Thurrock’s first Faith Conference took place at the recently opened High House Production Centre in Purfleet on Thursday 24 November.
Some 60 people attended, representing a number of faiths present in the borough, and also the council and other agencies. The largest constituency present was that of the Christian faith.
Acting chair of the local Faith Forum – called Thurrock Faith Matters – Rev Darren Barlow of Grays Team Ministry welcomed delegates and introduced the team who have worked over the past year to reach this point. This date had been chosen as it is within the National Interfaith Week.
Leader of Thurrock Council, Cllr John Kent then briefly addressed delegates with an encouraging message in which he talked about shared values and how faiths work better together than when it’s just dialogue between those with faith and those with no faith. He said that having a faith provides a commonality, an invisible thread that binds together, and that faith is a great staring point for politics and life.
John, who himself attends St Thomas’ RC Church in Grays, said that faith communities can help rebuild trust through service and being known as those who fight for justice for others. He mentioned that faith can be constructive in areas like social justice, citing anti-slavery, Make Poverty History, and other campaigns.
He made the point that those with faith have a “staying power when others give up because they’re prepared to get their hands dirty and get involved in borough life”.
This was followed by an address by Cllr Phil Anderson, Leader of the Opposition at Thurrock Council and of Thurrock Christian Fellowship and the Stanford Boiler Room Community. In a detailed but clear analysis of how faith groups can be a positive asset to the borough, Phil talked about the paradox of faith groups’ unity and their common causes, and how they can be instrumental in blurring the ‘secular’-‘sacred’ divide, pointing out that many public services have their origins in the faith sector.
In his presentation, Phil said this hints at Big Society thinking – faith groups are by their very nature embedded in community, which means greater cohesion. They provide ‘service innovation’, becoming a beacon others can follow.
Phil said, “Faith maybe personal, but it’s not private: what I believe and what I do are not separate.” Because of this, he said, secularists must endeavour to create partnerships and not make them wider, and must be prepared to allow belief in as is key motivation. “As it’s been said of the church, it exists for the interest of its non-members.”
Conversely, Phil urged those of faith not to let ‘anti-faith’ put you off – after all, the Council is it’s own agency with it’s own objectives, so keep working with them and engage effectively, expressing that you know why you’re doing whatever t is you’re doing, keeping your identity and integrity intact.
The next speaker was David Jonathan of Luton, who chairs a similar Faith Forum there called Grassroots, which has the slogan, “a different point of view”. Grassroots is “Developing Communities Across Faiths & Cultures and Nurturing Compassion, Hope & Understanding with all God’s Peoples amongst all God’s Peoples” across Luton.
David urged delegates to think and do something unprecedented, and to be sure of who we are. He said, “Don’t negotiate away your beliefs but consolidate in order to live in peaceful coexistence.”
He added, “There can be no peace among nations unless there is peace among religions – and there can be no peace among religions unless there is conversation.” Mutual trust and confidence must be fostered between each other. He quoted Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world – indeed, that’s how it’s always been.”
David also gave the advice not to let government – national or local – dictate the agenda. He went on to list Grassroots’ themes around which activities take place – discovery, friendship, sympathy, acceptance, dialogue, learning, transcending cultural barriers, pilgrimage, towards self discovery. “It’s not a not a cocktail but a fruit salad!” said David.
Then Thurrock Faith Matters team member Russell Godward (of Thurrock Christian Fellowship) introduced some stories of faith in action. These were:
- Andrea Peters of Thurrock Christian Fellowship talked about The Besom in Thurrock, “sweeping away suffering”
- Yash Gupta, representing the Hindu faith and a member of the Thurrock Faith Matters team talked about their drop-in centre and Duvali celebrations
- Pastor Abraham Bamgbose of RCCG Fruitful Land and the Thurrock Faith Matters team talked about the Tilbury Festival and Sports Day, bringing “cohesion irrespective of background”
- Nilopher Qureshi of the Muslim Association of Thurrock and who sits on SACRE – she said that the Koran chapter 5 says, “come to common terms so we may know each other”
There then followed six Breakout Sessions for ‘learning through conversations’. Sessions were led by the speakers (see photos). Everyone had the opportunity of going to two of these sessions for half an hour each, and proved a great time of discussion, feedback and information gathering.
The event closed with refreshments and further networking.