LIEP: Twenty Years of Faithful Friendship
27 September 2017 by Fiona Handscomb

LIEP: Twenty Years of Faithful Friendship

Interfaith education has never been more important. In a divided society, projects such as the Ladywood Interfaith Education Project (LIEP) can play a vital role in building bridges between people groups.

LIEP is a partnership between Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims in inner city Birmingham. It teaches primary school children about the spirituality and beliefs of each faith by visits to respective places of worship where creative, interactive learning experiences are led by volunteer teachers and artists.

Decades of experience

LIEP clay modelling activityThe time may be now for such projects, but LIEP itself has been around for twenty years. Two decades of interfaith partnership in inner city Birmingham have offered a unique perspective on the changing cultural and educational landscape for the founding members of LIEP. One of them, Revd Jo Mason, explains how it all began:

“I was visiting a local school’s R.E. class, where the children were learning about Islam. Twenty years ago there was only one Muslim boy in the class. He was longing to show the class what his faith meant to him and how he prayed, but the teacher wouldn’t allow it. Instead, she stuck to book learning and some rather intricate colouring in! I thought to myself, ‘It’s got to be better than this. The spirituality in the life of a believer has to come out.'”

St John’s and St Peter’s Church already enjoyed good relationships with the Progressive Synagogue and Buddhist Dhammatalaka Peace Pagoda, so from there the partnership began to form. Since then they have added the Shireland Road Mosque to the partnership and are currently establishing links with Sikh ethos Nishkam schools.

Mutual trust and respect

Similarities and differences between the faiths are explored in a safe environment of mutual trust and respect. “This Project lives and dies by the strength of its friendships,” remarks Imam Nasir from the Mosque, “The deeply established relationships between partners of different faiths have sustained it through twenty years of cultural change.”

These friendships between faith groups are a crucial testament to the schoolchildren too, as Jo explains:

“Recently I was saddened because some parents pulled their children out of a visit because they were concerned about terrorism. LIEP is our chance to offer a different story. The children see the best of each faith and also the love that can be shared between them. They often learn surprising things about one another. Our hope is that it will have a drip feed affect into their communities. It’s so important to have these conversations about other beliefs and to break down prejudices.”

Nurturing the spiritual

LIEP candle tree activityAs well as modelling good interfaith relationships, the Project also offers children a chance to learn more holistically. “The programme allows for creativity and reflection, not just learning according to a fixed syllabus,” Rabbi Margaret Jacobi points out. “It gives the pupils the opportunity to experience a sense of the specialness of holy places.” In an increasingly secular culture, it could be exactly this ‘specialness’ that is eroding - both in society at large and the education system. But, like Margaret, Jo too believes that nurturing the more spiritual aspects of a child remains important:

“Nowadays, we don’t assume any religious knowledge, so having any good religious experience has become more significant for these children. Even the littlest ones can have a beautiful understanding of deep things. Teachers often say that they discover so much about the children through this Project. We see the children grow in confidence as they are encouraged to reflect and share. In inner city areas such as ours there might be quite low self-esteem so confidence is something we do try and build up a lot.”

The partners’ mutual investment in children has paid off. Over 3,500 schoolchildren participate in LIEP every year and the Project has a waiting list of schools wanting to take part - an impressive result for a Project that has run almost entirely on volunteer dedication for two decades. It looks like LIEP will be around for many more years to come.