I was asked by NUS Interfaith team to present the interfaith initiatives workshop at the Welfare Zone conference, which I happily accepted. As current VP Education & Welfare and ex-Ethnic Minority Students officer at Birmingham City Students Union, interfaith is very close to my heart, having been involved in interfaith activities and dialogue on all different levels within the student movement.
I used this chance to reflect on my journey and how I came about to feel so strongly about interfaith and what change it can bring. It was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, was killed outside his business in the first of several cases across the United States, that were reported to the police as acts of retaliation for the terrorist attacks. The killer mistook Sodhi’s turban and beard as a sign of support for the attack. I remember feeling that the world was still ignorant of the Sikh faith, and the significance of the turbans on our heads. For the first time, I could empathise with people of other faiths who had suffered racist, fascist abuse due to sheer ignorance of others.
When I came to University, I had already experienced interfaith events and realised the potential of bringing people of all faiths and no faith together onto one platform. However despite having a very multicultural student population, the university or union had no interfaith events to celebrate the diverse population. I quickly realised that the faith-based organisations were not engaged with the union as they had all the support they needed from national faith based student bodies such as UJS, FOSIS, and NHSF etc.
It was important to demonstrate to these societies that the union offered a lot more than generic advice and could help empower them and their members. It was through this dialogue that the first ever inter-faith week was celebrated at our Union with 6 societies taking part, and this has grown year on year. Just a few weeks back, we saw the launch of the BCU Interfaith association that helped bring 13 different societies onto one platform to collaborate on events and open up channels of communication between them.
The benefit of interfaith has also been felt in other areas of the union too, with many more students feeling more engaged and empowered. Number of student voters in the student union elections has increased in the last few years and more and more students from the traditionally “under-represented” groups are taking an active role within the SU.
But in my opinion the most important thing achieved from Union inter-faith initiatives is that now students graduate from university with more knowledge and tolerance of other faiths, beliefs and groups than ever before. And that is a skill that lasts well beyond the university years.