suffers with us.  The chaos is there.  The suffering is there.  The insight is that God is there in it.  Only a God who also suffers can help.

A horrible tragedy with a horrific loss of life and livelihood on a massive scale is before us.  The response to it  has been outstanding.  It is an inspiration that people of all Faiths and those who profess no religious faith are coming together in acts of compassion working with those who need to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, and those who mourn the loss of loved ones. 

There is a need now to build on the human compassion that has shown us that we can all make a difference.  As the general public has led Governments to respond more positively to this tragedy, we remember that  in other contexts 8000 people die each day from HIV/AIDS.  24000 people die each day from hunger.  Poverty remains the biggest killer in the world. If Governments go on to also forgive debts and to eradicate poverty that would be a good long term outcome of the Tsunami Appeal.  In 2005 the British Government will hold the presidency of the European Union and the G8  Summit of powerful nations.  We can help by pressing the Government for positive global development.  Faith and humanity are not judged by their capacity to explain God or good and evil but by their contribution to positively changing the world in favour of the poorest and those who hurt most.

5th January 2005

Tavistock Gardens Meditation 17th March 2005

IT WAS A LOVELY SPRING MORNING. I SAT BESIDE THE GANDHI STATUE JUST BEFORE A MEETING ON ANTI-SLAVERY AND WROTE THIS MEDITATION.

Flowers budding and breaking
Into bloom,
None accept bondage of winter and soil,
But take life from these.

Wind blows
Where it wills.

Young people on the grass
– look up to the skies;
Older people bent over
– look down to the soil and earth.

A tree planted on 6th August
Honours the memory of the victims of HIROSHIMA.

A large rock is a tribute
“to all those who have established
And are maintaining their right
To refuse to kill.”

In their midst
Mahatma Gandhi keeps the pose of Samadhi,
An endless silent vigil
But whispering words of wisdom
To all who will listen:
“Accept no bondage,
Stay on the freedom track.
Walk and work and pray with pride.
Chains of bondage will not
Hold you forever.
Winter will pass.
Life will burst forth again,
And bloom and grow and blow
In the wind.”

Slavery and the image of God

“Am I not a man and a brother?”

This question goes to the heart of the Creation Story where it is asserted that human beings are made “in the image of God” [Genesis 1:26-27], and pronounced “very good”.  This means that each human being is of value and worth, and sacred – to be treated with respect.  It means that there is one race, the human race, with all our diversity. 

God is the source of the breath of life in all people.  Human beings are blessed with freedom of movement [“fill all the earth”] and of choice [Gen 2:16-17].  This is what it is to be human and to be made in the image of God.  It is about character as much as about physical appearance.

The Creation Story also acknowledges that as soon as there is human community, the issues of dominance and power come into play in human relationships.  Perverted selfishness leads to self preservation at the expense of others.  Man exploits woman.  Brother over powers brother. [Genesis 3 and 4 ].

The question arises: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” [Genesis 4:9].

Aristotle was later to write in his Politics:

“Humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves.”

Biblically this division is demonstrated in the stories of:
• Cain and Abel
• Shem/Japheth and Ham/Canaan
• Sarah and Hagar
• Isaac and Ishmael
• Joseph and his brothers
• Israel and Egypt/Babylon

It is a division that illustrates the developing power struggles and stories of domination and enslavement.  Slavery is part of the biblical story [See for example the experience of Hagar [Genesis 9:16 ], of Israel in Egypt [ Exodus 1-12 ] and read the instructions given in Leviticus 25:39-46] and many of the slaves are women.  These stories help us to remember that discrimination, racial hatred and religious bigotry is part of biblical witness.  They are stories of human failings in the context of which we are led to reflect on God’s unfailing commitment and faithfulness to people and to make our own response.

These stories illustrate the meaning of sin, all that is done to deny freedom and the fullness of life to anyone.  Sin is the active rebellion against God’s will and has devastating consequences. 

