Volume 19 Number 3
Meet the Neighbours
01 June 2006

We’ve got to inspire people to believe that their efforts at relationships locally can transform the world.

NEAR WHERE I live there’s a monastery called Kirkstall Abbey built by the Cistercian monks in 1172. For 400 years monks meditated on the Psalms whilst laying the economic foundation for the area through farming, education, and healthcare. Their primary aim, however, was contemplative prayer—relating to God on behalf of humanity.

Today from the abbey grounds you can see Armley Prison. Inside are 1,274 young men, 20 per cent of whom are functionally literate. As I see it, the prison is the key point for transformation in my constituency, Leeds West. If we can’t enable them to change and to change us, we might as well give up on regenerating the inner cities. My question is: how does the monastery challenge the prison, how does the prison challenge the monastery? Is there any intrinsic connection between the world of contemplation and the maelstrom of modern action?

Four years ago a young man wrote to me from Armley Prison. Unlike those who ask me to get them out, he said he was frightened of coming out because he had nowhere to go. Who could help? A solution came from the prison chaplains and now a massive project is underway. They enlist volunteers in their faith communities (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist) to befriend the prisoners and help them find housing and training as they come back into the community.

Every faith tradition is represented in my constituency. Unemployment is down to five per cent (it was 18 per cent in 1987) but the classic inner-city tensions, stresses and strains are still there. In a climate of cynicism, how do we work together to develop the conditions for hope?

As a Roman Catholic, the words of the late Father Pierre Claverie resonate with me. He wrote, ‘I have come to the personal conviction that humanity is only plural. As soon as we start claiming to possess the truth or to speak in the name of humanity, we fall into totalitarianism. No-one possesses the truth, each of us is searching for it.’

Recently I visited a local mosque, converted out of a school’s kitchens. I was challenged directly: ‘We want a minaret and the call to prayer to sound out in the neighbourhood.’ We took the issue to a public meeting where one man said, ‘Tell these Muslims that by law this is a Christian country and we want neither minarets nor ‘muzzi-muzzins’ round here.’

Feeling nervous, I asked a young Muslim man to explain the muezzin and the call to prayer. Following the best explanation of prayer I have ever heard, the man who had declared Britain a Christian country rose up: ‘Just because this is a Christian country doesn’t mean we’re into God and prayer and all that rubbish.’ Where do you start with attitudes like that?

There’s a ferocious privatisation of faith in the media which says to people: ‘Keep it to yourself. For God’s sake don’t let it infect your daily life!’ Why do they think it would be so dangerous to let these ideas out? The fact is, if all the faith communities decided to withdraw their social services—providing meals, caring for the elderly, visiting the sick—the government would be bankrupted overnight.

The faith communities have yet to discover their real strength. They need to find their unique contribution and ask: how do we relate to the public realm? The question for the state is: can it open up at every level and enter into dialogue with the faith communities?

It was in a house in my constituency that the July 7 suicide bombers made their bombs in a bath. After the bombings, I returned to Leeds to be told that 400 people had been evacuated from their homes around this house to a sports centre. I arrived at the sports centre only to find 49 people there. Where were the rest? They had all disappeared into each other’s homes—black, white, Asian, Irish—supporting each other through the crisis. One man, Joe, of Irish descent, who normally never talked to his ‘Paki’ neighbours, was found in the home of the Indian family opposite merrily drinking tea.

Who lives next door?
The problems and conflicts of the whole world—within states, between peoples, within religions—are in my neighbourhood. The global is local. Why do we expect the United Nations to sort it all out when so much can be done at street level?

I visited a school and joined a class of seven-year-olds doing English. When I wrote ‘neighbours’ on the blackboard hands shot up with news of what had happened in the latest episode of the Australian TV soap. ‘Who lives next door to you?’, I asked, and a girl said, ‘What’s that got to do with Neighbours?’ There we have it. We can watch Neighbours on TV but we don’t know who lives next door or above us in the flats.

There is still much to do to challenge a pervasive pessimism in our culture. We’ve got to inspire people to believe that their efforts at relationships locally can transform the world.

John Battle MP is advisor to British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on interfaith matters. This article is based on his recent talk to a Greencoat Forum at the IofC centre in London.

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