Last Wednesday, a group of year 9 students from Billanook College joined the Uniting Through Faiths team on the rooftop of the Synod building, where what I hoped to be an interesting and thought provoking activity awaited them. I was also hopeful that this activity did not result in the rooftop of the Synod being covered in spray paint; by the end of the day, almost all of the paint had made its way to its intended destination. The activity was supposed to be fun and creative, a bit of stencilling and spray painting and a chance to talk to our special guests about differing cultures and religions.
Before the twelve students came up to the rooftop, to do the “hippy thing on the roof” (as it came to be known), they heard a fraction of Paul Dau’s story. We are lucky enough to have Paul completing his placement in our office. Paul is studying at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, and will soon be a minister of the Uniting Church. However, when he talked to the students he wasn’t proselytising, nor did he talk about the religious tensions which had played a part in the vastly complicated story of the Sudanese civil war. Using the differences in religiosity is an easy way to explain war and violence, and unfortunately, can be met with an uneasy understanding within the general public. But war and violence go much deeper than the divides in religion, which makes it harder to explain, when what we want is an easy answer.
Like that of the history of Sudan, Paul’s story was never going to be given justice in the ten minutes in which he had to talk. Nevertheless, he managed to convey his journey as a person, who, having to leave his family in Sudan, was then stuck in a Kenyan refugee camp for eleven years; he later found out that of the family he had to leave behind, half had later died. He brought to attention his continued struggle as he tries to find an identity in Australia, other than that of refugee, in a complicated, multicultural country. Paul was also joined by Reem Hakem and Daniel Byron, who spoke about Islam and Buddhism. Both Reem and Daniel spoke powerfully and articulately about their experiences as a Muslim women and a Buddhist man. They are both strongly committed to social equality and do amazing work throughout the community in a determination to advocate for integrity and equality of a multifaith, multicultural society. Reem works collaboratively with the Victorian and Federal Police, facilitating training sessions to educate police officers on context of Islamic culture. Reem is also involved in the Jewish Christian Muslim Association (JCMA) and the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), where she speaks eloquently to school children, to enable them a better understanding of her faith. Much of Daniel’s work is done through InterAction. A multifaith youth based organisation that is committed to peacebuilding, and is inspired by the spiritual traditions of the young individuals who are members. InterAction works towards social cohesion, by engaging in targeted community services, which include issues such as food security and homelessness.
The common thread which connected Paul, Reem, Daniel and the activity on the rooftop, was one of humanity and unity. It might have been that the students were confronted with stories which they had never heard before, or it might be that they are teenagers, and conversing with strangers about differing religions and cultures, isn’t something that they want to do. But that’s fine. They were exposed to something other than their everyday world, which is a part of what their week has been about.
When the group of youthful, brooding teenagers came up to the rooftop, I may have felt a slight panic attack at the thought of keeping twelve 14 year olds entertained for an hour. Thankfully, and with only minor confusion, the students started the painstaking task (as I found out earlier when it took me an hour to cut out two stencils) of cutting out stencils in order to spray paint images onto bags.
I don’t know whether this activity and listening to our guests tell their stories have made an impact on their perceptions of life. I can only hope to have planted a seed that will one day start to bloom, and enable each person to see past the simplistic rhetoric of multifaith and multiculturalism, to a perception of humanity, unity and appreciation.