In these stories can be traced the roots of contemporary divisions along the lines of colour, creed, class and caste.

JESUS AND SLAVERY

“In as much as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40

Jesus did not specifically address the issue of slavery but he had a lot to say about equality in relationships.  He spoke against oppressive and domineering relationships.

Jesus said his Disciples are not to be characterised by oppressive/domineering relationships.  How are relationships to be sustained without being oppressive/domineering?  See Matthew 23:8-10, John15:15.

What example does Jesus’ own lifestyle reflect?

• Jesus is born in a stable.  Luke 2.
• Jesus himself took upon himself the role of service.  Luke 22:27.
• Jesus washed his Disciples’ feet.  John 13.
• Jesus refused the temptation to glorify himself.  Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13.
• Jesus rejected titles people tried to bestow upon him.  John 6:15.
• Jesus is mocked, beaten and executed.  Mark 14-16.

Jesus’ first Sermon, according to Luke, quoted the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“…He has sent me to bring release to the captives…” [Luke 4:18-19].  Matthew records Jesus as saying: “…just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40.  He also said people should let prospective slaves go free [Matthew 18:23-35].

The early Church remembered his style and reflected on it in a Hymn.  Philippians 2:6-11.  They also developed the theme of the “Body of Christ” [1 Corinthians 12:12-27] where all are members and belong.

The story of Jesus, his humble birth, his ministry of preaching the kingdom of God, of transformation, his passion, his crucifixion and resurrection  helps us to remember the depths of the love of God; to reflect on God’s mission-a mission that desires freedom and the fullness of life for all, and to respond.

JESUS AND JOSEPH

Compare Psalm 105:17-22 and Philippians 2:6-11

In Psalm 105:17-22 Joseph prefigures the enslavement of Israel [Verses 23-45] that follows.  Joseph is sold as a slave, “his feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron”…he is freed and becomes “lord” of the house and “ruler” of all the possessions, and teaches wisdom.

Philippians 2:6-11 follows this pattern to reflect on Jesus who takes a downwards journey, “taking the form of a slave”, and then is “highly exalted.”

In the Psalm and in Philippians liturgy is used to remember pivotal stories, reflect on them, and to seek a response.

READING THE BIBLE

It is important to consider the whole biblical witness.  Some stories justify slavery, others challenge slavery.  In Genesis 16:9 Hagar who is running away is told by the angel of God to “return” to her mistress to be her slave.  St Paul recommended that slaves serve their masters “with fear and trembling.”  The Epistle to Philemon the Apostle returned a fugitive slave, Onesimus, to his master.

One race, the Human race

All human beings are made in the image of God.  Ethnic diversity is part of God’s wisdom, will and purpose.  One pattern – the image of God, but an amazing diversity.

Science confirms what theology has always insisted.  With all our distinctive, unique features, we are incredibly alike.

This means that the old theory of different races is out.  There are not different races any more than there are different castes, where one caste is inferior to another.

If we are one race how are our differences to be explained?  Is it our genes?  Our environment?  Different climates and therefore different skin colours, different foods and cuisines, different music and dance styles, different fashions and designs different Messengers and experiences of God, different scriptures, different responses to God and therefore different patterns of worship and prayer, and different religions.

Because we are different, we all have something of value to offer to each other and this enlarges us all.  Fantastic!  A cause for rejoicing and celebration.  So we celebrate diversity and promote equality.

Of course there are those who feel threatened by diversity and see no reason to celebrate it.  The politics of “race hate” are alive and spreading.  Racism – an evil grounded in the theory of different races which has been used to justify white supremacy – continues to influence individuals and institutions.

As long as human diversity is feared, human relations across ethnic, religious and colour differences will be jeopardised.  It is important therefore to protect, promote and celebrate diversity constantly.

The Biblical tools to resource this work include the insistence that we are all made “in the image of God” [Genesis 1:26].  Discrimination in Church is further challenged by the insistence that we are all members of “the Body of Christ” [1 Corinthians 12: 12-27].  These scriptural insights mean that Christians cannot give support to any ideology that discriminates against anyone on the basis of colour, gender, age, ability or sexuality.

