Event report: the Croydon interfaith gathering, Sunday 22nd May at the Ahmadiyya mosque, St James Road

By - Wednesday 1st June, 2016

Rosie Edser admires the tolerance of Muslims and Christians alike as an audience member goes rogue

All men of God. From left to right: Syed Adeel Shah, John Ingman, Usman Ahmed, Revd Simon Foster, Imam Mansoor Clarke, Khalil Yusuf and Muhammad Sohaib Ali.
Photo author’s own.

What does integration look like? Not being a sporting enthusiast, in my head it’s basically carrying your Oyster card (essential), library card (desirable) and Nectar card (optional). Plus not picking flowers, being homophobic or dropping litter. You don’t have to reference the queen reverently every five minutes (or re-name your daughter Elizabeth in her honour, as I encountered from one newcomer recently) but you do have to function in your new society and hopefully make some sort of meaningful contribution.

On this front, Croydon’s Ahmadiyya Muslims pass with flying colours, not just picking up litter and donating blood, but organising and hosting blood drives and peace symposiums, holding street parties, collecting for charities such as the Royal British Legion, and homeless-feeding (their phrase) on a regular basis.

Why not give your Bible quotes a Croydon twist?

Quoting the Bible aptly gets you extra Britishness points, of course. I was startled to hear Hebrews 10:25 being quoted by Khalil Yusuf, our Ahmadi host at the interfaith event: “do not give up meeting together… but encourage one another”. I’ve always taken this to refer to church attendance but hey, why not re-interpret it with a Croydon twist in the current context?

The gathering was the second in what the Ahmadiyya community hopes will be a series of meetings, and I think that it was valuable. There were Christians there of many flavours and backgrounds: Quakers, folk from a South Croydon outdoor pursuits club and Ahmadiyya of all ages (a special mention to the very young photographer). When someone had given up on MP Gavin Barwell’s attendance (I wish that I knew whether that was due to Ahmadi over-optimism or a Croydon MP #diaryfail) the evening began with a scholar who read a passage from the Q’uran in Arabic and English and a woman from St Matthew’s Church, Park Hill, giving a reading from the Bible (Psalm 23).

The only female contributor reads Psalm 23.
Photo author’s own.

We then heard an introduction to Christian worship and a self-effacing description of his church’s activities from the assistant priest of St Matthew’s, John Ingman. There followed an address from another priest, Simon Foster, about the relevance of religion. He emphasised the common ground that Christians and Muslims both worship one God, despite smiling wryly at the fact that it was Trinity Sunday. When he finished there was a tiny smattering of applause, mainly from audience member Martin (whom you shall meet in a minute). This was not because we failed to appreciate what he had said, but because we felt slightly more like guests or high church congregation members (who’d never dream of clapping a sermon) than delegates at a conference.

There was then a lively address from Imam Mansoor Clarke, a Brummie Ahmadi and son of an Irish Catholic, who presents the Ahmadiyya Radio breakfast show. He talked about building friendships “whether we worship with our hands in the air or our faces to the floor”. He reminded us that Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the world and that, within that, Ahmadiyya is the fastest growing movement (go on, google it…). Ahmadiyya Muslims condemn terrorism, the caliphate of Da’esh and all forms of violence, and seek to promote peace, social justice and local integration. Within that context, the greatest difficulty that they face seems to be the current image problem of Islam in the UK.

I love a tricky customer at a conference, messily disregarding social cues and butting in every two minutes

Now we come to the trickiest part of the evening: the thing that lays bare the very soul of a host. That’s the Q and A session. Responding politely to all questions with honesty and without bluster and handling tricky delegates diplomatically gets you bonus Britishness points, especially if you can manage it with as much warmth and tact as Khalil did. I love a tricky customer at a conference. They unravel the carefully crafted sense of order and and, with their messy disregard for all social cues and insistence on butting in every two minutes, push us all to the very limits of British tolerance.

In this case, our man was a chap called Martin in a green floral shirt with many strong opinions and an insatiable desire to address the room. By the seventh interruption the mutters were beginning and by the ninth I could sense fellow delegates sliding down in their seats in an attempt to integrate with their plush upholstered backrests. But Khalil smiled, interrupted oh-so-gently and summarised the waffling monologues into succinct and answerable questions, restoring to us all the will to live.

The Christians were intelligent, authentic and willing to engage: not setting the world on fire, but that’s perhaps exactly what we need. Like any multi-cultural city with pockets of poverty and prejudice, Croydon will benefit from steadily connecting across divides and genuine community-building, whether that’s through hosting night shelters, unsophisticated beetle drives and birthday tea parties for the queen or through super tech-savvy Ahmadiyya Muslims inviting their neighbours round for interfaith dialogue and the mutual exchange of gifts. (I would love to know what was in those gift bags, though. I bet that it wasn’t alcohol.)

The evening finished with silent prayer, lovely take-away food (hats off to the super-efficient organisers) and the invitation to stay for chatting and formal prayers. It was a very civilised evening but I’ll leave us with a final quote from our friend Martin:

“Believe in God but also plant some cabbages. Believe in Allah but also tie up your camels”.

Rosie Edser

Rosie Edser

Rosie is a member of the team at Croydon Refugee Daycentre. She's a teacher of both adult English learners and (in her day job) children. She relishes the fact that her own offspring have attended a school in Croydon with over forty first languages spoken. She lives in Waddon.

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  • Anne Giles

    I can’t imagine that MP Gavin Barwell’s non-attendance had anything to do with a “diary fail”. The man is incredibly busy and certainly can’t be in more than one place at a time.

  • Mark Johnson

    I attended one of their peace symposiums a few years ago, it was eye opening. Such a wonderful group of people who live by their mantra ‘love for all hatred for none’.

    • Sol Invictus

      Thanks indeed sir !