Foreign Office officials and local government ministers, Labour councillors and imams have been beating a path to the doors of a Birmingham church where a remarkable experiment in community cohesion has received more than £2million from the government.
Astonished by the political support for the Springfield Project in Birmingham’s tough Sparkhill ward, vice-chairman John Scott, a local businessman, has launched an appeal for a further £110,000. This aims to develop aspects of the work that exceed the government remit for Children’s Centres.
On the face of it, the Springfield Project is just another mums and toddlers group, of the type run by churches up and down the country. Except that Community and Local Government Minister Parmjit Dhanda doesn’t turn up to them every day. And the vicars don’t usually have doctorates in Islamic Studies.
The Springfield Project at St Christopher’s in Birmingham’s largely Asian Sparkhill district is a bit different from the norm. It is situated opposite the Woodlands Road Jamaatia Islamic Centre with whom there are cordial relations.
Local families have faced the national media spotlight together, following police raids on houses after the 7/7 London bombings. It is also close to where radical Islamists planned to behead a serving Muslim soldier in the British Army in 2006.
The Springfield Project is obviously being watched by government as a possible blueprint for other similar centres in areas of tension. The only faith-based Children’s Centre in Birmingham, it was one of five West Midlands projects the Minister visited in September, and featured in the Our Shared Future Report published by Ruth Kelly’s Commission on Integration and Cohesion.
The church was asked three years ago by Birmingham City Council to take on the Children’s Centre for Sparkhill. Said one of the Management Committee Members and Lapido Media Trustee, John Ray: ‘We initially said no, we were not ready, and we had to convince the congregation to give up the church hall, [built in memory of fallen soldiers of WWI. ].
We kept on working on it, though, and then about 18 months ago, the local authority came back to us suggesting we come in under Phase II of the Children’s Centre building programme. ’
The congregation agreed. And with building work going on all around, part of the nave has now been temporarily screened off to house the play work in the interim. Pakistani and Somali mums, some veiled head to toe in black with just eyes visible, meet with English and West Indian, Chinese, Sikh and Hindu mums and their children for a range of activities that stimulate the children, and offer a warm welcome from the drab city outside. The vast majority – 82% - are Asian, in an area otherwise rapidly ghettoising.
Says Project Director Angie King: ‘Here it’s not people saying, Muslims are the enemy. It’s Christians here who are saying they are people like us. You can come into church and have an Eid party! You can relax and chat about problems. You can keep the children entertained. The parents love the services because we have got values. They want services that give their children common core values. ’
A hundred and ten such families come to the Learn and Play sessions (otherwise known as mums and tods, although there is an occasional dad). It is entirely run by volunteers whose motto is ‘Only the best for our children.’
So popular is the project that people have to be reluctantly turned away. And that’s a great regret to Heena Jabbar, a Muslim social work professional who runs the Family Support Centre which works hard to build trust in the community.
‘It’s a way of building relationships so we can then follow up if they identify problems to us,’ says Heena.
Worse than the lurking menace of extremism in the parish is the extreme destitution and isolation of many of the local Pakistani women, some of whom, though born in Britain, have never been to school and cannot access services.
One women had been living without hot water for 18 months. Another was thrown out by her husband, with the children, and had no idea where to go.
The Support Centre team see up to 20 families a week in a neighbouring building leased for the purpose, arranging services, providing alternative accommodation, health screening and advice.
Local GP Mary Beyer, ‘volunteers in the ‘Seedlings’ Play and Stay Group with an average 60 children between 0 and 5 and 50 adults attending with an 82% Asian background.
She says: ‘I have seen the needs of this community change. I have seen lots of families in this area who have huge needs, health, social emotional needs. I think that this project in its very diverse activities is offering a huge support to these families.’
Angie says that extremism fills the vacuum that is left when people are not integrated from a young age into a caring environment that identifies them clearly as a wanted part of the whole community. ‘The evidence is what has already gone on. There was very little for children in this area before we started this project – and the extremists took advantage of that.’
The project management pride themselves on their diversity, and on their good relations with local mosques. Raja Saleem Akhtar Chair of Trustees of Ghamkol Sharif, the largest mosque in Birmingham, attended a recent open evening, as did other Muslim notables.
Some of the mosques are now benefiting from the Government’s Sure Start funding programme which aims to help women into work by providing ‘wrap-around services’ including child care from 8am to 6pm. Interaction between church and mosque builds confidence and underwrites the work.
After the beheading scandal became public, vicar Dr Toby Howarth and the local imams called a public meeting to allay fears and build common cause in the face of a mutually-perceived threat.
At the open evening, John Ray, OBE, who served for 20 years in Muslim-Kashmir as head of the English-medium school in Srinagar spoke of the dangers of fear.
‘One of the sad things was a growth of tensions between the communities there. After 1986, when I left Kashmir to go back to Birmingham, the whole Hindu community had to run, after some pretty gruesome murders. It could happen to any group. In the back of my mind that’s very deep. When love is absent, fear takes over. Fear is a very ugly thing.
‘I have known this project from the beginning. The mums and toddlers is the heart. The heart and soul is the caring and the love. ’
In 2006, members of the Foreign Office accompanied the Bishop of Kaduna with senior Muslim and Christian leaders on a visit to the project as part of the Building Bridges in Nigeria Project, where there has been fighting between Christians and Muslims.
The battle for the future of the world, it seems, is not so much between people of faiths, as between people of fear or love – both of which are universal.