We are called to do all we can in our communities, congregations and companies to ensure that equality and diversity will be embedded in our vision, structures and practice.  Give no support to anyone or any view that discriminates against or shows disrespect to people.

The test of any nation, organisation, community or congregation is its capacity to accommodate diversity and promote equality without wanting to dominate, diminish or destroy those who are different.  Constantly check your own attitudes and actions.  Always ask the question:  Will what is being planned enhance and maximise equality and diversity?  Settle for nothing less than actions and attitudes that promote equality and diversity.

Inderjit Bhogal

Morley-Thirukkovil, 24-30 January 2005

I accompanied Methodist Minister, the Rev Thurairajah Samuel of Morley, near Leeds, when he visited his home village Thirukkovil in East Sri Lanka.  He lost several members of his family and his family house in the Tsunami Disaster on 26th December 2005. This is my Report to the Morley Town Council upon my return.

“We are shocked at the destruction of the Tsunami.  This is the first time we have experienced such a disaster.  It will take years to recover from it.” These are words of the Rev Noel Fernando, President of the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka.  The Methodist Church is the most severely affected of the Protestant Churches in the Country, having lost many Members.  Many of the Methodist Chapels on the Eastern Coast are damaged beyond repair.

Churches and Church Schools were centres of rescue and relief in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami. A month on, most people made homeless by the Disaster are in shelter in Refugee Camps.  “The long term objective is to rebuild broken and repairable houses, to help people find employment, to provide support for widows and orphaned children, and to offer trauma counselling,” says the Rev Fernando who was the first person we interviewed .  We met him in Colombo.

Having undertaken a twelve hour flight from Manchester to Colombo, and then a bone shaking twelve hour drive from Colombo to Thirukkovil, we arrived on the Tsunami affected Eastern Coast on a bright moon-lit night, about 11.30 p.m. 26th January. The route included a mountain pass of many hair-pin bends, and spectacular scenery of lagoons, colourful Towns, Tea Plantations, a myriad Palm Trees and a variety of animal life.  The “Pearl in the Indian Ocean” is a fitting title for this beautiful country.  The beauty of the place and its gentle people gives a context to the years of communal violence and suffering, and the devastation of the Tsunami.

The moon shone like a search light all around us.  We realised we were in Tsunami damaged area.  The sea to our left , with blue white waves lapping on the shore just a few yards away, was restrained now like a Dog on a lead.  We drove on in total quietness, silenced by the awesome destruction along the Coast.  Driving over damaged, fragile bridges was terrifying.

We arrived at our destination, Thirukkovil Methodist Church on the stroke of midnight.  The Rev Rasarethnam Dayanithy welcomed us.  Soon we learned that he had been conducting a Service on that fateful Boxing Day, when he heard three bangs in quick succession around 8.55 a.m.  His first thought was that LTT fighters had fired Bombs at the Army.  Then he began to hear the shouts, “Sea is coming, Sea is coming” and water began to come into the Church.  Every one rushed out in panic and the minister led them into the upper floor of the Orphanage in the Grounds.  As a swimmer, he then went down and started to rescue as many people as he could.

“It was a nightmare” said the Minister.  Having heard the story we tried to sleep.
  
The news that Sam was in the Village had spread quickly.  Friends and relatives started to arrive early in the morning to meet him.  This reunion was touched with pain and pleasure. There was embrace and smiles and tears.

We made our way towards the Sea and towards Sam’s family house.  It took practically an hour to walk a few Hundred yards.  Along the way many of Sam’s relatives and friends came meet him and to weep with him.  The local Opposition MP Mr Nehru came and joined us and made his view clear that “the Government is not helping us.  Help is coming from other countries but little from our own Government.  They are using money to build Military power.  Money should be used to build people and property.”

