Affinity Intercultural Foundation and St. Charles Catholic Church in Ryde, Sydney, developed the idea of having home based discussion groups. The project was comprised of six separate groups having monthly meetings in participant’s homes for six consecutive months. Each group was made up of four Muslim-Australians and four Christian-Australians and the encounters rotated through different participants homes each month. So far the project has been run throughout Sydney, on the Northern Beaches, Western Sydney, St George-Rockdale area and the Ryde-Strathfield area.
A facilitator directed each meeting, which covered a pre-set topic from both Christian and Muslim perspectives in each meeting. After each faith's perspective was presented, a respondent from the other faith tradition summarised the presentation in their own words and as they understood it. This was followed by an informal discussion and a question and answer session.
The aim was to enable participants to learn about their own faith, and also learn about the other faith tradition while having an opportunity to get to know members of the other faith tradition at personal and human levels.
The topics of discussion were to be identified and agreed to, to the satisfaction of both Muslim-Australians and Christian-Australians. The project was video taped from start to end and then an edited documentary tape was produced. The writings from both Muslim and Christian perspectives addressing the common topics were compiled into a book Sustained Dialogue: Close Encounters of the Christian-Muslim kind.
7:30 Facilitator introduces topic and gives guidelines on how the discussions will take place.
7:35 First speaker from group will give a presentation addressing the topic of the gathering for 15 minutes. The groups will alternate in starting with a Christian speaker and a Muslim speaker each week.
7:50 A representative from the other group will summarise in 5 minutes what they understood from the talk of the group that gave the presentation.
7:55 A second speaker from the other group will give a presentation addressing the topic of the gathering for 15 minutes.
8:10 A representative from the other group will summarise in 5 minutes what they understood from the talk of the group that gave the presentation.
8:15 Time for discussion and asking questions.
8:45 Break, tea/coffee is served.
9:00 Continue with reciprocal questions and discussion.
9:25 The facilitator will give a summary of the evening, highlighting the similarities between the two religions that were pointed out and discussed throughout the evening.
9:30 End of the evening
This is an innovative and ground breaking initiative that has widespread support from all those who participated. The organisers should be commended for persevering with such a complex initiative involving large numbers of people, organisations and regions. Participants on both sides very much valued the experience of getting to know one another in a home based environment. Based on a small survey we conducted among participants, the vast majority felt that their experience with the initiative was positive and that it helped foster better relations between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians. Most felt that their attitudes changed for the better as a result of participation.
Ellen: I think there’s a curiosity or interest in other faiths, but I also think there has been a real desire to know the people, and that was part of the inspiration for HEN and getting to know Muslims in a home environment. They’re just someone like me, struggling with the same things every day. They don’t interpret their religion the way terrorists – wherever – interpret their religion. They’re just ordinary, good people we share similar values with, we’ve got so much in common, and we do not need to be afraid of each other.
Although the Home Encounters Network was based on an inter-faith model using home based visits to assist participants to get to know one another, this study is not focused on inter-faith dialogue, which has been studied by others. Our interest in this case study was its effectiveness as a tool for participants to ‘get to know’ one another as people in a home based environment.
While there was acknowledgement that there was significant value in identifying the commonalities between the two faiths, what most inspired the participants was the opportunity to get to know Muslim-Australians at an everyday level.
Fran: So we talked about...one month we got into travel, and another month we got into food. We had one of the Muslim women get married during this, and so that evening we discussed family and whatever. She brought along her photos and got into the whole Muslim ceremony, and then that got us into a bit of general chit-chat. Sometimes chit-chat would continue over the discussion, but in ones and twos, so everyone could have more of a say.
Participants seemed to enjoy this aspect of the encounters more than the more formal, structured interfaith dialogue which dominated the meeting format (see box above). The opportunity to discuss ‘everyday’ topics was important in helping participants to learn how the other groups live at a day-to-day level, and understand both the similarities and cultural differences, which oftentimes transcend religion. Participants talked about this facet of the experience as enabling them to see their counterparts as just ‘fellow humans’ dealing with the same struggles and joys as any other Australian.
Ellen: Someone’s relative died during this time, and someone else got married. … we actually talked about everyday stuff happening in our lives at a quite human level, which was lovely. And that was why it was a good opportunity, because that’s when you say, ‘These people are normal human beings trying to live good lives, good values, according to their faith and tradition.
Brother Murad: I mean the topics selected were good but that was really part of the project. I- I enjoy more just discussing what they did at work for example or how they did their daily lives rather than this general topic that was in the middle of it all but you know we talked about well in fact I think we even played cricket one afternoon at one of the homes, and you know this guy was shocked to see a Muslim bowling and well how could he do that sort of thing and this sort of painted a different picture. This guys’ good at batting wow! How Australian is that. And I said excuse me but I am Australian. I may practice differently but you know I think we’re all from one source and they realise that quite good, very well.
