Friday, 18 July 2014

‘Are you open to new light?’ | Charlotte Dando

Charlotte Dando

The idea of one defining moment, a road to Damascus style epiphany, the exact pin-point on the character arc of life which radically influences the path you take, well, it always seemed a little contrived to me.  Surely there are any number of factors and variables, choices, negotiations and happy coincidences which add up to define the people we each become. So I won’t claim any one moment of clarity in my own life journey, rather there were (and still are) numerous factors that led me to interfaith work. Perhaps the earliest indicator of this future route however, came when I was fourteen years old. The musty, mundaneness of a community centre was interrupted by the chattering and laughter of sixty teenagers. Streaks of brilliant orange material flashed across the hall as we watched a demonstration in turban tying. It was just one part of what my school inventively titled, “Sikhism Day”.

I grew up in a highly multicultural part of England, home to a large minority of South Asian first, second, even third, generation immigrants of Muslim, Hindu, and (at my school especially) Sikh heritage. Yet a sheltered Roman Catholic upbringing had left no room for reflection on religious diversity – it simply didn’t exist in my little world. “Sikhism Day” was the first real taste of religious difference I remember experiencing. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

After that day, it became ever apparent that I would go on to pursue Religious Studies, feeding my fascination for faith, first at high school, and (after being knocked off my path for a tumultuous, but not entirely wasted six years) I eventually gained a Bachelor’s, swiftly followed by a Master’s degree in the study of religions.    

It was during these years spent intellectualising religion when I began, in earnest, to discover the interfaith movement. My first steps into interfaith activism were sparked by an academic response to religious diversity; a decision firmly rooted in the head. It would be sometime before I found an emotional and spiritual basis for my interfaith work.

When I first discovered interfaith work, I was in the unenviably position of not quite understanding my own faith; which was increasingly confusing within interfaith settings. Although interfaith work aspires to define people not simply by, but far beyond, their religious traditions, so many dialogues still seem to begin with the introduction, ‘My name is {insert name}, and I’m {insert religion}’. How could I introduce myself?

At that time, I knew perhaps more of what I didn’t want from a religion, than what I did. From experience, I wasn’t good with intermediaries – with the idea that it was necessarily for another person to help me to communicate with God - especially if this was the sole preserve of men. Yes, I needed a religious community which valued women as more than the people who serve tea and cake at the end of the service. And I needed a religious tradition which would be flexible enough to allow my questioning and critical thinking. I was also sure that I could only value a religious understanding which was fully open to religious diversity.

It may be possible to suggest a correlation between my involvement with interfaith work and the increased urgency to sort out my own beliefs, although I think perhaps it was inevitable. I know now from experience, and from speaking to many others, that an unexpected bonus prize of interfaith dialogue is that it forces you to confront not just the beliefs of others, but your own. In turn, dialogue often leads to deepening of faith, greater understanding and increased self-awareness. Hence it wasn’t long after I started volunteering with interfaith groups, that I began to explore the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers.

It sounds terribly clichéd, but right from attending my first introductory evening on Quakers, I knew I’d found what I was looking for. After so many years feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, suddenly I had a name for the things that I valued. It took a number of years to become a regular attender, and even more to become a fully-fledged member, yet I self-identified as a Quaker from that first day.

After my second introductory evening, I was given a copy of Quaker Faith & Practice, an anthology of Quaker writings, as well as instruction on the more administrative activities of Quaker Meetings. I devoured the chunky book in a matter of days. The first section called Advices and Queries contains 42 short passages for reflection. I recall my excitement as I read #6 for the first time,

Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

Here was a religious tradition not simply allowing for religious diversity, but actively challenging me to make interfaith friendships, to work with and learn from people of different backgrounds. From that first reading, and increasingly so today, my interfaith activism and my commitment to the Quaker way are not just compatible, but they are extremely complimentary.

Interfaith work became a spiritual response as I sought to find ‘that of God’ in everyone (a key Quaker principle). As I read on through Faith & Practice, I found more inspiration. William Penn, for example, wrote, ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion’. And in an argument from 1660 on Christian unity, which in contemporary times might as easily apply to interreligious unity, Isaac Pennington states,

‘And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers… For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.’

Inspired by the passage which asks, ‘Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?’ my spiritual life has been enriched and nourished by shared experiences within interfaith friendships. In this way, I have found an emotional basis to my interfaith work. From praying and fasting with my dear friend who is Muslim, to email and letter exchanges on life, love and compassion with a good friend who is Buddhist, interfaith friendship has made me a better Quaker.

Yet I also feel that Quakerism might have something important to offer to the interfaith movement. The Quaker way of worshipping involves sitting as a group, as equals, facing each other, in stillness and silence. If anyone feels moved to speak, they may do so, before sitting back down and reverting to silence. In this way, it is open and easy for people of different faiths to take part in Quaker worship. At my own Quaker Meeting over the past year a small group of Muslim women have regularly attended, even signing up for the tea rota once in a while; they have become part of the life of the meeting. And if I had £1 for every Anglican priest who has told me how much they enjoyed Quaker worship, I’d have, well, at least a fiver!

A few years ago I took part in a yearlong interfaith fellowship programme. During the first training month, fellows from around the world came together in London. A small group decided to meet each morning for prayer. On that first morning, without prior discussion we came together in silence. Prayers from each tradition were interspaced with further moments of silence. In this space, as I sat together with a couple of Christians, a Hindu guy, a Jewish girl, a few Muslims, a Baha’i and a Buddhist, we shared the silence; and I’d never felt closer to God.

Dialogue is clearly an important, indeed vital, aspect of interfaith work; yet it is possible for us to talk too much. Silence, even when unexpected, might offer a beautiful tool for sharing, for breaking down the divides of religious difference, and for drawing souls more closely together. In silence there is humility; in silence we are equal, we are one.

Charlotte Dando is an interfaith activist based in London. She is Co- chair of URI Europe Youth Leadership cooperation circle and facilitates interfaith workshops in British schools with 3FF. Charlotte is Assistant Director of the William Temple Foundation. She tweets at @CharlotteDando

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  1. Asalamu alaikum,

    did you hear about the breakfast prayer..

    Take Care

    1. wa-alaykum salaam - do you mean fajr? Or something else more specific?

  2. Really enjoyed this...Br Roger of Taize (a hugely important part of my journey) used to say that when we couldn't agree theologically we should stop talking and com ebefore God together in silence. I think that's what you're describing...


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