As we walked along we could see that practically every house within about a quarter of a mile of the Sea has been destroyed or severely damaged by the Tsunami.  Some work has been done to clear Roads but there is no sign of any work on Houses.

We reached Sam’s House.  From a distance Sam pointed it out.  There was just a mound of broken walls.  The bright Green paint of inner walls stood out in the searing Sunshine.  “Here is a part of the Steel Sheeting from the Roof,” he said while we were still a short distance away.

I stood with Sam on the mound of rubble which is all that is left of his family House.  It was a powerful emotional moment.

 No words, just silence and tears.

Sam grew up here, just a few yards from the Sea.  We could hear what today was the gentle lapping of the waves on the Beach.

A month ago the waves rose to the height of the Coconut trees around us, killed hundreds of people, and smashed the Houses.  One person said, “The Wave was like a Snake with five heads that rose high and came down on us.  It came very fast.  It took many people with it.”  All the wells are polluted.

Next door to Sam’s House we could see a Grave in the neighbour’s garden.  We were told that buried here is a mother and her six month child.  The mother had run into the House and locked the Door for safety.  The Sea broke in and filled the House drowning both mother and child.

I conducted a short Service of Holy Communion, using Sam’s well as the Altar.  We used Bread and Coconut Juice.  The Coconut was taken from the nearest tree.  The Pulley used to draw water from the Well formed a Cross in the background.  All these symbols remind us that God shares our hurt and pain. 

Several members of Sam’s family and neighbours who had gathered joined us.

As I broke the Bread and gave it out I remembered in prayer all those whose lives, homes and livelihood have been broken by the Tsunami.

 Standing and praying with Sam, his family, friends and neighbours on this spot was an important contribution to make on my part.

We moved on along the Golden Sands of the Beach.  A solitary Boat stood beside the Sea.  All other Boats from this once thriving Fishing Village were destroyed.

About 50-60 people had joined us by mid-day.  Sam invited them all to sit under the shade of a tree beside a Well.  He counted their number.  The two of us them handed out 50 parcels we had made up with Gifts from the people of Morley.  Sam explained where and who these Gifts were from.

We also gave out Gifts of 1000 Rupees [approx. £5.00] to 105 Households.  This money represents about a Months wage for local people.  Most of those who received the Money were Fishermen who cannot earn Money from their trade at present.

We sat in the Sand with the Fishermen and listened to their stories.  This is the poorest community here.  They have lost all but one Boat.  They are trying to repair another one.  They have lost homes and their livelihood.

At one point I asked them if the Tsunami had made them question their Faith and the existence of God.  “Not at all,” they said.  The question had not arisen for them until I’d asked them.  They had an unquestioning confidence that God is with them and had been with them in the Tsunami. 

“The Sea has been a source of life to us.  The same Sea became the source of death – this is what we cannot understand,” they said.

Before we left one Fisherman climbed a Coconut tree.  He dropped down several Coconuts.  These were cut and we were given Juice to drink.  We sat beside a Well and drank Coconut Juice.

There is a dignity here that has not been shattered or broken. 

We sat with some of the poorest people on the Earth now, in the Sand, listened to them and received of their generosity.  They fed us and gave us all they could – their stories, their tears, their smiles, their time, and Coconut Juice.  It has been our privilege that they have allowed us to enter into their experiences.

We later met some of the people of Thirukkovil in a nearby Relief Camp.  They were being given Pedialyte [ replaces fluids lost through vomit and diarrhoea ], Mattresses and Mosquito Nets.

Families are sheltered here in small Tents with practically no furnishings, and as someone said, “no water, no toilet, no bathroom.”  The toilet area is now full.  The water supply is not plentiful. 

One man said to me, “we have no houses, no jobs, only rest.”

There are no facilities for Children.  Schools have opened now but many children from these Camps are not returning.  What they need is trauma counselling first. 

