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A Bridge Between Faiths

by Danielle Richards
UK

Mr. Tanno at workDanielle Richards

At the age of 12 I remember wondering what life was all about, why I was here and what part I had to play in the universe. I knew that I wanted to be happy and after a very unsettling childhood I began my search, at first experimenting with various fortune-telling  practices. At the age of 19, I went to meditation classes, but still I hadn’t found what I was looking for.

Then at 20, I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by a woman who was holding writing classes that I was attending. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was what I had been looking for throughout my teenage years. Everything made complete sense. So I began to practice earnestly and this led to many changes in my life.

After several years of chanting and taking part in SGI activities, I decided that I wanted to contribute more to my community. I was living in Liverpool where historically faith has been a key aspect of the city’s identity. A new group had been formed specifically for women of faith to meet together for friendship and dialogue. I decided to join as I wanted to share with this group what SGI does.

At the beginning of 2010 I was made redundant from my job in human resources. I didn't mind, as I really wanted to contribute to society in a more tangible way. On the very day that my official redundancy notice came through, I received an unconditional offer to begin a Masters in International Development that September. I'd only applied a few months before.

Drawing on my Buddhist faith, I made a determination to find a job that would complement my studies, enable me to contribute to the local community, be financially rewarding and, to really test my faith, a position I was not qualified for. Inspired by my mentor SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, I decided I wanted to challenge myself to make the impossible possible.

After abundant chanting and exerting myself in Buddhist activities, I managed to find a job that exceeded all my expectations. I had initially applied to a charity for a neighborhood development position, but they offered me a role working with and supporting people of religion and belief within my local community. I was astounded. They told me they thought I would be great for this role because of the interfaith voluntary work I had been involved in. Also, the fact that I was a Buddhist was even better as they didn't have many Buddhists taking part in interfaith activities in Liverpool. On paper, I was definitely not qualified, yet it was the salary that I had wanted and the hours could fit around my Masters course perfectly.

My main task was to improve public services by involving individuals and community faith groups. Working with various public bodies, ward councillors and local neighbourhood governance associations, I was also asked to involve these groups in the regeneration of their local areas. For example I met with a local doctor who was very disheartened by the lack of aspiration he saw in the young people in his area and he really wanted to help transform this situation. He felt that many of the illnesses he was treating were preventable. He had been awarded some funding to begin a project and so I recommended a local Christian organization that was empowering local children through theater. They provided these children with the opportunity to perform in a newly-built health center which had become a focal point for the local community.

Another part of my role was to coordinate and facilitate a monthly interfaith meeting of individuals who represented a larger network of faith-based and community groups within the city. The role of the faith network was to bring together representatives of every faith based organization and group across the city and surrounding areas. The database included at least 150 different organizations.

I began to see that I could act as a bridge between the public sector, strategic bodies and people of faith. I attended monthly meetings with the police to discuss incidents of hate crime targeted at faith groups within the city. The information I gathered was taken back to the interfaith group, where we discussed the action being taken.

I met with health workers, local doctors, the police and community workers, all of whom wanted to know the best way of approaching people in the local community. I was able to involve representatives of different faith groups in these meetings, which was important as some minority groups only shared information through their religious leaders. Certain cultural aspects of particular communities also needed to be taken into consideration when deciding, for example, how to promote something like a health campaign.

My manager was very supportive when I was asked to attend events as a Buddhist representative. I took part in an interfaith event at a school. At one point a young boy asked a question about God. As I was the only person on the panel who didn’t believe in God, I had to summon up courage to really share my faith and the fact that I didn’t believe that in an external power outside of myself.

One time I was able to meet a local Muslim man who was active in the community. I had the most wonderful dialogue with him and we discovered many aspects of our faiths that we had in common. I invited him to join the interfaith network as a representative of his community.

One of the most enjoyable events I helped to organize with other interfaith groups was an awareness day during interfaith week. We named the day "Faith in Daily Life: Developing Faith Awareness." The purpose of the event was to develop and create understanding and trust with health professionals, the police and local council employees. It seemed to me that some people in secular society struggle with the idea of faith and are often afraid of it. I felt that the day should demonstrate that faith is about the belief system each person has at the center of their life and does not necessarily refer to a religious belief system.

I believe that SGI can play a very valuable role within the world of interfaith work. Since Nichiren Buddhism is a philosophy rooted in daily life and based on ultimate respect for all life and living beings, members are able to find the common ground that can bring many faiths together whilst accepting the differences that exist between them at the same time. Nichiren Buddhism is a dynamic and transformative religion both for the individuals who practice it and also for the transformation of society. Owing to the immense power of the Buddha nature inherent in ourselves and others, we are able to draw forth absolute respect from our own life and connect with people on the very deepest level of life. Through this level of communication we can avoid fear and the sense of self-righteousness which causes separation and division.

I would like to finish with a quotation from Global Civilization: A Buddhist-Islamic Dialogue by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda and Majid Tehranian. These words, from the foreword by David Chappell, wholeheartedly sum up my experience of working within the interfaith community:

Beyond the excitement of discovering common ground with people of radically different religious histories, interfaith dialogue has also brought about "mutual transformation" as participants deepened and reformed their own religious practice. As a result, interfaith dialogue especially between Christians and Buddhists has been recognized in recent decades not only as a way to enhance one's personal religious life, but also as an important step in a new religious history.

I had an experience of this after speaking for two hours about different aspects of our religion with a member of the Bahá'í faith. I shared with him how I used my faith to transform my life and determine to achieve impossible goals. He shared with me many similar aspects of his faith and at the end he said, "You make me want to go home and deepen my own faith."

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