In Birmingham, opening the door to peace

BIRMINGHAM, England – The bang and clatter ringing lately from the new Friendship Centre bear little resemblance to the idea behind it.

That is, to offer a neutral place of peace where Christians can show the love of God to their mostly-Muslim neighborhood and simply be a blessing to the community at large.

birmingham1People running the Friendship Centre, located in the city’s Small Heath area, plan to do that by hosting a drop-in chai-and-chat time for women, an after-school club for local children, conversational English classes for adults and even litter pick-up in the surrounding area.  The programs were developed after organizers conducted a survey of the needs that people in the neighborhood felt were most pressing.

With a grand opening scheduled for Oct. 12, Friendship Centre leaders hope they can get enough volunteers and funds to run the programs they have planned.

“As Christians, God has called us to be a blessing to the community and to love our neighbors,” says John Johnson, one of the organizers of the Friendship Centre and a longtime resident of Birmingham. “Our desire is to serve the community in the name of Christ, and we hope that people will benefit, and we’re also hoping for opportunities to discuss one another’s faith.

“In the context of a neutral facility, we want to create opportunities where for ordinary believers can build friendships with ordinary Muslims while meeting community needs.”

More and more Muslims have settled in Birmingham over the past 50 years. Birmingham is home to one of the largest mosques in Western Europe, the ornate Ghamkol Sharif. The population of the city is now about 20 percent Muslim, and the neighborhoods around the Friendship Centre are almost 90 percent Pakistani Muslim.

Mike Hodges, a social worker at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, has been talking with close friend Johnson for years about starting something like the Friendship Center. He says the key idea is to provide a neutral venue that is Christian-run, but where local people can open up about issues that they might not otherwise be able to share within their own circles.

Despite exhausting their present funds, the Centre’s leaders want to launch as many programs as they can right away after the Centre’s grand opening. All they need now are some consistent funding and a lot of volunteers from the local Christian community. Given the warm reception that Hodges has seen from local churches, he is confident that the help will come.

“Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” says Hodges, who sits on the board of the trust that oversees the Friendship Centre. “We really hope that we can bring freedom to people’s lives.

“We’ve got a list of felt needs, so the Centre provides a substantial space for these needs to be met,” he says. “All that’s missing, really, is the manpower and commitment.”

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