I’ve recently been involved in Medway Inter-Faith Action (MIFA), a local group that promotes dialogue and understanding between people of different faiths. On Sunday they held a “Pilgrimage” throughout Medway, visiting different places of worship and and holding multifaith prayers on the streets.
Open Air Prayers with ISKCON
The day started with visits to Rochester Cathedral, the Quaker’s Meeting House and St Peter’s Church in Rochester, but as I live just outside Medway and had had a pretty exhausting day yesterday working at this year’s Japan Matsuri, I decided to join the pilgrimage slightly later, outside the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) charity shop Closet Krishna on Rochester High Street. We started by singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” together, followed by one of my friends from Medway Pagans singing a song from Disney’s Brother Bear, and finally the Hare Krishnas invited us to join in chanting and dancing. I really enjoyed it! I’ve always loved singing and dancing as a form of religious worship, so I was in my element.
We then went to the Unitarian Church in Chatham. I’d passed that church so many times as a child and never knew it was Unitarian – I’d always assumed it was Christian. Although we didn’t observe a Unitarian service, we did have the opportunity to read a little about Unitarianism and have some tea and snacks!
Open Air Prayers in Chatham High Street
We proceeded on to Chatham High Street, and held some different multi-faith prayers there. I was really pleased that the Chair of MIFA asked me to read a prayer, and he happened to have a Shinto one, which was as follows:
“Although the people living across the ocean surrounding us, I believe, are all our brothers and sisters, why are there constant troubles in this world? Why do winds and waves rise in the ocean surrounding us? I only earnestly wish that the wind will soon puff away all the clouds which are hanging over the tops of the mountains.”
It reminds me of some of the correspondence that politicians in Japan used to send to Britain during our early days of trade and diplomatic relations with each other.
We then took a fairly long, uphill walk to Gillingham Mosque. The walk took us through a nice park that I’d never been before in Chatham and I really enjoyed the little trek!
Gillingham Mosque has been through some difficult times of late. It’s a small building that struggles to fill the needs of Medway’s Muslim community due to its limited capacity, and so they’d recently had an application approved to build a new, larger Mosque. This has sparked opposition from far-right, anti-Muslim groups, who have been subjecting the Mosque and its users to abuse and have even committed acts of vandalism against the current Mosque. It’s really sad to consider the abuse that a place of family and community has faced due to ignorance and fear.
But all these troubles were put aside for our visit, and we were welcomed with open arms. We were invited to watch the prayers taking place, which I’d never seen before. The atmosphere in the prayer room is very quiet and austere – there’s little ornamentation in the room itself, and the only sound is the Imam directing the prayers as the devotees prostrate themselves.
Following the prayers, we had a chance to mingle and eat samosas that the Mosque had kindly prepared for us, and one of the Muslim members of MIFA and an Imam gave a talk on Islam, explaining some of the basics of the Muslim faith.
Hindu Sabha Mandir
A very short distance from Gillingham Mosque is the Hindu Sabha Mandir temple, the last place of worship we entered on our pilgrimage. We’d arrived on a good day, as it was both the 21st birthday of one of the members, and also the Ganesha Chaturthi festival in honour of Lord Ganesha. As such, there was a real party atmosphere – the temple was lit with flashing lights, and at the far end was a large shrine to various Hindu deities, including two statues of Ganesha, with generous offerings of fruit before them. The large congregation was seated on the floor before the shrine, and as you might find at a Mosque, the men and women sat on different sides of the room – but what was very interesting was that the women took up most of the room and were seated more centrally, with the men sitting at the sidelines. The service involved songs and chants lead by the elder women (who all had beautiful voices), and there was even some dancing – myself and some of the other “pilgrims” were invited to get up and dance as well, which was fun! The bright lights and colours, singing and dancing, clapping and strong aroma of incense all lent themselves to a very hypnotic, almost ecstatic atmosphere. The noisy, exuberant, female-led service was quite a contrast to the sober silence of the male-led Mosque service.
We were then served a small Indian meal – food was a common theme at all the places we visited! It was touching that everywhere we went was so welcoming, and wanted to make us feel welcome by sharing their food – to “break bread” together, as a sign of friendship.
Open Air Prayers at Gillingham High Street with St Mark’s Church
The final part of the pilgrimage I attended were the prayers with members of St Mark’s Church on Gillingham High Street. This is an evangelical Anglican church, and the prayers we said were in the form of song, including one to the tune of “One Love One Heart.” It was a lovely way to end; there was a celebration planned at the Sunlight Centre but I decided to end it there.
