Lighting up Bradford
Touchstone is a 'listening community' with the vision of making safe places of hospitality and conversation. It is based in the heart of Bradford, a city with a high Muslim population as well as recent Eastern European immigration, and Touchstone has been working alongside diverse communities there for 27 years.
The Touchstone Centre, on Merton Road, is sponsored by the Methodist Church in Britain and is open to all. Its Faith to Faith worker Jenny Ramsden said that since the world-changing events of September 11th 2001, leaders and volunteers at the centre had a sense of increasing levels of fear within communities, particularly among women.
They were keen to confirm if they were right, and if so, how Touchstone might support those women to help them feel less fearful. A community survey by Touchstone followed, and the results indicated that 90 per cent of women felt fearful of verbal or physical abuse from those who were of a different culture to them.
Jenny said: “Those who feel fearful are mainly Muslim women, but there are women of other faiths who harbour similar fears. We do hear more reports of racially-motivated abuse, and even if it has not happened to them, it is an underlying fear for many of these women.
“Touchstone must work in that context to encourage people of different faiths get to know one other, which helps to dispel much of that fear. We offer a lot of different activities which involve women coming here in small groups to meet and perhaps create something together while they talk and listen. Our leaders also go out into the community to meet women who may benefit from our work, such as Muslim women’s groups, and get to know them there. We have worked really hard to build trust.”
The project funded by Near Neighbours is called ‘Light in Communities’. Participants do some sort of craft together, while discussing what brings ‘light’ into their lives, and how they would like to be a ‘light’ in their community.
“We had the funding to run eight Light in Communities groups,” said Jenny, “and this has enabled us to try different formats and different times of the day to see what suited the participants the best. We listened to their suggestions too so they felt they had ownership of what happened in the groups.
“These ladies open up very deeply at these meetings; there is a huge degree of openness. There are so many things which transcend a defined faith, like parenting, marriage and day to day living. Women can discuss these shared experiences in a safe environment and find commonality.
“But most wonderfully, the women talk together about what brings light in the dark times for them, and how they can be a light to others. Our crafts have linked to the light theme, for example we’ve created beautiful candle holders, decorated stones with bright colours and messages. Some of those stones were left outside in the community in places where they could be found by someone randomly. With a positive message on them, they might have been a blessing to someone, somewhere.”
One Hindu lady who joined a Touchstone meeting but now volunteers as well said she had a busy and active life, but had little opportunity to meet others locally, so had become isolated.
She said: “I was invited to come to this group, and from being totally isolated, life opened up again. This is what Light in Communities is all about, it was the light for me. I felt that we could just be ourselves. But also, I feel more inclined now to try and reflect some of that ‘light’ when I’m not at Touchtone. So I notice and acknowledge the homeless more often, or perhaps balance criticism with more appreciation when I talk to people.”
Saima, a Muslim mother of five had similar feelings. She said: “I have five children but when I come here, I’m here for me. I love my children and they are my light in so many ways, but having time for myself is so helpful too. I’ve got to know people for who they are and enjoyed the laughter we’ve shared.”
And Margaret was invited by a former team leader to try Touchtone after she retired and has never looked back. Now a volunteer, she feels it opened a door for her.
“In one of our sessions we made curries and cakes for a homeless charity and went there as a group to serve them. We reached 70 homeless people – it was so fulfilling and powerful,” she said.
Jenny added: “We have found that people of different faiths bring light to their communities in many different ways. That’s a wonderful testament to their place in Bradford, and such a privilege to be a part of.”