It is baffling and frustrating to hear some politicians, media and other leaders talk about a lack of Muslim response to terrorist and other Islamist-linked outrages. It seems as if sometimes people simply only want to see and hear what they want to see and hear. Earlier last week the following open letter from our Islamic community to our local Toowoomba Catholic bishop was received by myself and other faith and community leaders. It speaks of the continued revulsion of almost all Muslims to acts such as the recent killing of Father Jacques Hamel and the deep shared commitment to peace and humanity...
It is easy to become afraid these days. After all, we live in a very fast-paced world and today’s media brings us immediate revelations of fresh horror and violence anywhere across the globe. These can quickly disturb our thoughts and emotions and magnify such troubles out of all proportion. They can also lead us to mistrust others different from us, not least those who themselves are survivors or potential victims of the very forces which may be challenging us. We live in times therefore when we badly need to grow love among all people. For love, expressed in prayer and wise action, is the only true antidote to fear. When fear rises within and around us, will we close the doors of our lives and world to others, as the first disciples did after the terror of Jesus’ death? Or will we, like those first disciples, re-open those doors and re-connect with others in new ways, as we experience and grow more deeply in the peace of Christ? Being sensitive to fear and violence is human but how we handle these things is what shows God among us.
A wonderful sign of the divine presence in the midst of our troubled world was the All for Peace gathering at St Luke’s this July. It came about at the request of our Iraqi Muslim community who asked if we would host something to acknowledge the pain of Iraq and the wider world. Muslims asking Christians to host a joint event – in a church building -for peace: imagine that in many parts of our world! What a lovely expression of the model of loving community for which so many parts of our city of Toowoomba have been working and praying so hard. It was certainly a moving occasion, with a nearly full St Luke’s, and with contributors including our Mayor, Federal MP, District Police Inspector, faith leaders, St Saviours school children, and many more! We reflected together on the violent acts which had recently taken place in France, Germany, Turkey, the USA, Sudan and elsewhere. We lit candles. We placed flowers outside in a public witness. We recommitted ourselves together to help make Toowoomba even more of ‘model city of peace and harmony’. For one good model or example can be like the one candle which dispels the darkness which can seem so threatening. Each of us, in the strength of Jesus’ nail-marked hands, can be that candle for our own fears and violence, signs of divine love for everyone, lightening up our world.
Forget the UPF anti-Muslim banner stunt at the MCG. Australians are generally much more civilised than most in dealing with religious and cultural diversity. This afternoon in Toowoomba was a case in point. Our Toowoomba Garden City Mosque is in serious need of re-building, following the fire almost a year ago. What to do? Why not, said our local Muslim community, ask the neighbours round for a cup of tea to talk it through? - and not with the slick presentation and glossy leaflet plans some groups might effect. So it was that, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, I also joined a goodly gathering of people from the immediate vicinity of the mosque for a meet and greet and disperse any heat. After all, I am an ethnically English Australian, and what is more English than a cup of tea (especially when you can be the vicar popping round)?
This kind of holy humdrum action is typical of community life in Toowoomba and further afield. Sadly, such widespread generous connections rarely get the attention the hotheads do. It is certainly very much representative of Muslim-wider community relationships in our city here. In one sense, it is simply just another step in the journey. Yet every stage matters, not least when there may be concerns about new local construction and the footprint it may provide. In this case, the plan is to remove the old de-mountable and extend the mosque (previously an old church building), widen the roof space but retaining the existing height limits, add three metres to the front to provide space for genuinely appropriate toliets and washing facilities, and put in a mezzanine level to enable women's space.
It was a delight to see and be part of the warm and genial conversations (even over parking), and to hear of the generosity of other locals, like one of our (other than Muslim) city lawyers who has provided legal advice towards the rebuilding for free. All of us enjoyed our time together and look forward to the next steps which will bring fresh community as well as physical environment pride to us all.