Most importantly, this ‘getting to know you’ at the everyday level creates the conditions for real friendships to form, based on relationships of care, rather than just ‘understanding’ one another’s religion at the abstract level.
Noor: Um, it was really good I found that having it at the home environment made it very personal and people, you learn a lot about the person, not just the faith and I thought just having opening your home, or having others open their home to us, was really very inviting and it allowed us to have personal and close relationships and the discussions you know, always beyond just the topics, we would you know..? there were other topics that we would talk about and even in that aspect as Brother Murad said we have a lot in common with our faith. But even you know as human beings we had so much whether it’s you know trying to bring up children or trying to juggle all our roles at the same time so even in that, on that level I felt that we had a lot in common.
Hasna: …, you know I would see the ladies come in and we’d just chat … You know there’s this lady and for example she’s lovely, very warm and very loving and very affectionate and so affection and um, you know this – friendship, really good friendships develop, very quite um, quite obviously.. a very marked attitude change around.. you know the demonstration of affection by a particular lady for example would come and give a bit of a hug and say oh guys I missed you guys, I can’t wait you know I can’t wait until we have another talk and discussions but enthusiasm, you know…
One important, but unanticipated outcome, was the friendships that developed between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australians working together on the HEN steering committee.
Ellen:....without actually intending to, when you’re not talking about formal things, you’re interacting and organising something together, and in the process of working together you can actually develop a relationship...so, that wasn’t intended by that committee, but
Noor: (Muslim) I think that in itself was good for me because we were as a Steering Committee compromised Muslims and Christians so we were doing dialogue at that level as well because we had to plan and coordinate and meet weekly and so we became, really close as a Steering Committee in the planning session
The opportunity to work together on a common project towards shared goals helped the committee members get to know and respect one another. These relationships continue and members now meet outside of the formal committee environment from time to time to socialise.
The formal structure and tightly controlled program for the evening encounters was the subject of some participants who felt constrained by the format (see break out box ‘Meeting Format’). There was a perception that the format for the meeting was too heavily focused on ‘set piece’ dialogue and did not allow enough time for free flowing everyday discussion, in the spirit of the Home Encounter concept.
‘Sometimes the prepared topics were a little too formalised and it felt that we were bombarding each other with formal text information’ … We found a lot of things in common. That was one of the fascinating aspects of the project. We were amazed at how much we had in common in our everyday life and how much there is in common with our faiths. (Male Turkish-Muslim participant)
Fran: I think that because of the structure of the night, a lot of the time was wasted because we had to read through the paper, and then the other side had to summarise it back, and then the other side would read their version and side would have to summarise it back...It felt like going through the motions, a bit. And then it was too late by the time we could do the chit-chat. … you’ve got a bit more free-flowing...and I think maybe you don’t want the same structured format where I present a paper and you present a paper...
Discontinuity in participation
The quality of participant experience largely depended on what group they were placed with. Those with the least favourable experience tended to have been placed in a group with some discontinuity of participation. The success of the initiative seems to depend upon the same group of people participating each month. In one or two groups, there appeared to be some discontinuity where different participants turned up each time on the Muslim side.
Alison: All the time we started from scratch, trying to make relationships … ‘Look, I just want to have coffee and talk to people! I’ll come to you, you can come to me, but let’s not make it bigger than Ben Hur!’ So we’ve gotten on well, and I made a point of saying, that night at the dinner, that the Muslim people really tried hard, but if a relationship is about getting to know people, we haven’t gotten to know them.
Losing track of people you had got to know
A related issue was some dissatisfaction that there was insufficient organisational assistance to help participants keep track of other group members after the encounters had ceased.
Alison: I suppose my only...it’s not a criticism...I think my only regret is that somewhere along the line we’ve lost track. I mean, we were supposed to have the database that had all the addresses and so on, and somewhere along the line we lost the follow-up. I don’t want to make too much of it, but –
Ellen: Keep them within – because you’ve met them, and you want to be able to meet the people who were in the original group, because that was four years ago –
There was a strong feeling that one of the important aspects of the program was the formation of ongoing relationships. Suggestions for an annual reunion were made.
Hasna: Now the [focus of the] network is that it’s trying to not leave the good relationships built over six months as that and then just move off... continue with your ongoing relationships have to occur and it just..? naturally, everyone said yeah why not? Let’s keep the momentum going and so we found the network to keep all these people friends together and do social things together that sees a continuity to it,.. not just a one-off things and so many projects I’ve done, I haven’t done actually after that, to keep that connection alive I suppose and that’s where you see a lot of enthusiasm from the participants on both sides and catch you up on just general life stories and issues, very comfortably.
Age of participants
Finally, the age matching of the participants was raised a couple of times. Although participants very much enjoyed getting to know the other group members, it was expressed, mainly by the younger Muslim-Australian participants, that it would be preferable to try as far as possible to either have groups of a similar age, or to ensure that there was enough of an age mix on each side of the encounter that there was always someone to relate to.
