Fr Brian Vale
One of the programmes which the Columban Mission Institute’s Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations has co-hosted for over 15 years is an annual conference with representatives of local Jewish and Muslim communities in Sydney as well as the Uniting Church. Our three faiths’ common respect for the prophet Abraham and his foundational influence on their faiths draws them into interesting conversations and gives the conference its title, the Abraham Conference. The format and style of the Abraham Conference has varied over the years but the aim is for each of the three faiths to take turns at presenting speakers and panellists so that there is a shared responsibility and a variation of themes. Lately the conference format has focused on a speaker followed by a panel of representatives from each of the faiths but also allowed more time for table discussions so that participants actually get to meet and talk longer with people of other faiths and ask each other questions.
The Centre’s Fr Brian Vale and Ashleigh Green joined over 100 people at the 2015 Abraham Conference which this year was held on 26 August at the Parramatta Mission (Uniting Church) Fellowship Hall. The theme this year was “Respecting the Other’s Religious and Cultural Narrative.” Keynote speaker Ms Maha Krayem Abdo, Executive Officer of the United Muslim Women’s Association, spoke of how respect comes from the heart and of how her faith shows respect for all the prophets.
Table discussions on the theme gave everyone a chance to share and two panellists, Rabbi Gad Krebs from the Kehillat Masada Jewish community and Ms Alice priest from St Scholastica’s Catholic College, responded to Ms Maha Abdo’s speech and the table reports. This year the conference steering committee had a focus on the sharing of food as well as discussion at the tables and deliberately seated people beside people of different faiths to enhance the actual encounters. Another challenge was finding kosher food which suits all tastes but this is a challenge which can be met. There was an energised and respectful tone to the table conversations which talked of the importance of listening, sharing what we have in common in our workplaces and working toward a deeper understanding of each other’s faith through conversations and dialogue. Many participants shared their journeys of a key experience or two which moved them out of a mono-cultural mindset into a respect for the multi-religious multicultural society that they later encountered.
There is a growing sense that a broader variety of representation from the three faiths on the conference steering committee would also broaden the popularity of the conference through different community networks and enhance the richness of the dialogue. Members of the steering committee spend more time together in discussion as they prepare for the conference and are fortunate to have a chance to share more about their faiths. There is also a growing sense of urgency by some that we move beyond conversations and into a more pragmatic action mode and of trying to imagine projects and practical programmes that we can do together.