The Bendigo Interfaith Council participated in the Bendigo Festival of Cultures, 2016, and had a guest speaker address the gathering on the topic of ‘The Challenge of Compassion in the Global Age”. Guests from all over North East Victoria attended the function, including several from Shepparton. One guest from the Shepparton Interfaith Network provides some impressions.
It was unusual to see so many people in a room in the name of interfaith activity. The room might have had 150 people present – some from Melbourne, most from Bendigo, even a few from Shepparton, Benalla and Wangaratta. Nonetheless, we were told the evening was a sellout. But then, one and another remark was overheard: “nothing like a bit of friction in the community from outside to bring a community together and bind it like super glue” (or words to that effect). The tables were full, there were membership forms and buttons for Bendigo Interfaith Council and the menu for the dinner – 95% gluten-free – looked very appetising. The was a copy of a speech by the Grand Mufti of Australia on all tables.
The evening began with the keynote speech by Prof. Des Cahill, who is one of the key multicultural, migration and multifaith resources in Australia (the other being Prof. Gary Bouma, who gave the previous year’s address). After giving a bit of a plug to Religions for Peace and Interfaith websites, Prof. Cahill spoke of his recent work with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I am sure he startled all present when he said that Bendigo was luckier than the other regional city down the road, Ballarat. Unlike Ballarat, Bendigo did not have any schools run by the Christian Brothers, and did not have any boarding colleges run by religious institutions. So, from the pericope of Prof. Des Cahill and the Royal Commission, Bendigo has been somewhat of a lucky city.
Warming toward his theme of Bendigo being somewhat of a lucky city, Prof. Cahill went on to speak about the economic benefits of having a multifaith city. Bendigo boasts a Chinese Temple, the great Stupa of Compassion, the Sacred Heart Cathedral, and soon, the Bendigo Mosque with its two prayer halls. Tours of places of worship would build economic prosperity and bring excellence in interfaith activity, hospitality to the stranger.
Prof. Cahill went on to congratulate all present and their fellow citizens for the stand they had taken in supporting the building of the mosque, in resisting racism and bigotry (both of which lie deep in the Australian psyche) and in defending the principles of religious freedom and the separation of religion and state,” When it came to ways of tackling the issue of Islamaphobia in the community, Prof. Cahill said, “the central point is that there are many different ways of being Australian”. This point is frequently overlooked in interfaith activities and dialogues.
One jingle (it might have been for Four’n’Twenty Pies) went, “Football and Meat Pies, Kangaroos and Holden Cars“, which somewhat summarises the great Australian “blink and you’d miss it” change in Australian culture, for, at the time this jingle was played on our television screens (there was no Pay-TV in those days), immigrants, family-reunions, refugees and non-Australian born residents were increasing in their thousands. What it meant to be Australian was to change forever. Now, we are discovering the religious practices they bring. And Australia, essentially being a tolerant country, accommodating of differences and slow to complain, gratefully accepted all of this and all that it brought in its culinary tow.
The White Anglo Celtic Christian ascendancy was to step sideways and suffer a reduction in the numbers attending public worship events. People began to say, “I am a spiritual person, I don’t need to go to Church.” Or most attend at Christmas, maybe Easter and for christenings, marriages and funerals. Are they feeling challenged or exposed by those who practice their faith in a different manner? Or are they being influenced by the 60,000+ years of spiritual stewardship of the land and its story? Is the energy, the singing up the country having an unknown influence on those who live here? Do people follow their own songlines and holiday “in the bush”, “go bush” to “get away from it all” … and frequently find relaxation and re-creation in their favourite haunt in “the bush”? None would challenge this as a way of being Australian.
The evening proceeded. You may download Prof. Cahill’s talk, The Challenge of Compassion in a Global Age. Many spoke of practical initiatives in Bendigo, the solidity of the community, the mosque controversy and islamophobia. Bendigo is reckoned as a city of faith and culture. Questions were raised such as, “Is City of Culture and Faith an appropriate title for Bendigo?” Examples of compassionate care around Bendigo were discussed, and dimensions of the spiritual practice of compassion from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam were delivered. There is much in common in a practical sense, we discovered.
Professor Cahill raised one important point. During the week, the Grand Mufti of Australia had attended Parliament House Canberra and given a talk. A Chaldean Bishop was also present, as were many religious representatives from all faiths, the Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke, MP, along with another MP who had previously been President of the Fawkner Interfaith Network, the Hon. Maria Vamvakinou, MP – who was the main driver and organiser of this event. It was an important occasion, the first visit of the Grand Mufti to Parliament House Canberra. You can read the (Grand Mufti’s Speech in Parliament House Canberra here), however, nobody from the media was present. There was no media coverage of this event, and Prof. Cahill went on to share the distress of Muslim communities all over Australia about this lack of media coverage.
In defence of Regional Australia – Victoria in particular – we applaud the work of regional newspapers, The Courier (Ballarat), The Advertiser (Bendigo) and the Shepparton News, for their strong, frequent and vibrant coverage of local mosques and Islamic festivals and events such as Ramadan and Eid. These newspapers are also to be lauded for their coverage of the activities of other faiths such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism – even though few synagogues exist in regional Victoria.
In responding to questions raised at the end of the forum, Prof. Cahill outlined the four Bs’ — Believing, Bonding, Behaving and Bridging — as the basis of successful multiculturalism. In all, a successful evening for faith and Bendigo, and given the attendance, one hopes this augurs well for interfaith activities prior to and after the installation of the Bendigo Mosque. The Bendigo Interfaith Council has a lot of work to do, and hopefully, many willing and eager participants.
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