When some people question me about religion and violence, and especially Islamist related violence, I often think and talk to them about Azim Khamisa, one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. A successful international financier and Sufi Muslim, Azim's life was turned upside down when his twenty year old son Tariq was shot and killed, for the price of the pizza he was delivering. Yet, out of the midst of his terrible anguish, an amazing compassion, rather than commitment to vengeance, arose. Azim came to realise, as he puts it, that there were 'victims at both ends of the gun' that killed his son, and this spirit-led understanding drove him to contact the family of his son's killer (whom he then later met and has lobbied for) and to commit his life to sharing the power of forgiveness, particularly among millions of young people vulnerable to gang culture and other pathways to violence. His mission is especially embodied in the Tariq Khamissa Foundation but has also been exercised internationally through books and other communications tools and events of various kinds (including his own website found by clicking here). When I think of the message and example of Jesus, Azim is an amazing contemporary model. A little of his story can be found in this video clip:
After the recent bombings in Paris, our Toowoomba Gooodwill Committee leadership decided to hold a gathering to bring together community leaders to strengthen our social cohesion and resilience. Held at the University of Southern Queensland this was well attended, facilitated by Professor Michael Cuthill and expert in research on social cohesion. Speakers also included the Mayor of Toowoomba Cllr Paul Antonio, Inspector Mike Curtin from Queensland Police Service, Venerable Wu Ping from Pure Land Learning College, Professor Ken Udas from USQ, and university student Sophie Ryan. Bishop Cameron Venables also led an engaging question and answer session with the panel of speakers and contributions from the floor - not least a several positive contributions from members of the Toowoomba Muslim community. Key themes included positivity, whole community engagement, valuing diversity, partnership building, leadership into action, open and truthful education, and acknowledgement of the need to read sacred scriptures and traditions in context and with a deep spirit of love and humanity, acknowledging potential 'texts of terror'. For my own introductory words as Goodwill chairperson click below on read more...
Penny and I were delightfully taken aback when the president of Toowomba's Garden City mosque invited us, with a few other Christian leaders, to the recent post-wedding reception of his son Adnun Abdullah Khan and new daughter-in-law Farhana Haider Chowdhury. It was lovely expression of the growing multicultural friendships across our community in Toowoomba and another step in the deepening of our relationships. One of the most beautiful moments was when one of the little Muslim girls present came up excitedly to greet Penny. She was in one of Penny's classes at The Glennie School last year and she had spotted Penny as one of the few grown-ups other than her family to whom she really wanted to say hello! In such moments God smiles most kindly on her many children of different faith.
For a number of years in my last job I was a frequent visitor to the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place, the site of the recent Sydney siege. It was a common stopover after our combined New South Wales Churches’ executive meeting and a great place to relax and be refreshed. Ironically we also often discussed the many inter-faith and peace initiatives with which we were involved. For Sydney is an amazing place, full of so many different peoples, faiths and cultures. The range of that diversity can be a challenge but it is a great tribute to the city that so much positive inter-faith and peace prayer and action has been fostered over the years. This is part of what of what will enable Sydney, and the rest of Australia, to triumph and flourish after the tragedy of recent events.
The Sydney siege is a further confirmation of how vital is our prayer and work for community harmony, not least through the Toowoomba ‘Model City of Peace and Harmony’ initiative. When such terrible events happen, as they happen in different ways daily across the world, they can either erode our trust in one another or impel us to renew our faith in the love at the heart of the universe, differently displayed in various faiths and cultures. The strong base of relationships we have already established in Toowoomba certainly puts us in a good position to support those who are afflicted, to share solidarity with Muslims and others who are afraid or fear victimisation, and to create new partnerships for peace in our lives and wider world. The recent events in Sydney remind us again of how ‘no one is an island’ and how we are all affected by what else happens in our world. At home, Australia has mercifully been free of such events but it has always been connected to them overseas. Such connections can now make us afraid, if we let them, or they can make us stronger than ever in the things that truly matter.
From a Christian perspective, terror at Christmas should hardly be a surprise. Terror is written into the Christmas story itself. For Jesus was born into an oppressive and violent society, and, according to the scriptural stories, the holy family was forced to flee into Egypt as refugees, in the face of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Yet Christ’s birth stands as a sign that such darkness, then and now, is not the end. There is something much, much stronger and deeper and transforming. So let us trust in that Spirit, shown also in the Magi, people of very different faith and culture, who left their comfort to share the light and love of God at the birth of Jesus. May that peace prevail in our hearts, our community and our world, that Toowoomba with Sydney may be fresh beacons of compassion and peace in the days ahead. Let us ride together on the path of peace.
