Today held a number of firsts for me, and provided a lot of food for thought. Dee and I were privileged in being able to attend a faith tour near where we live. In one part of town, there is a church, a mosque and a gurdwara all within about 5 minutes walk of each other. Faith tours are run for schools at least twice a week, and every so often they are run for interested parties like us. I’d say there were more than 50 of us, with ages ranging from 6 or 7 up to 70s or 80s.
Probably because of the proximity of these places of worship to each other, the vibe on the street between them was a lot more friendly than I’ve noticed elsewhere. People even said hello as we walked past, which is very unusual in towns in the south of England, in my experience.
First stop was the Anglican church, where the (female) priest talked through some of the differences, and highlighted the similarities, in the three faiths we were going to encounter today. It was quite interactive in that two volunteers from the audience were allowed to put on vestments of the church, another volunteer held the incense bowl, another held the cross on a pole and yet another held a book of gospels. They then walked around the church as would normally happen at the beginning of the service. After tea and biscuits, we were encouraged to explore the church and, in the words of the priest, “nowhere was too sacred for us to be”.
It felt like a unique opportunity to wander freely around the church, and to read stories from the past from the area where the church was built. For me, where most of my churchgoing experience was a) grudging and b) Scottish protestant, the robes, ceremonies, incense etc was almost exotic and certainly very strange.
The second stop was the mosque, where we all removed our shoes and the women amongst us covered their heads. Unfortunately, the Imam was taken unwell last night so was unable to host us, but one of the volunteers from the mosque stepped in and gave a really interesting insight into the five pillars of Islam. I must confess to being a little surprised that his talk was mostly done using PowerPoint slides and videos, with a screen set up in one corner of the mosque, and a projector built into the ceiling.
There were a lot more questions for our host, as can perhaps be imagined – more on that later – than the priest had earlier. What was most evident perhaps was the commonality in roots and characters between Islam and Christianity. Both stem from Adam, both feature Abraham, and Mary / Marion, to name but a few. Even the divide between Sunni and Shia was shown to be minimal, with much more in common than there were differences.
Finally, we visited the gurdwara, where one of the committee ensured we’d removed our shoes and covered our heads, before taking us to the main prayer room. It felt like a real privilege to have the room to ourselves, to have time to look closely at the artefacts on display, especially as we heard that there will be a wedding in there tomorrow. We then moved upstairs to another prayer room, where a member of the Sikh community was reading aloud from the holy book. This is something that is repeated every week, and it takes 48 hours for the whole book to be read from start to finish. Again, I found this a very moving experience, to be welcomed into such a holy place and to see and hear part of the reading. There are no holy men in the gurdwara, it’s all run by and for the community, though there is a committee which works to implement the things the community wants and need.
From there, the tour was over, and we were all invited to have lunch in the langar. Any visitors to any gurdwara globally will be offered this form of hospitality. The kitchen is run by volunteers from the community, as a duty, and all are welcome. The food was simple but very tasty, and very enjoyable.
Again, there were a lot of questions, as in the mosque. I don’t mean this next piece to sound judgmental so apologies in advance if it does. Many of the questions asked in mosque and gurdwara seemed to be along the lines of “your religion doesn’t have the same things as mine, so mine must be better”, though not in so many words. It was notable that it was the older people on the tour who were asking that sort of question, and they also seemed to be more judgmental. I wonder if the same sort of questions would have been asked by Muslims or Sikhs of the Christian priest, but there were none (to my knowledge) in the group taking the tour.
So, what did I learn from the experience? Personally, I found the gurdwara a more restful and relaxing place – perhaps because there were no chairs / pews. The mosque was also very interesting, and it was perhaps the most practical, least ostentatious venue. The emphasis all three faiths place on charity was also interesting, though with three very different approaches. That particular church does a lot in Swaziland; the mosque has strict rules on who can receive charity and also prefers that charity is passed from hand to hand rather than through charitable organisations; and the gurdwara seemed to focus on providing food for anyone who wants / need it.
If you get the chance to do a similar tour, I’d suggest you take it. It’s a very worthwhile and fascinating experience.