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Inner City Sanctums

Green Futures, 13 July 2003:

Faith, it is said, can move mountains – so it should be up to shifting a few tons of concrete to create gardens and oases amongst the urban blight. Victoria Finlay lifts the veil on an unlikely marriage of religion - and regeneration.

In one of the poorest parts of South London, there is a garden. Police officers regularly eat vegetarian meals there, sitting alongside homeless people and social workers; headmistresses share tables with the unemployed; crimson-robed Buddhist monks sit companionably next to vicars and atheists.

Meanwhile in the former high security courthouse next door, the barbed wire has been torn down, and people come to meditation sessions, Local authority members hold what in their words are “more effective committee meetings than ever before,” and people in trouble come to find someone to listen.

It seems like an impossibly Utopian fantasy. But at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in south London’s rundown Elephant and Castle, these things are happening every day. It’s a living example of how spirituality can bring fresh energy to sustainable development. And it is part of a rising international movement which aims to work with people’s beliefs to improve the way in which we treat both the earth – and each other.

Each major faith has clear teachings about caring for creation. It can be expressed as stewardship (Islam and Judaism), as defending (Sikhism), as celebration (Hinduism) or as taking joint responsibility with God (Christianity). Although over the centuries ‘religion’ has frequently been cited as a cause of, rather than a curb on, environmental destruction, this is often simply a cover for all too worldly motives of profit and greed.

Recent years have seen organised religion slipping away into the fringes of society – particularly in ‘Christian’ Europe. But that same period has also seen the rise of the environmental movement – with its own converts, preachers and impassioned believers.

For some, environmentalism has almost become a creed in itself, and indeed there’s no shortage of parallels between the reverence for the Earth held by its followers, and the animist beliefs that have held sway over most of human history. (Depending where you stand, this can be seen as either a strength or a weakness for the green movement as a whole.)

But if the world’s major faiths might envy the surging appeal of environmentalism, the latter lacks their accumulated experience and commitment. Hence the interest in initiatives which combine the two: sustainability projects that fulfil the requirements of people’s faith.

Jamyang, for example, began when Alison Murdoch, a converted Buddhist, saw a derelict courthouse, and learned it had been empty for five years. It took three more years to buy it – under heavy pressure from developers who also had it in their sights. “It took everyone to make this centre happen,” she says, “Buddhists, yes, but also local people who just wanted a tranquil place to go to. For the former, the project fitted the teaching that their religion “is kindness: everyone wants to be happy and you do what you can to help”.

As with so many regeneration projects, finding the funds was a struggle – they had to borrow £300,000 on “faith”, and then the roof cost £450,000 to repair (“I cried down the phone when I found that the Heritage Lottery Fund had come through”), and cash is still an issue. But the Jamyang founders were fortunate. At a public consultation there was only one heckler, and local residents were generally supportive.

It’s not always been the case elsewhere. Take the Balaji Temple project in the East Midlands, which began with a simple idea. There was some reclaimed industrial land near Tipton, which some Hindus planned to buy and beautify - partly because they needed a centre, and partly because Hinduism has a tenet of seva, or “service” to the community, and the project embodied this.

With support running high for the British National Party in the area, though, not all the locals were overjoyed at the prospect. The opposition came close to being violent. “You know how rumours are,” says Tony Thapar, a second generation Briton who joined the board because it filled his desire to do seva. “People were scared we’d convert them to some strange Eastern religion and take over their park.”

When they started, the site was scrubby landfill, with enough soil contamination to make the development corporation wary. Now, in early 2003, it still looks like a building site: finances have been slow to arrive, but “we remind ourselves that the cathedrals in this country took several lifetimes to build,” Thapar says. So far there is a temple, and the community has planted trees and flowers and started to combat the contamination. But even more striking has been the turnaround in the views of the local white community.

As part of the project, the Balaji organisers determined to build new relationships with schools, churches and health authorities. “We wanted to show that we also believe in one god – and that our deities are aspects of one underlying power,” Thapar says. Now, he goes up to talk to the people walking their dogs in the park, and they seem less angry. “Most realise it’s going to be more attractive than when we started, and that we’re not so bad and not so strange.”

It is an example of how the best regeneration projects involve more than a physical change: of how the ‘sacredness’ of a place is not just about trees, but perceptions; of how collaborating on shared resources can overcome social barriers perhaps more effectively than any other method.

It also shows how religions have the advantage of being able to embark on projects that might take generations to complete. Here they are unlike secular environmental groups which have to invent and reinvent themselves, and necessarily have to consider the short term because they cannot know what following they will have in the longer one.

