Despite numerous challenges, during the pandemic Interfaith Glasgow found new ways of working, engaged new audiences, and made valuable international links, enabling us to deliver events placing local challenges within their global context. At the same time, it has been a privilege to support isolated refugees and those at the coalface of poverty-relief. We are tremendously grateful to all the funders and donors who made this possible. See below for more detail on what we got up to during the height of the pandemic.
Overcoming Digital Poverty
Prior to March 2020 all our events and activities were in-person, hence the overall challenge was to find a way of overcoming social distancing and to continue facilitating meaningful engagement between diverse communities online. This challenge was greatest with respect to our Weekend Club initiative, which involves working with an interfaith team of volunteers to deliver monthly events for refugees which help them build social connections and get to know Glasgow better. Many of our Weekend Club participants were asylum seekers without access to free WiFi, broadband, or suitable devices; yet those same people were now more isolated than ever as a result of the pandemic.
So, in order to ensure digital inclusion, during the first lockdown, we began providing data top-ups for those in need and our interfaith volunteer team managed to source approximately 20 second-hand devices for refugee families, enabling us to move to delivering fun, interactive, family-friendly Weekend Club events online (each for approximately 50 participants), offering respite from the intensified isolation of the pandemic. We also delivered three online workshop series for approx. 25 women from refugee backgrounds, covering: parenting skills (partnering with Parent Network Scotland); photography and wellbeing (partnering with Mental Health Foundation); and rap-composition (with Comedian Karen Dunbar). We are now part of a scheme which has enabled us to provide further devices to refugee families, enabling newcomers to attend our ongoing Weekend Club programme.
These events and activities aimed to build resilience by creating safe spaces for participants to have fun, share experiences, learn about Scotland, and access local services and support. Feedback has included such comments as: “I was really excited to be here”; “We felt welcomed and included”; “the children loved it … really fun”; “reminds us we got all it takes to make it through hard times”; “thanks for giving me back the good feelings”. And in December 2020 the Weekend Club was a shortlisted for an Integration Award.
Facilitating a Collaborative Response to Emergency Food Provision
Glasgow has some of the most deprived areas in the UK, meaning food poverty was a significant issue here even before the pandemic. Hence, over the last few years we have worked with Faith in Community Scotland to develop the Interfaith Food Justice Network (IFJN). The IFJN facilitates the building of personal connections between those tackling food poverty from different faith and belief perspectives, encouraging them to support each other’s work by sharing good practice and resources, and to use their collective voice to campaign for a just food system. Lockdown restrictions made it very difficult for many of these groups to operate, yet the needs they were seeking to address were greater than ever.
Convincing funders of the vital role played by the Interfaith Food Justice Network (IFJN) in ensuring a more coordinated response to emergency food provision across the city, we obtained sufficient funding to increase our support of the IFJN and, from March 2020, began facilitating fortnightly online Covid-Response Meetings (alternating between evenings and mornings in response to a participant survey), to enable representatives from diverse food initiatives to share information and support each other as new challenges were encountered and new ways of working developed. These meetings increased cooperation in emergency food provision across Glasgow and helped ensure that new challenges were met, resources and information shared, duplication avoided, and cultural needs understood.
We then grew the IFJN Foodshare WhatsApp group – from linking 40 groups at the start of the pandemic to approximately 80 (represented by around 160 individuals) a year later – so as to facilitate greater resource-sharing, information-sharing, and problem-solving. The WhatsApp group is used daily for collaboration, with requests frequently resolved within an hour. One participant reflects on the “simple camaraderie, such as if one group doesn’t have enough ingredients another is happy to share, that demonstrates the core of the movement”.
We also worked to raise awareness of the diversity of Glasgow’s covid-response by, for example, producing a film advertising the new Glasgow Helps hub, featuring IFJN members.
Creating a Platform for Diverse Voices to be Heard in Conversations about How we Build Back Better
Meanwhile, we needed to figure out how to continue to create contexts for people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds to engage in dialogue when this could now only be done online. With places of worship also closed, moreover, many religious people were cut off from sources of solace and greatly in need of opportunities for meaningful connection. We wanted to ensure, moreover, that people from diverse faith and belief communities had opportunities to discuss current challenges.
So, following the success of a short, pilot online dialogue series entitled ‘Faith and Covid-19’, in September 2020, we launched a major new six-part online dialogue series entitled ‘Voices from the Portal: Re-Imagining our Post-Pandemic World’, to give people (an average of 60 at each event) of all faith and belief backgrounds, from Glasgow and well beyond, opportunities to reflect on key issues highlighted by the pandemic, from poverty, racism, and the climate crisis; to the cultivation of altruism, mental health, and the future of religious practise: to consider what we’ve learned, what opportunities have emerged, and what changes we want to see.
Taking advantage of the silver lining of online working, we collaborated with international partners, including e.g. Interfaith Center of New York and Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, enabling us to frame issues within a global context and to inspire more collaborative solutions. We engaged expert speakers from different religion and belief backgrounds from around the UK and abroad. We also trained a new team of volunteer facilitators, enabling us to use Zoom break-out rooms for facilitated small group discussions during the events, which often brought together participants from different countries as well as different religious backgrounds. The events were recorded to maximise reach and impact (see our YouTube channel) and these recordings we recently advertised on social media through a series of six short films.
Participant feedback included such comments as: “Fascinating … demonstrates the value in bringing people together in a safe and supportive environment”; “Wonderful … to feel such a strong sense of common purpose with people from diverse faith backgrounds”; “This was a tremendously helpful programme”.
Moving beyond a crisis footing, we’re taking a hybrid approach to both our daily work and our events and activities: still embracing the advantages – especially in terms of international networking – that online programming affords and the flexibility that remote working facilitates, yet enjoying getting together in person for team meetings and local events once again.