Noor: Well I think it was because the average probably age of Muslims was 30-35 and for the Christians was 55-60, 60 maybe average 60 and at the end it didn’t really matter but sometimes there were … I think in a way because where they were in life, it was different to where we were you know and it did and it didn’t in a sense that it still connected but I think the connection would have been different if it was you know …? At an age group that was more similar tolerant, even though it was even the Muslims we had variation in age groups.
Organisational and Sustainability Issues
It was not surprising that one of the toughest organisational challenges lay in recruiting people to take part in the encounters program.
Haifa: we had a lot of difficulty getting Muslim and Christians from the area… and I know that – because what happens is you have the steering committee on the Muslim side and you’d go and find participants and you’d have a Christian side find their participants and initially at the beginning it was very difficult because I was running around trying to find people, especially within my community within the northern beaches area. it was very difficult getting people, to pick- initially to sell them the idea and say you know this is what you’re doing and come along and a lot of people were.. I mean it’s changed now because once they get the feel for it, it’s different, but initially I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced is trying to get people to come to this project and try to understand it, I guess.
It is perhaps not well understood that the sheer number and scale of interfaith activities can at times represent a strain on the relatively small number of active Muslim-Australians involved, due to their relatively small population compared to Anglo-Australian Christians. Therefore attention needs to be paid to involving and engaging a wider number of Muslim- Australians.
Interfaith Sydney website
There was some disquiet among the Christian participants interviewed about the more recent focus of the HEN steering committee on the development of an Interfaith Sydney website and large interfaith events. The research team understands that the Affinity Intercultural Foundation received a second round of DIAC funding to continue the HEN encounters, and to develop a website to advertise and co-ordinate interfaith activities (ww.interfaithsydney.org.au). There was a general feeling that the grass-roots participants and Christian members of the steering committee felt alienated by this new focus, and felt that it had undermined the momentum (and resources) of the original HEN encounters program.
Ellen: It [HEN] got hijacked by Interfaith Sydney [website], because when we tried to re-establish the network we got a large number of people at that dinner, and I think Affinity had tried to apply for funding to set up the network for those who had participated, but the funding came after the dinner and couldn’t be used for the dinner. Then it became Interfaith Sydney, and the work in building up the HEN network got sidetracked into doing this website for Interfaith Sydney.
Alison: That’s right. I didn’t lose interest, but it just lost me. And the sad thing is that people liked R… and L…....I saw Lorraine a couple of days ago, and I said, ‘Have you heard anything about Home Encounters?’ and she said, ‘I haven’t heard a single thing since the discussions finished.’ So something has...a pity.
Ellen: I kept coming, but it’s gone from…..something that was very grassroots, to the wrong path. It went [from] something based on building relationships, to all of a sudden being this big structure, and people have gotten lost in it…. Now its all about building websites, and hosting interfaith activities...
It should be noted that these participants were of an older age group and thus not likely to be particularly interested in or comfortable with using the internet.
Fran: [As far as I’m concerned]. Interfaith Sydney is off the agenda, never to have another word uttered again! (laughter) We were very concerned about that, because it has taken away from building this network, which isn’t and end in itself. The end we want is connections with people…. We’ve had our stand-up arguments, and we’ve had two people walk off the committees [because the focus on the website] and we felt like it, too, but I admire them [Affinity]. They work so hard, and they get themselves into bigger and bigger things, and you want to support them, because they really are trying to do a lot of good in the community... I think, after working with them, I think we need to rein them in.
There were however such positive feelings about the HEN encounters that as a result of the issues discussed in the focus group, those present expressed a renewed interest in pushing forward with the original intent of the program.
Alison: But as a result of this afternoon, I’m certainly more determined, particularly by seeing how a lot of people feel, about the Interfaith Sydney thing, that it [the original intentions of HEN] mustn’t be hijacked or lost or forgotten.
It should also be stressed that the Christian women interviewed had very good relationships with the female steering committee members from the Muslim-Australian side. Their disquiet was focused more at the organisational level than the personal one.
Participants had an overwhelmingly positive view of the encounters and mostly felt that they contributed to better relations between Muslim and non-Muslim- Australians.
Success depended on the continuity of the group and regular participation and opportunity for social exchange not just formal structured faith exchange.
The initiative mainly engaged those already comfortable with difference and participants were overwhelmingly middle class and well educated.
The initiative could have engaged a wider range of Muslim-Australians, particularly Arabic speaking / Lebanese Muslim-Australians.
There is a need to move beyond the Christian churches to more ‘everyday’ Australians. Possibly through schools.
Care needs to be taken not to alienate grassroots ownership of the initiative by directing attentions to larger scale, less personally interactive undertakings.