But Balaji also shows how no faith-based environment initiative can hope to succeed unless it puts the needs of people at its core. “Many people criticise the environmental movement for marginalizing poorer communities, and for its lack of concern for social justice,” says Martin Palmer, secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a Manchester-based charity which supports environmental projects run by the world’s 11 major faiths, and helps local communities to restore, revive or create sacred space.

“Indeed, some deep ecologists seem to view human beings as expendable in order to protect nature. But for all the religious traditions a true ecology not only includes people, but has a special focus on those who are most in need… The only effective long-term ecological projects are those that take people’s needs and beliefs seriously: because whichever God or Gods you believe in, it is men and women who are going to maintain the projects in the everyday world.”

“One of the major problems in the past for religions involved in the environment has been a tendency to preach, not to practice”, says Palmer. “And a problem common to both religious organisations and the environmental movement is what might be described as a ‘go-it-alone’ mentality, which has meant that the faiths have ignored the environmentalists and the environmentalists have scorned the religions.”

That is why ARC is an “alliance” - and why it focuses on practical projects rather than theologies, philosophies and sermons. But faith groups do have two distinct advantages when it comes to local sustainability. Their networks run deep and wide - both formal in terms of their congregation, and informal in terms of community support – and their leaders tend to have moral authority within that community.

And yet in the largely secular hands of Britain’s local authorities, religious groups face particular difficulties. One of the most critical is the way that many non-Judaeo-Christian religious groups can often only find public support when they are defined as ‘ethnic’. Define your group as ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Indian’, and you have a much better chance of receiving funding than if you admit to a truer definition of yourselves as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’. ARC has now worked with hundreds of such groups, and often finds that statutory bodies – including local councils – are at the least cautious and at worst actively hostile to any notion of the religious or sacred.

A Muslim group in Altrincham, just outside Manchester, came across precisely this problem when they decided they needed a focus for their community. They wanted somewhere local that they could hold tarawik prayers, said during the fasting month of Ramadan, rather than having to commute to mosques half an hour away. A local businessman donated a two-and-a-half acre plot of land, and the idea of creating a place based on the Islamic approach to ecology began to take seed.

They had ideas of greenhouses and public spaces using water management along Islamic principles, in which gardens are planned in relation to the water table. Two years later, they are still struggling through planning permission applications, which seem increasingly unlikely to succeed. “If they had presented themselves as an Asian, or an ethnic group, they would probably have been accepted,” comments Palmer. “But because they were doing it as ‘Muslims’, the local authority became worried.” It is, Palmer says, “just one of many examples where public bodies – and indeed people in the environmental movement, come to that – have ignored or dismissed the work of religions.”

If some Asian faiths are perceived in the wider secular community of Britain as “worrying” or “threatening”, Christian movements have sometimes been viewed as plain embarrassing. Yet Christianity – in its several incarnations – makes up the largest social network in Britain – not only with people who know each other through their churches, but also via its involvement in youth centres, care for the elderly, a third of primary schools and a huge local publishing network.

The Anglican church itself is a huge employer, with around 180,000 staff. It also holds 10% of the nation’s land and controls many historical buildings: some 60% of pre-Reformation structures are churches and cathedrals, and churchyards are now, under the well-named “Living Churchyards” project, some of the best-protected wildlife and wildflower areas in British cities.

The stakes are high: these sacred environmental spaces have the real potential to change lives. In the 1970s, Canon David Wyatt was appointed to one of the poorest parishes in the country – St Paul’s in Salford – a place with vertical concrete buildings and no trees. Plenty of children were running into trouble, and Canon Wyatt remembers one boy in particular, who was about to be expelled from his primary school for violent behaviour. “I asked him why, and he said, ‘because I hate all this bloody concrete’.”

The priest asked the child if he wanted to do something about it. Nobody had ever suggested to the boy that he had any power to change anything, and he and his friends soon found themselves smashing up an abandoned tarmac playground next to the church, and planning a garden. They were given fruit trees, roses and rich soil, and over the next few months more and more people became involved.

When it was finished, the garden was the first lovely place in the area. People in the notorious Appletree estate were inspired – if they lived in a place called “Appletree”, the least they deserved was apple trees. So more concrete was destroyed, and another garden was made…

Now the area around St Paul’s is a living example of the belief at the heart of the Christian gospels that there is a duty to care about the beauty of God’s creation (“I have never met anyone who treats architecture and nature with contempt, who doesn’t treat humans in the same way,” commented Wyatt). But it has also benefited hundreds of non-churchgoers, and has inspired communities throughout the country.

Celebrity environmentalist David Bellamy went so far as to term Canon Wyatt’s realised vision as “the best example of urban regeneration I have ever seen in a developed country: a shining example of the Grace of God.”

And the boy from the primary school? “That’s a good story,” says Wyatt. “He became a landscape gardener.”


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