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The FEAST - Birmingham

The Feast in Birmingham aims to help young people of faith overcome barriers of fear, prejudice and apathy between religions and cultures, and empower them to be peacemakers and agents of social change in their communities.

Origins

“If the church is going to engage with the world as it is, not just how we remember it to be, then helping young Christians befriend Muslims has to be taken seriously by the church. Whenever we've asked Christian teenagers where they learn about Islam they always say either school, friends or the media. They never mention church. Youth Encounter wants to play its part in changing that answer.”

The Feast was set up by Dr Andrew Smith, who had spent more than 10 years researching and exploring ways to help young Christians engage well with their Muslim peers whilst working for Scripture Union. His area of ministry was in Birmingham with its diverse cultural and religious mix. Methods of Christian mission used in white, British schools did not work for the Asian, Muslim young people. Through his work in schools in Birmingham, it became clear that the schools most interested in finding ways to develop collective worship were those with a majority of Muslim pupils. This led to a focus on Christian/Muslim relations. He ran his first event for Christian and Muslim young people in 2000. Under the title Faith and Young People, about 50 young people from across Birmingham spent the day getting to know one another, discussing their faith, exploring the similarities and differences between the two faiths and the issue of stereotyping. The aim was to examine how they could live together as people of faith in Britain. Several more events took place over the next ten years and interest grew both amongst young people wanting to participate and adults interested in this way of working. This was the start of Youth Encounter, which runs Faith and Young People events bringing together Christian and Muslim young people for dialogue[1] and provides training and resources to help churches equip Christian young people live out their faith confidently and humbly amongst their Muslim friends. The aims of the Faith and Young People events are:

· to bring together Christian and Muslim young people (particularly aged 14-19).
· to give those young people a chance to encounter and build friendships with people of a different faith.
· to provide a safe and informal environment where they can explore issues relevant to young people of both faith communities.
· to help them learn how to express their beliefs in constructive and peaceful ways.
· to give them a chance to have their voice heard.
· to model good practice of Christian-Muslim encounter for others to learn from.

Dr Smith developed the approach and strategies through trialling different means of encounter and through research. He conceived the idea of The Feast to advance them. His long term work with many churches in Birmingham meant he was well able to assess their likely interest in, and support for, this sort of work.

In 2008, he brought Christians from the Sparkhill area together to consider whether to set up a charity that would be an Associate Trust of Scripture Union. Sparkhill is one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Birmingham. After much prayer and discussion, five people agreed to become trustees and work towards setting up a charity and seeking funds. The Feast Trust was formed in the autumn of 2008 and gained charitable status early in 2009.

How the Feast works

At the heart of The Feast is a desire to bring together Christian and Muslim teenagers to build friendships, explore faith and change lives. The way we work is basically to build good relationships with Muslim and Christian young people and then invite them to events where they can meet one another. The relationships with the young people have to be developed in distinctive ways with the two communities as they have different structures and youth programmes here in Birmingham. There are several secondary schools where most pupils are Muslims but none where the majority is Christian. A number of Churches run youth groups for Christians, but very few Mosques run youth groups. Consequently we seek to work with Muslim young people in schools and Christians in churches before bringing them together.

We work through our Schools Workers in three secondary schools, building trust amongst Christian and Muslim young people, and then inviting them to meet up at weekend and holiday programmes. Through these encounters we want to see them explore faith, build friendships and change lives, starting with their own and then those around them. The first Schools Worker was appointed in July 2008 to work with two schools with a majority of Muslim pupils and to network with local churches to meet Christian young people and then to run events bringing both groups together. A gap year worker also joined the organisation at this time. In February 2010, a Project Manager was appointed, who formerly worked for Scripture Union in Australia. This has enabled the work to expand in terms of the number of events and in the autumn of 2010 work started in a third school in the Aston area of Birmingham. A part-time Administrator joined the team to help the Project Manager.

The events we run are totally youth focused. They use good youth work practice and have the interests and needs of the young people at heart. A typical event involves warm-up activities, discussion starters, group work, games and refreshments. We also make sure that the needs of all the young people are catered for, including provision of halal food and prayer times for both Christians and Muslims.

The topics we discuss are ones of concern to young people rather than ones that faith leaders, theologians or other adults think they ought to be discussing. In all this we facilitate the young people to share their beliefs, experiences and ideas with one another rather then telling them what they ought to be sharing. The events we run tend to be small in number (typically 20 maximum) and we work hard to make sure there are equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. Over the years we have found that small events have a much bigger impact on the young people than large events. Whilst we could run one event for a hundred young people, running 5 events for 20 will be more effective. Although it is more costly in terms of time and money, this is an investment that we think is worthwhile.

Discussions look at a topic of interest to the young people (e.g. fashion, peer pressure, the environment) and then explore what Islam and Christianity say about that issue. As we do this, we highlight both the similarities and the differences between our two faiths, and encourage the young people to find ways to disagree peacefully. To help the discussions flow and to avoid unhelpful conflict, we have developed guidelines for dialogue that to set a framework for our discussions at every event:

1) We will listen to what everyone has to say.
2) We will be honest in what we say.
3) We will speak positively of our own faith, rather than negatively of other people’s.
4) We will respect other people’s views, even if we disagree with them.
5) We will not treat people here as a spokesperson for their faith.
6) We will not tell others what they believe, but will let them tell us.
7) We will acknowledge similarities and differences between our faiths.
8) We will not judge people here by what some people of their faith do.
9) We will not try and force people to agree with our views.
10) We can ask for a discussion to be stopped if we feel uncomfortable with what is being said.
11) We will make an effort to get along with everyone regardless of their faith, gender, race or age.