Poor Fishing Families and middle-class Families Camp side by side.  The well to do Families have Motor Bikes parked outside their Tents.  One woman showed me that her Tent has no Furnishings of any kind.  She showed me three bags of Rice and a bag of Sugar.  “That’s all we eat now,” she said.  Rice Pudding. 

There are 500 people in this particular Camp.  We saw five such Camps between Thirukkovil and nearby Komari, another devastated village

How long will people have to live like this ?

We did go to the School in Thirukkovil at Assembly time.  Sam gave out the Letters that had been sent by children in Morley Schools.  It was clear that some classes are depleted on their numbers because Children hurt and bereaved by the Tsunami devastation are in no way ready to return. 

What are the immediate needs now?  How can the people of Morley help?

1.  Children in Camps need Therapy and Playschool type of support.  Arts and Crafts materials are needed.  Art plays an essential part in trauma counselling.  There is a need for Exercise Books, Pens, Pencils, Crayons etc.

2.  Toilet facilities, especially for Women, are needed in Camps.  Two, at least, are needed now.

3.  A Day Centre for Older People is needed, to provide somewhere to sit. A mid-day meal could be provided.  A meals on wheels service could be provided.  A small three wheeler vehicle is needed for this.

All these items have to be provided as soon as possible.  Sam can do a lot to get things moving while he is in Thirukkovil.

Long term, Sam is discussing this with people.  Essentially people need jobs and houses.  The Government has to take responsibility for housing needs.  What we can do is to provide at least one Boat for the Fishermen.

The people of Thirukkovil are enormously grateful to the people of Morley for their solidarity, and look forward to a developing and closer relationship of mutual support.

2 February 2005

Ivy Gutridge MBE

Ivy Gutridge came to Wolverhampton from her home town of Swindon with her husband Ken. A committed Methodist all her life, Ivy was a member at St John’s Methodist Church in Wolverhampton. After a member of family who was seriously ill and cared for by Ivy had died, Ivy reluctantly took on the role of Note Taker at meetings of the newly formed Wolverhampton Interfaith Group (WIFG ). She became Honorary Secretary of the WIFG from 1974 to 1998, initially using her own home as the Office. Ivy’s infinite capacity to devote herself to people was focussed on the work of the Wolverhampton Inter-Faith Group. Ivy died in June 2004 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for a number of years.

Ivy moved on from her nervous beginnings, including theological reservations, to becoming the driving inspiration of the WIFG. Ivy’s energy, courtesy and organisational ability brought credibility to the group. Ivy’s genius was that she realised how important it was to promote interfaith dialogue when it was not fashionable. Her vision and foresight has meant that the seeds she began to sow Thirty Years ago will continue to bear fruit well after her life.

In Wolverhampton Ivy worked behind the scenes to resolve conflicts, heal divisions and build relationships of mutual trust and respect. Ivy also travelled to other UK towns and cities to help develop interfaith groups.

In 1983 Ivy was appointed to the Methodist Committee for Relationships With People Of Other Faiths. She did much work from her own home towards the book ‘God Of All Faith’ put together by that Committee. Ivy was active in the founding of the national lnterfaith Network (UK) and was elected its first woman Vice-Chair in 1992. Ivy never sought any limelight or recognition, but was honoured for her Interfaith work when she was awarded the MBE in 1994.

Ivy regarded interfaith dialogue as her life’s work. She conducted it with humility, and was an inspiration to others. She was known in Wolverhampton as ‘Queen Of Interfaith’. Ivy’s interest in Interfaith dialogue was not academic but arose out of an intense desire to find out about, and honour, other people’s faith at a person to person level. She believed in people’s freedom and right to hold their own religious beliefs. A Muslim leader gave the address at a service of remembrance and thanksgiving for her, concluding with the words “As a Muslim, I would recommend her for Sainthood.” A fitting tribute to one who is among the pioneers of the Interfaith movement in the UK.

