During a recent conversation it dawned on me that my involvement with interfaith engagement has been a life-long journey. Son of a clergyman, I was immersed in church life from birth. As far back as I can remember I have always loved God and despite a tendency to wander, I’ve attempted to make following Jesus the greatest goal of my life.
I grew up in the north of England in the Lancashire towns of Blackburn and Burnley. At my primary school at least half the class were Muslim children from Pakistani backgrounds. We played football in the playground together, ate lunch together, laughed and fought together as school children do - as equals. In secondary school my best friend happened to be a Muslim. It made no difference to us that we were from different faiths - we were just friends.
I remember the first time we had a genuinely deep conversation about religion. It was on the school bus and my friend was recounting to me details about how the day before he and his family had made an animal sacrifice for Eid al-Adha. I’d never heard of such a thing but for the next few days we began a discussion about the differences between our faiths. Interspersed between Qur’an and Bible, Trinity and prophet-hood we talked about the latest episode of The A-Team on TV. The conversation was relaxed, down to earth and simply ‘normal’. When our secular friends overheard our discussion they tried to join in, but as became the normal pattern for future discussions it ended with them ridiculing our belief in God and the two of us united as believers.
If I was to describe my interfaith engagement as a child, I would simply call it ‘sharing life with others’. It wasn’t a programme, or an intentional activity – it was life. As an adult I’ve needed to return to my childhood simplicity and re-discover interfaith engagement as a lifestyle.
Eleven years ago as ordained Christian ministers, my wife and I were sent to Tower Hamlets in East London by The Salvation Army to start a new church. On the day we moved into our new home in Stepney we took our young son over to the playground. We noticed how everyone else in the park at that time had brown skin, were not speaking in English and the women were wearing hijabs. Our new neighbours it appeared were Muslims with Bangladeshi heritage. From that moment a new interfaith journey began as we explored what it meant to build a church from scratch in a neighbourhood where Muslims, Christians and those with no faith lived side by side.
Sharing life with those from different faiths and in particular with Muslim people has again become normality for me. When I try to unpick the nature of my interfaith lifestyle, two strands begin to emerge.
There is the sphere of the home and family life. In the street where I live there are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox Christians and those who profess no faith. My children attend a primary school where the majority of the children are Muslim. The local doctor’s surgery, library, park and shops are a hub of humanity in all its diversity. On a daily basis, whether at the school gate or in the supermarket aisle, I engage in interfaith conversation. Sometimes we talk about football, or health, or our children’s education and at other times we talk about prayer, religious festivals and church or mosque life. There’s no ‘magic’ or programme to it – but living this way has helped me to understand the concerns of my Muslim neighbours and also the nuances of practising Islam. Bangladeshi friends assure me that they likewise have been able to move beyond stereotypes by spending time with me.
As a Christian pastor I also have a role in my neighbourhood as a community leader. I have a congregation of local Christian believers to lead and nurture. We in The Salvation Army have a strong theology of being active in sharing the good news of Jesus, serving the whole community and fighting for social justice. To try and do anything in Stepney without engaging with Muslims would be ridiculous. And so, we have Muslim people attending our parent and toddler group, our community sports activities and our project helping people into employment. From time to time Muslim neighbours visit our Sunday services.
We’re involved in an alliance of community organisations – London Citizens - which brings mosques, schools, churches and unions together to tackle issues of mutual concern. We’ve campaigned on low wages, poor housing, unemployment, community safety and debt. During Ramadan we patrol the local parks with colleagues from the mosque, engaging Muslim young people out late at night and encourage them into youth clubs and to keep the noise down!
We also stand together whenever ‘outsiders’ try to drive a wedge between us. In 2005, when one of the ‘London bombers’ detonated a device near Aldgate station we immediately joined with East London Mosque to show solidarity against terrorism. Likewise when the English Defence League, Britain First and Muslim Patrols have paid us visits – we’ve been ready to speak up against extremism. I treasure the relationships we’ve built over the years with Muslim leaders and neighbours and look back with pride at all we’ve achieved.
Building trust and genuine relationship takes time, openness and lots of conversation. As a Christian, I recognise this is what we’re called to do with everyone – loving your neighbour has never meant anything else. It troubles me, then, that I find there are too few willing to simply share life in this way. I’m often asked to speak with Christian colleagues about our ‘work with Muslims’. I always start by reminding people that our experience is nothing special or requires a specialism of any sort. We’re simply loving and sharing life with others – every Christian should know how to do that. No excuses!
So what about handling the differences and disagreements between faiths? There will be some reading this who will already have branded me a ‘liberal’. Actually, I’m an Evangelical – that’s why I take God’s command in scripture to ‘love my neighbour’ so literally. I also believe that delving into our differences and doing it with integrity is the most important role of interfaith activity. Experience has taught me, however, that outside a context of openness, discussions about differences have little value. I regularly share with Muslim friends my conviction of personal salvation through Jesus Christ but I’m always ready to listen to why my neighbour feels Islam is the most excellent way. There are some things we may never agree on, but I’m not afraid to be open enough to God to change me if He so wishes.
And so, my interfaith journey has been marked by a return to simplicity. I notice how often discussions about interfaith work are mired in complexities about motive and outcomes. To be honest I have little time for that these days - I’m too busy trying to share my life with others. When I read in scripture how Jesus said that we need faith like little children in order to see the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:13), I’m challenged to take a look at my younger self and remember that interfaith engagement is a lifestyle.
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Captain Nick Coke is a Salvation Army officer who leads a church in the East End of London with his wife, Kerry. He has two children, Henry and Penny. By his own admission, he is increasingly obsessed (not necessarily in equal measure) with faith, community and the music of Bob Dylan. You can get in touch with Nick via twitter: @nicholascoke or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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