Following the events we encourage the young people to take the lessons from The Feast out into their everyday lives. This might be by reflecting on the way they treat people at school, inviting friends to future events or by spreading the word through videos or blogs.

New developments

We are now developing the idea of Exchange Events, where we work with a group of Christians from a church and a group of Muslims from one of our schools, and take them to each of their ‘home’ settings; for example between Kenilworth and Aston.

The organisation

The Feast is a registered charity with five trustees, who serve for three year terms, renewable at the AGM. As an Associate Trust of Scripture Union, trustees must be in agreement with the aims and statement of belief of the Scripture Union.

The first strategic plan covered 2010-2012, but has already become obsolete because the Project has expanded beyond what was originally envisaged. The strategic plan will be revamped, therefore, in the coming autumn.

Leadership

Clearly the original and sustained impetus for The Feast has come from our founder and chair of trustees, Dr Andrew Smith, who is also the Christian youth work representative on the Christian Muslim Forum. He is taking over as the Bishop of Birmingham’s Interfaith Adviser and is heading up the Presence and Engagement Centre in Birmingham. As The Feast’s work develops, staff are taking a greater role in setting the direction.

Resources

The Feast is based at the Springfield Project, a Children’s Centre connected to St Christopher’s Church, Springfield. Our office and meeting space represent a donation in kind from the Springfield Project. Now there is also a new base in Aston at Broadway School called the Safehaven which costs c. £5,000 per year (half-time rent). These are needed for the office work of our staff, but also to provide youth work space for various out-of-school programmes.

Funding was raised before employing the first worker. At present, about £110,000 per year is needed to run the project. Sources of funding are:

· Grant aid represents about 65% made up of grant from lots of different bodies, but the most substantial currently is from CUF as part of the Near Neighbours programme.
· Donations make up about 25%, but we want to see this increase to 50%. Currently, we have about £16,000 p.a. from supporters in Australia and £9,600 from UK supporters.
· Church giving is largely incorporated into donations, but may be 5%.
· The service level agreement with schools brings in about 10%.

We have a policy of keeping our funding sources diverse, and not accepting any single source of funding that will exceed 25% of our total expenditure. We aim to be in existence for the long term so we are not contemplating funding running out at this stage. We are building a long term income base, as well as a reserves account. This said we are eagerly raising funds as this year has a shortfall of about £15,000.

Volunteers

are essential to the project. Initially, the volunteer contribution came largely through the trustees, but in the last financial year we had over 50 volunteers giving more than 1,200 hours, and could not do the work without them. Calculated on the basis of the minimum wage, this amounts to a contribution of £7,200 though for the work they are doing, they could command a much higher hourly rate.

In addition to being linked with church premises at St Christopher’s, we may be using churches at the Christian locations like Kenilworth, Redditch, Painswick, and Halesowen for the Exchange Events.

Non-financial help and support

Various Diocesan officers have been extremely helpful: the Youth Co-ordinator, the Regeneration Department staff and the Interfaith Advisor. Other churches or faith groups have also been supportive as have the schools and some local council staff and police officers.

Nationally, the Scripture Union has been able to provide advice and training for trustees and staff, as well as a national framework for The Feast’s activities and support for residential activities.

Outcomes

In the past year we have run about 25 youth events and attracted about 150 young people. Of these, 40% have been to more than one event, and the ratio of Christian and Muslim has been almost exactly half. Statistically we have been extremely happy with our ability to find and attract young people.

Even better has been the evidence of how young people have changed. We keep many feedback forms where participants report how they were surprised at what they had learnt through their involvement with The Feast. Then we have been able to find out much more about personal changes as we get to know young people and interview them informally. Changes have included improvements in behaviour, gaining new skills and knowledge, increases in self-confidence and aspiration and reductions in negative feelings about people who are different.

Another indication of effectiveness is the support of the schools. The project is demonstrating through Ofsted its contribution to the schools’ work on cohesion and citizenship and evidence of the schools’ satisfaction is that it was not necessary to make a detailed case for continuing the initiative.

Success factors

· Our rules of engagement for dialogue as developed by Dr Smith have been invaluable.
· Keeping the groups small has been more effective than large events.
· Our intertwining of good youth work with good interfaith dialogue is extremely important. In fact, a lot of what we do is just really good Christian youth work, with a solid dose of respect for people who are different.

Barriers

· Funding - naturally.
· Volunteers - we really want to increase and expand our volunteer team, especially amongst Muslims.
· Churches - It is still a very hard slog to get churches on board. We are aware that we need to do a lot more work in helping churches and Christian youth leaders to work with us. This area is a difficult one to ‘sell’ to the average busy youth worker, especially with the huge amount of baggage held across the spectrum of churches around the theme of interfaith. We will be trialling a few new strategies in the next school year.

Challenges and opportunities

As the next staff appointment, we want to secure a Muslim youth worker to help us establish and nurture our connections with the Muslim community beyond the young people and families that we currently find through schools.

We are very excited about the future of our work, and I am looking forward to an autumn of development of our next 3 years of work.


Tim Fawssett
http://www.thefeast.org.uk/




[1]  The British Council of Churches set out four principles of dialogue which many people have used since and which inform the Faith and Young People events:

· Dialogue begins when people meet each other
· Dialogue depends on mutual understanding and mutual trust
· Dialogue makes it possible to share in service to the community
· Dialogue becomes the medium of authentic witness