Ruth Turner reflects on interfaith in India
I can't think of a better welcome to India than this: "The saints are upstairs when you're ready," the hotel staff told me.
Our first stop in India last week was to meet with more than 20 very senior faith leaders to seek their advice on our work. From Gyani Gurabachan Singh from the Golden Temple to His Grace Vincent Concessao to Rabbi Abraham Benjamin to Acharya Dr Lokesh Muni to Imam Umar Ahmed Ilyasi, we were overwhelmed by the seniority and spiritual wisdom of those who travelled from all over India to meet us. Hosted by Swami Chidanand Saraswati who opened the meeting by saying “welcome home to this land of peace and beauty”, we heard from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Baha’i, Jewish and Buddhist leaders about the insights from their own traditions – and crucially how open they were to learning from the insights of others. We heard about a Bat Mitzvah which was presided over by Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Jain faith leaders as well as a Rabbi, and some great examples of multi-faith work on environmental and other issues.
Imam Ilyasi, leader of 500,000 Imams, said: “This is high time and the right time”, and pledged his support for more interfaith work in India. “We have taught religion well, but we have not taught love and understanding well enough,” said Rabbi Benjamin. “We need to make human beings the goal of what we do,” said Archbishop Concessao, “to create a dialogue of life.” “What life is really about is service and giving,” we were reminded by Dr Sadhvi Bhagawati. “Faith has to have feet,” said Naznene Rowhani from the Baha’is.
It was a wealth of wisdom and there was so much warmth around the table. It was both ethereal and practical. Perhaps the most useful advice of all came from Swamiji Chidanand as he urged us to move from a “grand plan to a ground plan” and concluded the meeting. “Time management is actually tongue management”, he told us. I’ll remember that one.
The next day, Wednesday was the day we publicly launched our Faiths Act campaign in India. When I interviewed the candidates for the Faiths Act Fellowship in Delhi in March, without exception the young Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Jains told me we'd only really bring people together if it was through cricket. If we could persuade a cricket star to help draw attention to their work, they'd get a great boost. Rohan Gavaskar duly obliged.
Our four Faiths Act Fellows - two Hindus, a Buddhist and a Muslim - are working together in local NGOs Deepalaya and Kutumb to make a real difference to maternal and child health issues and to help prevent suffering and death from malaria and other preventable diseases.
Bringing local communities together in this task, Aparajita, Rohit, Sarmistha and Ayesha create new relationships and collaborations between all faiths and none, and between people of very different cultures and income levels. So we thought it would be appropriate to bring 30 of the children and young people they're working with - from some of Delhi's most difficult slum areas and from some of the city's best schools involved in Face to Faith - together with our Patron Tony Blair.
The event was graciously hosted by the British High Commission, who managed to incorporate both our cricket match and a visiting UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke without turning a hair. There was something wonderfully surreal about watching the young people from Ghevra setting up stumps on the lawn while Ken Clarke gently puffed on a cigar and admired the flowers.
We flinched a little at the thought that while we - along with the everyone else involved in malaria prevention - spend all our time saying that bednets are only for protecting beds .... and now we were hanging one up behind the cricket stumps. But it got malaria firmly into the story, and the young people who attended seemed in no doubt about the clear messages they were sending: malaria kills hundreds of thousands of pregnant women and under 5 year olds, it's preventable, and working together we can stop it.
One of the aspects of the trip I continually got wrong was briefing Tony Blair accurately. On our way to India I told him we had 81 schools signed up to Face to Faith. When we finished the first meeting, our co-ordinator Simmi Kher whispered to me that it was in fact 88. Tony used this figure in media interviews. By the time they appeared in print I had to update him again - now 94 schools had enrolled.
Most are in the Delhi area, though we have schools in 11 Indian states active in the programme. So we were keen to use the trip to find schools throughout the country - there is such diversity from north to south, west to east. And to help build a sustainable model, we need "Lead Schools" in key locations, to help with training trainers of teachers, and to provide on-going in-country support.
The Podar International school we visited in Mumbai was run by someone better described as a phenomenon than a head teacher. With 15,000 students, they run two shifts - a morning school of 7,500 and an afternoon school of the same size. During a 15 minute period each day, not only do all the students changeover, but so too do the teachers. Remaining in place throughout, and smiling as she does so, is Principal Dr Mrs Vandalla Lulla, a woman who could teach most armies a thing or two about manoeuvres.
The Principal was keen to offer their school as a "Lead School" for Mumbai, introducing Face to Faith and reaching out to support a cluster of other schools with less infrastructure and fewer resources. But the Student Council has a big say, so our next step is to present to them. It’s great to see such a student-led approach, and we look forward to trying to convince them. I hope they'll want to get involved - I know that young people from the other 16 countries in the Face to Faith programme will welcome adding their voices to the global conversation.
Ruth Turner, Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation