Recently I was asked to speak at an event at Islington Town Hall to mark Interfaith Week. I was one of four faith leaders invited to give a short presentation on our faith communities’ engagement with local communities. I spoke about Archway Methodist Church as a community space and the work of Second Chance shop. Mohammed Kozbar, the chair of the Finsbury Park mosque told us about their efforts to build bridges into the community and their work with young people, Buddhist Mogdala of the Amida Trust spoke of her work with people suffering from mental illness and Mark Brennan from CARIS Islington talked about the Islington Cold Weather Shelter project.
After each of us had made our presentation there was a short question and answer session. One question was about how we overcome differences in order to work together. Mark spoke very powerfully about his experience with cold weather shelters and the relationships that naturally develop between volunteers (of all faiths and none) and the guests. This confirmed my own experience of working with community networks, that we do not need to overcome our differences to work together, but by working together we overcome our differences.
Coincidentally, the week before the Old Testament lectionary passage was Isaiah 65:17-25. Originally addressed to the post-exilic inhabitants of Jerusalem struggling to rebuild their shattered city, this is a prophecy of a restored community. “I am building a new heavens and a new earth” says God through the prophet, but this is a much more down to earth vision than the more familiar ‘new heavens and new earth’ of Revelation chapter 21. There are four components of Isaiah’s vision: children will live to adulthood; adults will live to a ripe age; people shall build houses and live in them; people shall plant trees and crops and enjoy their fruit. We can imagine how truly attractive this vision of peace and stability must have been to the community trying to rebuild Jerusalem, and it still speaks powerfully today. These are basic human aspirations that transcend faith, culture and time.
A few years ago this passage from Isaiah came to the attention of evangelist Raymond Fung. Fung was looking for biblical texts which could inform the mission of the Church today. He realised that the ‘Isaiah Vision’ could form an agenda for mission. Furthermore this was not an exclusively Christian agenda; it was a basis on which Christians could work alongside other people of goodwill for the transformation of communities. Once Christians and non-Christians are working together and building up relationships of trust, new possibilities arise, such as sharing our faith stories and celebrating transformation through prayer and worship.
If Fung is right (and my own experience suggests that he is), then community engagement is not an alternative to mission and evangelism, but a vital part of it. We should seek alliances with churches, faith groups, community organisations and local authorities – wherever there is agreement about the aspirations and goals of the ‘Isaiah Vision’. For the Isaiah Vision is no less than God’s intention for people and for communities.