Religion, and faith, have gotten a bad rap over the last few years. Too often, the popular understanding of religion has become synonymous with fundamentalism - the inability to see another point of view. Whether it is the popular media boiling the immense richness and diversity of the Islamic tradition down into 'mad mullahs', or Richard Dawkins continuing his reductionist and single-minded quest to insist that the worst aspects of some religious factions are intrinsic parts of all faith, we have been exposed to many reasons for thinking that religious belief is nothing but an irrational and destructive artifact of the past.
As a person of faith myself, I've never viewed religion through that lens - but if I needed reminders of the immense good that can and is being done by faith communities, I got two over the last week.
For a number of years, the Hackney Winter Night Shelter has been organised by a coalition of Christian churches in Hackney, all of them giving over their community spaces and organising volunteers for one night a week during the winter, to ensure that those who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets have a safe and warm place to stay. Some of my acquaintances might scoff at this - after all, they would assert, ameliorating current injustices doesn't change the system that causes them - but having done my first 2010 overnight shift this week, I couldn't disagree more. Not only are the churches doing incredibly valuable work in providing comfort and solace to some of the most vulnerable people in our society (in the particular case that I experienced, the church in question is St Paul's on Evering Road, under the wonderful direction of Rev Niall Weir) - but they are providing the foundational structures that any community needs to survive. The kind of mutual aid and voluntary compassion, unmediated by money or desire for profit, in which lie the seeds of a new world. I certainly look forward to doing more shifts over the coming months, and would encourage anyone living in Hackney to think about volunteering too.
Of course, there is never enough being done in this area - and while the Winter Night Shelter does great work, North London Action For The Homeless has seen its advice funding from the Council completely cut for the forthcoming financial year. Over £11,000 for advising homeless and vulnerably housed people has gone - putting at risk one of the very few, and vitally important, independent advice services for the people whom NLAH serves. I volunteer with NLAH on Monday lunchtimes and am part of the Management Committee, and have seen first hand the good work that they do - also hosted by the St Paul's Church Community Hall, without which the provision of good meals, compassionate company and independent advice would be so much more difficult. As I understand it, NLAH was originally founded on the initiative of the Jewish community in Hackney - another idea catalysed by religious faith.
And then, this Saturday, I was lucky enough to attend the induction of Andy Pakula as the new Minister of the Newington Green Unitarian Church, one of the oldest 'dissenting' churches in London, with a 300 year old tradition of feminism, anti-slavery, advocacy for economic justice and concern for ecological sustainability. The service was wonderful, and left me with an abiding sense of what a liberal, non-judgemental, all-embracing and life affirming religious belief can look like. It didn't hurt that I also found out that Andy and the congregation have refused to carry out any weddings at the Church until LGBT people have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples in this country!
Religious faith can be an enormously powerful catalyst and foundation for social change. It can bring people together across boundaries, helping to create the kind of communities of compassion and voluntary service that we so desperately need. Yes, it can also create intolerance and rigidity and fundamentalism - but it doesn't have to. People of progressive beliefs, whether religious or secular in their origin, must work together to bring on a world where "Justice will flow like a river - and righteousness like a never failing stream."
Use of the photo above does not of course imply any endorsement of my campaign - it just made me smile and I thought might illustrate my point!