The question I am asked most often as Subject Adviser is how to start an Exploring World Faiths group.
There are many ways, depending on the preferences of the group and their geographical location. Some may prefer to explore faiths in a particular sequence, such as their chronological origin; or separated by theistic and non-theistic; or Dharmic and Abrahamic. Others may prefer to deal with it by topic, such as the approach of different faiths to naming ceremonies, marriage, death, creation, or what each believes happens after death. If the group is located in an area with a diversity of faiths, then visits to places of worship can be arranged. However, in a less diverse area, there is greater reliance on printed materials and resources from the internet.
Our Birmingham skyline is festooned with more than 650 churches, mosques, gurdwaras, temples and other religious buildings. 80% of our population claim a faith affiliation, approximately half as many Muslims as Christians. As coordinator of a u3a group, first in Harborne and Edgbaston, and later in Kings Norton, both in Birmingham, our pre-lockdown sessions were a combination of invited speakers, visits to places of worship, participating in celebrations such as Buddha day, Sikh Vaisakhi, Hindu Diwali and Muslim Iftars and exploration by members. Our places of worship are such an asset to Birmingham that many have a trained Faith Guide to welcome visits from schools, youth groups such as Scouts and Guides working towards their faith badges, and interest groups such as u3as.
We decided to follow a sequence starting with the dharmic faiths, mainly of Indian origin, emphasising the importance of respecting our environment, non-violence, achieving a good Karma and inner peace.
We visited Buddhist centres in the Tibetan, Burmese and Sri Lankan traditions, where we learnt about the core Buddhist beliefs, cultural differences and practised meditation. Next we visited our Jain Ashram with its four imposing Preceptor idols. We are fortunate in having the extensive Hindu Balaji Temple site at Tividale, close to Birmingham, which attracts adherents from all around the UK, and beyond, for festivals and special occasions. Some of our group remembered when one of the other two Hindu temples we visited was a cinema. Next in sequence were the Hari Krishna, a semi-monastic religion akin to Hinduism. We met them in their new building, where we chanted the familiar ‘Hari Krishna, Hari Rama …’
We visited the Sikh Guru Nanak Nishkam Centre three times: first to learn about the faith, witness worship and receive the holy prasad in the Gurdwara. On the second occasion, we heard about the history of the centre and their wide range of healthcare, social support, advocacy and conference facilities. Everyone in the kitchen were industriously preparing vegetables for cooking in huge cauldrons.
We enjoyed the results of their efforts as we joined the huge number of community members who come daily for free langar – a vegetarian meal with side dishes, served in compartmentalised trays. We were impressed with the standard of education, politeness of the pupils and ethical ethos at the Sikh primary school. Over the following months, we visited two more Sikh temples with different cultural perspectives on the faith.
This is not the place to argue the distinction between a faith and a belief, so we take a wide interpretation and include the Church of Scientology, Pagans, Humanists and Spiritualists in our exploration, which all gave us interesting, and sometimes surprising, insights into their beliefs and practices. We were particularly interested to hear that Paganism is now the seventh largest ‘religion’ in the UK. We embraced its principle of kinship with nature by participating in the Ritual of Welcoming Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Most of us know little of the Zoroastrian faith, except that Freddie Mercury was a member, and that it was founded by Zarathustra, so that was an enlightening session as was the one with members of the Baha’i faith, both of which originated in Persia (present-day Iran). Although Baha’is recognise Abraham as a messenger of God, Bah’u’llah the founder, believed in the unity of all religions as different stages on the path to one God.
Finally we come to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We made interesting visits to both an orthodox and a progressive synagogue to explore some of the differences in belief and practice, and to King David School, which has a high percentage of Muslim children. It took several months to explore our extensive Muslim presence in Birmingham. We were welcomed at Sunni, Shia and Sufi mosques, where we learnt about the Ramadan fast, the Hajj pilgrimage and the five pillars of Islam. The Muslim school we visited presented us each with an information pack and a copy of the Holy Quran. We had a very enjoyable afternoon in the beautiful grounds of the Al-Mahdi Institute, previously a Christian college now an Islamic centre for research and education. At the headquarters of Islamic Relief, we were impressed by the extent of the organisation’s global humanitarian work.
Our exploration of the Christian faith is the most extensive. Starting with the Catholic Church, we visited St Chad’s Cathedral, St Mary’s Convent in Handsworth, St Mary’s Seminary at Oscott, St John and St Monica Primary School, and the Birmingham Oratory, founded by Cardinal Newman who was canonised in 2019. The colourful wall decoration of the Serbian Orthodox Church, in Bournville, is stunning. At St Philip’s Anglican Cathedral, we heard about the history of the Church of England following the Reformation. This was followed by sessions with Methodist and Baptist ministers; a visit to the Salvation Army Citadel, where we learnt about their work supporting homeless people; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons); and finally, the Christian Science Centre, where we discussed spiritual healing and were presented with copies of Mary Baker Eddy’s book Science and Health.
During lockdown, we have had to take a different approach. Our members in turn have researched and presented a faith on Zoom. Like those u3as in less diverse areas, we have also downloaded resources from the internet, or created our own, some of which can be found on my Subject Adviser’s page on the u3a website. Anyone wanting further information can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org