The sea, the sea

In the last week of January, the Reverend Thurairajah Samuel, a Methodist minister in Morley, visited his home village, Thirukkovil, in east Sri Lanka.  Several members of his family had been killed and his family house destroyed in the tsunami disaster of 26th December 2004.  He was accompanied by the Reverend Dr Inderjit Bhogal, a Methodist minister in Sheffield, who has written this account of their meeting with the people of the village on the first day of their stay.

“Sea is coming, Sea is coming.”

On Boxing Day 2004, the Reverend Rasarethnam Dayanithy was conducting morning worship in the Methodist Church in the village of Thirrukovil on the east coast of Sri Lanka.  At around 8.55am he heard three bangs in quick succession.  His first thought was that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters had fired mortar bombs at the Army.  Then he heard the shouts, “Sea is coming, Sea is coming”.   Water began to flood into the Church.  Every one rushed out in panic.  The minister led them to the upper floor of the Orphanage in the grounds.  Then, being a swimmer, he went down and started to rescue as many people as he could.
 
A month later he said to us simply: “It was a nightmare”. 

His was the first eye-witness account Sam and I were given of the disaster.  We had made the twelve-hour journey to Thirrukovil from the capital, Colombo, in the south-west of the island, arriving close to midnight.  Our journey had taken us through colourful towns, verdant tea plantations, mountain passes with their terrifying hair-pin bends, past lagoons, a myriad of palm trees, accompanied all the time by the cacophony of the abundant animal life.  The continuing beauty and vitality of the island – the ‘Pearl in the Indian Ocean’ – threw the devastation brought about by the tsunami into sharp relief.  We spent the last stretch of the journey in a silence induced by the awesome destruction, now lit by the moon, along the coast.

The following morning, the news that Sam was in the village spread quickly.  Friends and relatives started to arrive to meet him.  Reunions were touched with pain and pleasure, embraces wreathed in smiles and tears.

We made our way towards the sea and towards the site of Sam’s family house.  It took practically an hour to walk a few hundred yards.  As we walked along we could see that almost every house within about a quarter of a mile of the sea had been destroyed or severely damaged by the tsunami.

As we approached the place where his house had stood, Sam stopped and said, “Here is a part of the steel sheeting from the roof”.  On the site itself there was just a mound of broken walls.  The bright green paint of inner walls stood out in the searing sunshine.  I stood with Sam on the mound of rubble.  It was a powerful emotional moment.  No words.  Just silence and tears to mark the loss of what had been a home.

Next door to Sam’s house we could see a grave in the neighbour’s garden.  We were told that buried here are a mother and her six-month old child.  The mother had run into the house and locked the door for safety.  The sea broke in and filled the house, drowning both mother and child.

We moved on along the golden sands.  About 50-60 people, many of them fishermen, had joined us by midday.  Sam invited them all to sit under the shade of a tree beside a well.  One of the fishermen climbed a coconut tree.  He dropped down several coconuts.  These were cut and we were given juice to drink. 

We sat in the sand with people who now are amongst the poorest on earth, who yet display a dignity that has not been broken or abandoned.  We received of their generosity.  They gave us all they could – their tears, their smiles, their time, their coconut juice.

tsunamiboatAnd their stories.   They told us they had lost all but two of the boats of this once thriving fishing village.  One of these boats stood alone at the water’s edge.  The other they are trying to repair further up the beach.  Besides their homes they had lost their livelihoods.

“The Sea has been a source of life to us.  The same Sea became the source of death.  This is what we cannot understand,” they said.

As they told their stories we could hear what today was the gentle lapping of the waves on the beach.  A month earlier the waves had risen to the height of the coconut trees, killing hundreds of people, demolishing houses, smashing boats.  One villager said, “The wave was like a snake with five heads that rose high and came down on us.  It came very fast.  It took many people with it.” 

The sea had sustained their village.  Then the sea had destroyed it.

“Under my Umbrella”

My first impressions, when I saw the pictures on the TV, of scenes of floodwaters along The Wicker in Sheffield, took me back to the hurricane and floods of New Orleans and the Tsunami.  June has been our month of monsoon.

New Prime Minister, Car Bombs, Bomb alerts, Terrorism, War and the Smoking Ban have been in the news but our focus has been on our local reality.

When the big rains came, the volume of water and the routes it took, surprised everyone.  This was a flood of Biblical proportions.  The extremely heavy rains of June have broken all records.  Where was the ark to save us?  There were 3000 emergency calls in Doncaster alone between Mon 24 and Fri 28 June.  The Fire Service answered a call every 30 seconds.  The RNLI came from coastal regions to assist in the rescue efforts in South Yorkshire.

Sheffield’s floods exposed some important truths about our city. 

First, our City is divided into two by the River Don.  When the river swelled up and flooded, one of the greatest causes of concern was that people were prevented from crossing the river by road.  This was the cause of some of the most serious traffic jams and delays.  Many people were stranded away from home on the other side of the Don to where they lived.  Members of family were stranded in different parts of the City and separated.  Many people couldn’t get home from Day Service Centres, Hospitals, Schools, Work and Shopping Centres.  Nurses and other staff couldn’t get in to work to start their shift and relieve colleagues.

Second, the past five or six years have seen tremendous property development and investment along the River Don.  Luxury apartments have been built along the river banks and sold at astronomical prices.  At the same time, houses have been demolished, for example, on Wincobank and Woodside.  These are areas of considerable beauty that are considered to be “less desirable” for living or investing in.  Furthermore, the eating houses providing Caribbean, Kurdish and Pakistani cuisine along the Wicker were all flooded and are now closed awaiting refurbishment.  There has been investment for the wealthy, but not protection for the vulnerable businesses.

Third, the aged infrastructure in parts of Sheffield along the River Don has proved to be inadequate.  Nature has reclaimed the River Don since the Steel Industry has declined.  The tropical temperature of the waters has disappeared.  Fish have returned.  It’s good to see kingfishers and even cormorants.  Fig Trees abound along the river banks.  But the new pollution is the rubbish people throw into the River.  This along with fallen trees helped to block water routes in the river.  We cannot simply shift blame for the floods on to nature, or just ask “how could God allow such disasters”.  We also have to acknowledge the consequences of our own lifestyle.

Fourth, Pop song “Under my Umbrella” sums up the real sense of community spirit that has been evidenced among us.  The Major Incident Plan, and the Emergency Services went into action and deserve thanks from us all.  But they were assisted by countless acts of love and sacrifice from ordinary people.  Extra shelter was provided for those stranded, or suddenly bereft of their homes, by schools, superstores, the Royal Mail and hospitals.  Stories of hatred and terrorist activities have created fear in communities.  People transcended this and offered hospitality.  Many welcomed complete strangers into their homes and gave them shelter.  Radio Sheffield’s Good Neighbour scheme has been an excellent idea.  
Plans to prevent floods in the future will require attention around river banks, flood plains, architecture and design of buildings, roads and railways.  We must all consider our own lifestyles also, and reduce the amount of waste we create and throw away.  Throwing rubbish into the rivers and dykes must end, and the Council must take greater care of our rivers, river banks and river beds.

Our own floods will help us to empathise even more with people in other parts of the world who are victims of extreme weather and disasters.  Floods in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India over the same period in June killed six hundred people, and a total of 1.2 million have been affected by the storms. We have learnt from the Tsunami and the situation in New Orleans’ floods that our care strategy is judged by how we respond to the needs of the poorest and the most vulnerable among us.

1st July 2007

Face to Face and Side by Side

Gill Hicks lost both her legs in the 7/7London Underground bombs three years ago.  She is now walking between Leeds and London [200 miles] with her new artificial legs. 

