Faiths Act Fellow training for interfaith work
My name is Eric Farr, I’m a Bahá'í, and this year my job as a Faiths Act Fellow with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is to mobilise a grassroots interfaith movement that will combat malaria and improve global maternal health conditions.
As I wrote that opening sentence, part of me wanted to groan at its doe-eyed idealism. Like it or not, I’m part of a culture that generally thinks religion’s role in society should be confined to the private thoughts of a gradually decreasing but increasingly weird section of the population, a culture that sees acts of terror like the events of 9/11 as an extreme but accurate representation of religion’s public expression, and that understands interfaith work as a lame exercise in empty smiles and arms-length appreciation.
As a religious person, I’ve often struggled to harmonise the world within which I live and the world that lives within me. But I feel like part of what makes integrating these two worlds so difficult is the same thing that makes much interfaith work so uncool and unhelpful to the betterment of society. My experience with interfaith dialogue has been that it often treats religions (and especially the religions of others) like our secular society treats them: as curious and kind of quirky and “oh how lovely”, provided that my interaction with them remains confined to this controlled setting and I don’t need to engage with them as anything more than interesting ideas.
My month of training to become a Faiths Act Fellow in London was a transformative experience. We met an astonishing roster of influential speakers, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Bishop Richard Chartres. We met with Tony Blair and, in a candid setting, asked questions and heard his thoughts on the Faith Foundation and our fellowship.
What I will remember most from the Faiths Act Fellow training though is not the world leaders we met. I will remember the other fellows and the relationships I formed with them. I will remember waking up early and sharing prayers with my Christian, Buddhist, Quaker, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu friends and being moved by their sincerity and devotion. I’ll remember going to a Bahá'í holy site with a friend of Christian background and standing in prayerful silence side by side. I’ll remember the sweet voices of my friends reciting verses of otherworldly beauty from the Qur’an. And I’ll remember just hanging out with the fellows and laughing until my stomach hurt. Above all else, I’ll remember these true, spiritual friendships that engaged with, validated and enriched those most fundamental aspects of who I am, that made me a better person and a better Bahá'í.
This year, as a fellow, I hope to create spaces in which people of different faiths can interact with each other freely and fully as people of faith and form genuine friendships. A longing to connect with and learn from others and to serve God and humanity alongside them must fuel these friendships. So long as we conduct interfaith dialogue such that dialogue is the end in itself, such that we speak and hear but don’t engage deeply with the unique individual souls who participate in the exchange, then we continue to relegate the most important aspects of those souls to the space of their private, inner thoughts.
True friendship opens up our hearts and our eyes. It liberates us from prejudices we never knew we had and allows us to act as our truest selves. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to affirm and defend with integrity the unique beauty of different faiths and the people that adhere to them. In the world we are living today, this kind of friendship has never been so needed and never more rewarding.