Reflections on the Pilgrimage
- First of all, I am so glad to have participated in this pilgrimage! It was a truly wonderful day and I learnt so much. Although I’ve always been interested in other religions, I’d never been to a Mosque or Hindu temple, simply because I wasn’t sure about whether it’s OK just to drop into these places, and because I didn’t know what kind of etiquette and protocol to follow. So thanks to this day, I do know now! For example, I didn’t know what to do regarding headscarves in a Mosque. Do non-Muslims need to wear one? If so, does the Mosque provide them for visitors? I didn’t bring one and it turns out that generally you should bring one to a mosque, particularly if you’re going to be present at the prayers (fortunately someone kindly lent me theirs so I could observe the prayers). Thanks to the pilgrimage, now I know the rules and the next time I visit I’ll be better prepared. It’s all a part of building intercultural competence – in other words, “fluency” in the practises and customs of the different groups within my local community.
- I also really enjoyed the opportunity to meet other like-minded people – not simply other people who live a spiritual life, but those who are, like myself, curious about other religions. I cannot overstate how important this is. When we are curious about something, we are open to it, we want to ask questions, and we want to get to know it better – the first steps towards initiating friendship. I think everyone at today’s pilgrimage had the same mindset. I chose to wear my largest pentagram pendant for the pilgrimage – if there’s any time to proudly display one’s religious affiliation, it would be a multifaith celebration, I reasoned. And I was glad I did because it prompted lots of interesting conversations with curious people. Several people mistook it for the Star of David, which surprised me somewhat as I thought the pentagram was fairly well-known; an indicator that perhaps I’ve been living in a bit of a Pagan bubble! So this gave me the opportunity to explain the difference between the pentagram and the Star of David (also called the hexagram or Solomon’s Seal), and to mention that the hexagram is also a sacred symbol to many Pagans as well. One young man I met at the Hindu temple was really fascinated by Paganism. “I really want to go to a Pagan place of worship, because I really want to see a statue of Odin! He’s awesome!” he said. It both amused me and made me feel rather wistful; I wish Pagan “places of worship” (not that there are many such fixed places in the UK) did have the huge statues of deities, as you would see in a Hindu place of worship.
- Another aspect of the pilgrimage that I really liked was that it made me realise that it’s not simply spiritual beliefs that we have in common – Medway itself was an important thing that united us. On our journey between stops on the pilgrimage, we had plenty of time to chat and get to know each other better. And I realised that we all had many stories to share with each other simply about life in Medway. We’d all grown up going to the same places and doing similar things, and we all had fond memories of Medway’s local landmarks and goings-on. So the pilgrimage really strengthened our sense of community – not only because it gave us the opportunity to visit the various places of worship in Medway, but also because we were able to realise that despite our differences in faith, we are all united as Medway citizens.
- Seeing members of different religions in action gave me lots of food for thought about my own religion. I could see lots of things in common between the various different religions and my own practises. Hare Krishnas believe that chanting is a form of worship and self-realisation, a belief shared by many Pagans. Unitarians try to explore what common aspects unite all faiths, just as Pagans are often on a journey to find the “root belief” underpinning all religions. The austere Mosque, with its silent congregation bowing towards no visible item of worship, reminded me of the inner sanctum of Shinto shrines, which are also minimalist, quiet and devoid of much imagery. The Hindu temple reminded me most of all of Paganism, with its joyful celebration of the many gods, represented by beautiful statues and offerings of fruit, and the insistence that we eat after the celebrations, just like the “cakes and ale” at the end of a Pagan ritual. In fact, there was a lot about the Hindu temple that I wouldn’t mind seeing integrated in to Pagan ritual. I would welcome a lot more singing and dancing, as well as more shrines and offerings – like the Hindus, I think we should be bold and exuberant in our devotions. I realise that there are branches of Paganism, such as Feri, that do emphasise more ecstatic forms of worship, and I wonder how I could try an integrate this into our rituals at Medway Pagans.
- I now really want to get Medway Pagans involved in next year’s Inter Faith Pilgrimage – I think we could easily hold a group ritual outdoors that could be inclusive of all faiths while giving a taste of Paganism at the same time. I’ll see if I can try to get our group included next year!