I met Gill when she and her WALK/TALK Team walked through Sheffield.  The Sheffield length of the walk commenced in the City’s Peace Gardens.  Leader of the Council, Paul Scriven was among those who gathered to walk and talk with Gill and her team.  In his words to Gill, Paul Scriven said, “I want to launch a new initiative today.  Each year, during this particular week, we will encourage people to walk in each other’s shoes as a way of encouraging people to understand each other better.”  Mike Love, a member of the Walk/Talk Team called on people to build a shared future through conversation.  Then Paul joined fifty or so others to walk with Gill and colleagues through the streets of Sheffield.

I walked and talked with Gill.  As I did so recalled that in March 1997 I had set off from the Peace Gardens to walk to 10 Downing Street along the route Gill was taking to London.  I had walked to hand deliver a letter to the Prime Minister asking for a fairer deal for “Asylum Seekers”.  I asked her why she was walking to London.  “It’s to encourage people to walk side by side with each other and talk with each other, to encourage conversation.” 

“But why are you walking?” I asked her.

“Walking is the most difficult thing I have to do” she replied, “I want to say to people, if I can do this you can do something simpler, meet with each other and talk with each other”.  Gill particularly wants those who fear each other, or just never meet, to talk to each other, and “walk in each other’s shoes”.

The route brought us to Sheffield United Football Club, where former legends like Tony Currie and staff from “Football Against Racism in Europe” [FARE}, came and expressed solidarity.

The walkers moved on to Mount Pleasant Park, Sharrowvale, for a delicious lunch provided and served by Aagrah, the newest Asian Restaurant in Sheffield.  Mohammed Aslam, the Managing Director of Aagrah is part of Gill’s Walk Talk Team and walking to London, supplying refreshments and a support minibus for the entire route.

Perhaps the best way to engage in conversation with friends and strangers is over a meal, and along a walk.

Gill led the walkers on to Sheffield’s newest, purpose built Mosque, in Abbeydale.  The Mosque was packed with around 1000 worshippers gathered for Friday prayers.  Gill was introduced as one who lost both her legs in the 7/7 Bomb explosions and was invited to address the assembled congregation.  She walked up to the front and said what she was doing and shared her simple message of building good relationship with each other, of learning the art of living peacefully alongside each other. 

Gill then sat down, on a chair provided specially for her, and remained until prayers were concluded in the customary manner of sharing words of peace.

At the close of Prayers members of the Congregation came to Gill and expressed words of sorrow and regret at what had happened to her.  “We are very sorry for what has happened to you.”  These were the words said to Gill Hicks.  Words were accompanied by tears.  These were not empty words. 

It was one of the most powerful and emotional moments of love and forgiveness that I have ever witnessed.

It was also a moment of revelation and inspiration.  The path to forming relationships of respect trust among those who fear each other includes taking steps to forgive each other for the ways we have hurt each other.  Forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks in relationships.  “Sorry” is one of the hardest words to say.

Community tensions are heightened by fear of those who are different from us.  Kate Adie commenting in her book “The kindness of strangers” on the aftermath of 9/11, on her observation and reporting of events worldwide, says that we only become interested in strangers when we come to see them as a threat to us.  This is the world in which we live.  There are fears in our communities, of those who are of another faith, ethnicity or nationality, for example. 

Gill Hicks could have gone around to spread a message of hatred towards the Muslim community.  There are those who use fears to create hatred and hostility in our multi ethnic, multi faith communities.   

I came to walk and talk with Gill Hicks fresh from the Government launch of the “Face to Face and Side by Side” strategy, which Hazel Blears MP described as “a framework for a partnership in our multi faith society”.  The framework aims to create more opportunities for face to face dialogue along with side by side collaborative social action.  It’s about increasing our understanding of each other and coming together to share time, energy and skills to improve local neighbourhoods.

The Walk/Talk initiative is one very good example of what we can all do.  Gill says she is doing the most difficult thing for her, walk, to bring neighbours together.  In one day her walk brought people together in Parks, Streets, a Football Club and a Worship Centre.  In different environments she is creating opportunities for people who do not normally meet and talk with each other to do so.  It is possible to challenge political and religious extremism.  We can build a better and shared future together through conversation with each other. 

July 2008