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PaganismZoroastrianism

Report on the SAIF AGM March 20th 2012

The meeting at The Friends’ Meeting house in Stratford began with the now customary time of shared silence.

Chair Christopher Lamb listed the names of six members who had sent their apologies.

Chair’s Report

Christopher then reviewed the progress of SAIF, now in its fifth year.

There has been ongoing development since the first exploratory meeting in October 2007.

During the past year highlights have been:

  • Excellent speaker Ray Gaston illustrating the concepts of five virtues found across the faiths – Humility, Commitment, Interconnectedness, Hospitality and Empathy
  • Bill Heilbronn condensing 3000 years of Jewish history. Bill’s return visit later this year will concern Jewish mysticism.
  • Mehru Fitter gave an excellent overview of the little known faith of Zoroastrianism.
  • Marianne Rohan’s session on Paganism included passionate embracement of the Feminine.
  • Visits on two occasions to the Hare Krishna temple in Coventry ensured that a number of our members were so engaged that there has been a request for a further presentation by the priest who was our guide.
  • The now annual debate explored the relationship between science and religion.
  • Thanks to the work of Mike and Kathy Eldridge, the website continues to develop and now includes the commissioned logo (above), the work of Jennie Boyle. Reports of all meetings are available on the website.
  • Current events such as the shootings in Toulouse, and the fraught situation in the Middle East, emphasise the importance of interfaith engagement.  That progress is being made is illustrated by the Egyptian government instituting a national day of mourning to mark the death of the Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenouda, despite the fact that only about 10% of the population are Christians.

Christopher reminded us that those who are dismissive of the impact of small interfaith happenings would do well to remember the likely impact of sharing a bedroom with a mosquito!

Finance

Treaurer David Izen reported on the current financial situation, details of which are available on the website. The balance remains much as last year, around £255. Income mostly from subscriptions, during the year has been used for room rent, speakers’ expenses, the website and a deposit for the planned visit to Coventry Cathedral. This last amount will be reimbursed when charges are levied for the visit. There was no grant this year from the town charity. Subscriptions for the next financial year are now due: £10, or £5 concessions if needed.

Election of Officers. All existing officers are willing to continue, though there was an appeal for an additional committee member.  Kathy Eldridge proposed and Philip Morris seconded that all be re-elected.  There was a unanimous vote in favour.

Chair Christopher Lamb

Treasurer David Izen

Steering Committee

Sylvia Clarke, Mike Eldridge, Mark Humphries, Evelyn Ho, Kay Dyer.

AOB

Recommendation of the book Green Spirituality by Chris Philpot, dealing with ecology and faiths.

Speaker

The Speaker for the AGM was Dr Jason Hart who practises Nichiren Buddhism (Soka Gakkai International).

Jason described his journey of faith and the way that this had influenced his life and his work. He is now a lecturer in International Development at Bath University with an anthropologist background. His research explores the impact of events on children who live in war zones and relates it through analysis to the work of organisations such as Save the Children.  His research has been particularly in South East Asia, East Africa and the Middle East.

Jason, born into a Jewish family, began his working life as an actor in Nottingham, fulfilling a childhood dream.

As a child, despite his family not being observant Jews, he developed an interest in the synagogue, undertook the Bar Mitzvah commitment and felt a strong affinity with Israel when he visited at the age of fifteen.

A ‘Gap’ year which was a powerful influence after leaving gschool included working in a hilltop kibbutz with beautiful views, but which overlooked a depopulated Palestinian village.

At the age of twenty five, Jason was introduced by a friend to Nichiren Buddhist chanting in which he experienced a sense of enlightenment. Despite being without his own home, job or relationship, he discovered an inner happiness, a sense of liberation. Eventually, he was advised that the chanting would direct his life. At the age of twenty seven, he began to study Hebrew and Religious Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. It ‘felt right’ and he had a sense of trust and support – and ‘managed somehow’.

In 1990, during the first Gulf War, he felt that there was concern for Israel, but not for Saudi Arabia and this led to the reflection that there was a need for a sense of solidarity with Muslims as well. Jason felt drawn to change his studies to focus on Hebrew and Arabic, but experienced a deep sense of fear. Was he hated by the teacher because he was Jewish? He came to see this perception as a projection of his own inner fear, enabling him, through his chanting, to eradicate this fear.

His third year of study included a life-changing time in Jerusalem. He used his Hebrew and Arabic and found a job teaching English in a West Bank Palestinian area. Local teenagers spoke of their involvement in hostilities. Back in London, Jason began to research, first for a Master’s degree and then for a Doctorate, the impact of war zones on children, only to find that their stories, as they saw them were not being told. He began the documenting and analysis of  this topic, spending eighteen months in a Palestinian camp in Jordan. This was a life-changing experience especially for someone who was born a Jew. Friendships made then , both Palestinian and Israeli, continue now.

Earlier someone had advised Jason to proceed as he felt guided, even though his chosen course did not point directly to a job.  Perhaps the job he was to do did not yet exist. There is a Tibetan saying that when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. This has proved to be true as he has found his way to work with organisations working with war-damaged young people to find ways of helping them to live with what they have experienced, rather than trying to restore them to the mode of childhood – an impossible task, but the ethos of most organisations in this field.

Ongoing Nicheren Buddhist chanting enables his life’s journey to continue with an awareness of the best and the worst in human nature. There is a deep sense of creativity, of rising to the challenge.

Some points to ponder.

  1. Change occurs only as a consequence of transformation within oneself. Anger and self-righteousness as a response to injustice are inadequate.
  2. Despair is crushing. Buddhism’s emphasis on the inner source of hope can help and should be shared. It is not enough to look outside for signs of hope.
  3. Engaging with a variety of faiths is important. Mere intellectual contact is inadequate. Most profound is to connect through compassion engendered by faith. There can be a sense of mutual attunement.  (This was illustrated by a ‘coffee ground’ reading by a Palestinian lady who was aware of Jason’s ‘Chant Chart’ though she could not have seen it, and of other aspects of his life’.

Various questions explored further the ideas of a web of connectedness, the focus of prayer for those whose faith does not include any kind of deity, unspoken awareness of barriers of fear, the need to retain personal identity whilst connecting with others, the impossibility of peace, security and happiness being compatible with the suffering of others, the need of a long term process of change with a radical move towards justice. Is such connectedness a human revolution?

This was another memorable contribution to our interfaith encounters, helping us to realise how important the work of SAIF is.

Ros Murphy

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