Recent events overseas have increased concern for security in Western countries and sparked incidents which have raised understandable community anxiety. As Christians concerned for the welfare of all our neighbours we consequently therefore continue to pray for all those who are most directly affected by violence or its threat. We remember particularly the peoples of the Middle East at this time, especially those who are persecuted, forced into flight as refugees, injured, killed, or bereaved. We pray for all those in positions of authority and influence who make difficult decisions about violence and security, remembering especially our Prime Minister and Federal Government, military, security and police personnel. May compassion be combined with wisdom, determined courage with insight. As national security levels are raised, let us however also raise our peace and understanding levels. For in the case of Anglicans at least, the current situation certainly calls us back to the 4th Mark of Mission of the Anglican Communion:
To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation....
It was a delight to meet with local Muslims today to affirm our shared concern for one another, our city and peace in the world. A number of people spoke well, not least Dr Shahab Abdullah the spokesman for the local Iraqi Muslim community. Tea and cake then helped seal the deal. What a contrast with the over-reaction of some, including those who closed three local military museums this week, thus, to my mind, exacerbating community anxiety rather than alleviating it. Even the police present seemed a bit embarrassed about currently having to wear firearms as part of the security reaction to recent events. Whether that is alarmist or not, it certainly does not reassure those of us who tend to feel less secure in the presence of weaponry rather than with it. More positively, it was a joy to speak with five Indonesian Muslim women who are in their last week of five in Toowoomba. They spoke with wonderful pleasure of their experience here, not least the excited interest they had conjured up in visiting a local school yesterday. Once again the benefits of 'table fellowship' shone through: last week in the Buddhist monastery, Sunday in St Luke's, today among USQ Muslims. Such is an important path to peace. As another Christian pointed out to me last week, in a much more conservative Christian setting, Jesus was much more a guest than a host. Should more be willing to step out of their comfort zones and risk vulnerability, there would similarly be much more joy and solidarity to quell our own anxieties and transform the world's genuine fears. Anyone for another cup of tea?
Wednesday evening was a delightful example of the nature of interfaith peace and harmony life in Toowoomba. Not only were members of our Muslim community wonderfully warm and welcoming but all kinds of people were present from across our diverse wider community. And it all took place on Christian premises, at St Anthony's Catholic Church in Harristown. Jesus, I think, was smiling: all God's children together, sharing 'table fellowship', sharing faith and food, life and laughter together.
Sharing the evening Iftar (breaking of the fast) with others has become a very valuable and enjoyable part of Australian life. Each year, many Australians of other faith and none happily experience the generous invitation of their Muslim neighbours to join in this important part of the Muslim year and to grow in deeper understanding and love together. Thanks, in Toowoomba, go out especially to the coordinators of the Islamic Interfaith and Multicultural Committee. For, as a spiritual gift, hospitality is one of the most vital contributions anyone can make to peace and harmony. It is certainly one aspect of Ramadan which enriches others, though not the only one. Ramadan, like daily prayer in Islam, is also a gift to recall the rest of us to attentiveness, mindfulness and the presence of God. It is a binding force for community, here and across the world. It helps release our society from the compulsions to consume and blunt our senses with material things alone. Indeed, only when we know how to fast (in various ways) do we really feast properly. 'Let us cherish fasting', Athanasius, the great early Christian bishop and theologian said, 'for fasting is the great safeguard along with prayer and almsgiving. They deliver human beings from death.... (for) to fast is to banquet with angels.' Delivered from the destructive powers of self, we can then be more generous and hospitable towards others.
Hospitality is certainly a central theme of Anglican inter-faith and cross-cultural endeavour. As the helpful international Anglican document Generous Love puts it:
As God both pours out his life into the world and remains undiminished in the heart of the Trinity, so our mission is both a being sent and an abiding. These two poles of embassy and hospitality, a movement ‘going out’ and a presence ‘welcoming in’, are indivisible and mutually complementary, and our mission practice includes both.
This kind of hospitality is therefore an expression of the very nature of the God whom we approach in different ways. Such true hospitality is not about losing, but expressing, our integrity and convictions. Rather, we in turn can then receive the gifts of others, which can speak powerfully of the welcoming generosity at the heart of God. For , as Generous Love reflects:
through sharing hospitality we are pointed again to a central theme of the Gospel which we can easily forget; we are re-evangelised through a gracious encounter with other people.
Transformed by God, we become paradoxically both deeply centred and radically open, for our centre is self-giving love. Faith is not then based on human work, such as particular belief or practice, but on grace. In all the great spiritual traditions, fasting and feasting are gateways and expressions of this.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.