Holi@imperial college

Great scenes from Hindu Soc’s  celebration of Holi. All this madness and mayhem took place in Imperial’s  Secret Garden, just behind the Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre.

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Talking to students I heard many stories and meanings associated with Holi. It is certainly the festival of spring and a celebration of colour.

In honour of my present, and ex-, Hindu colleagues who are devotees of Krishna,  here is the Wikipedia account of Holi that tells of the love between Krishna and Radha.

‘In In Braj region of India, where Krishna grew up, the festival is celebrated for 16 days in commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna, a Hindu deity. The festivities officially usher in spring, with Holi celebrated as festival of love. There is a symbolic myth behind commemorating Krishna as well. Baby Krishna transitioned into his characteristic dark blue skin colour because a she demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk. In his youth, Krishna despairs whether fair skinned Radha and other Gopikas (girls) will like him because of his skin colour. His mother, tired of the desperation, asks him to approach Radha and colour her face in any colour he wanted. This he does, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. The playful colouring of the face of Radha has henceforth been commemorated as Holi.’ 


Hungry for Justice – Carols with an interfaith dimension

1959610_10152369210973417_439517485_n  Regular readers will have guessed I have a blog backlog – created by the move of the Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre to a new location.

So, a little un-seasonally, here is news from our Carol Service back in December.

It was a pleasure to welcome students from the Ahlul Bayt Society (Shia Muslim) who were leading the ‘Hungry for Justice’ campaign.

Students from the Ahlul Bayt and Catholic Societies joined together to take the collection – raising £270 for the campaign. A great sum from a service that celebrates the birth of Jesus – in the poverty of a stable and about to flee with his family as refugees.

They were also raising awareness of poverty in the UK. The money went to Fair Share Community Food Banks,  the Trussell Trust and Al-Mizan Charitable Trust.

Al-Mizan is  ‘the only Muslim grant-funder to individuals in the UK, regardless of their faith, culture or background.’ Trussell Trust is a Christian charity with a similar  ethos.

All this alongside glorious music from Imperial College Choir. And thanks too to students from Cath Soc who helped celebrate the international dimension of life at Imperial by leading prayers were led by in Mandarin, Cantonese, German, Spanish, French, Polish and English.


Multi… and Inter…Faith (Our new home at No 11)



It’s taken a while, but here are some photos of the Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre in our grand new home – 11 Princes Gardens.

In September we moved into five rooms on the ground floor ( just in case the photo suggests we occupy all five floors!)

It is great to have one place to offer hospitality to  a multi-plicity of groups from different faith and world views. It is also good to see signs of inter – faith collaboration and working together. Such as, the student led ‘Seeker’s Corner’, a  weekly interfaith discussion group.

It is proving very popular with student groups, for prayer, meditation, talks, music, discussions and social events.

We are delighted to be welcoming  Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh student groups. We are especially pleased that the Community Action Group are using the kitchen to prepare for  their Sunday Soup Run working with local people who are homeless.

It was also good to welcome the Erasmus Society – supporting European exchange students – for a large social gathering.

And with our Meditation and Prayer Room, and the beautiful Garden Room, we now have great spaces for our  meditation groups – Buddhist, secular Mindfulness, and Christian.






‘we are all one, and if we don’t know it…

…we will learn it the hard way.’

This is a quote from the US Civil Rights and peace activist Bayard Rustin. They were the final words of a documentary film about Rustin’s life and work shown at Imperial  in  Black History Month. Rustin conceived and organised the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.

There is another dimension to this quote –  Rustin was also  openly gay. And the  film night was hosted by ‘Imperial as One’ and ‘Imperial 600’ – the networks for Black and Minority Ethnic staff  and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered staff.

After the film there was a short talk about countering racism and homophobia from Dr Rob Berkely, the director of the Runnymede Trust. Rob described himself as an openly gay black man, adding that as a racial justice campaigner, ‘I have no choice, I live my job’.


To me it’s seems an important moment when these two networks promoting equality for BME and LGBT staff can work together. I know that for some this is not an easy partnership. And religion is one of the reasons for this discomfort.

Yet, under the Equality Act 2010,  it is illegal to discriminate against a person on grounds of their religion, just as it is on grounds of sexual orientation. (The other ‘protected characteristics’ are gender, disability, race, age  and pregnancy).

The UN Declaration on Human Rights argues that human rights are ‘indivisible’  and ‘interdependent’. They should not  be implemented selectively, and an attack on one affects the others. Clearly, more dialogue and trust is needed where these rights appear to clash. This is a dialogue that Chaplaincy is willing to facilitate and support.

The last word – and a repeated warning – on the need to overcome these apparent conflicts between different human rights needs to go to the amazing and inspiring Bayard Rustin – musician, pacifist, civil rights, peace and union rights campaigner.

‘We are all one, and if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way’.

perspectives in education – from MoTiv

During their three-day visit ‘MoTiv’ gave a talk for the Imperial’s Education Development Unit. The talk  was part of the regular ‘perspectives in education’ series.

Motiv - teamI had been sharing the plans for the ‘Night of Engineering Philosophy’ at an away day for support staff to look at the new Education Strategy. It seemed a perfect example of how Chaplaincy might be doing work to compliment the curriculum.

This led to an invitation for ‘MoTiv’ to give a lecture about their educational work and practice.

So, Gunther talked about the German idea of ‘Bildung’ – education as a personal, cultural and critical formation. For those of us in the UK this is a different approach to education.

Renske shared their experience of assisting students to develop their leadership skills. And Hans shared the ideas of Richard Sennett about the skills of co-operation. (When we discovered over a year ago that  we had all been reading Richard Sennett to think about chaplaincy we knew we should look to do some work together!)

There is more information about the talk, and links to ‘MoTiv‘s slides at Imperial’s   Educational Development Unit.

A Night of Engineering Philosophy

We just held our first ‘Night of Engineering Philosophy’ at Imperial College. The ‘Night’ is an idea from ‘MoTiv’ – the training consultancy run by my chaplaincy colleagues from the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. It was great to work for two days with Renske, Hans, and Gunther from MoTiv.

Engineering Philosophy

In Delft, the first night of philosophy took place when chaplains mediated between a group of students and their lecturers about the way the course was being taught. It gave students and staff a chance to share their deeper motivations for choosing engineering, for wanting to design, build and create.

The Night of Philosophy then became a regular event – a chance to talk outside the confines of the curriculum about the things that really matter for their work  – values, ethics, conflicts, context, politics, relationships at work, personal ambitions and passions for construction. All these things are implicit in the teaching and the learning. The challenge is to find good ways to have open and explicit ways to talk about them.

We worked with Rachel and Mitesh from the students’ Civil Engineering Society – who prepared and hosted the event.

The room was arranged with 6 tables – each with one member of staff and 6-8 students. Food and drink were provided. The first ‘course’ of conversation was about ‘why did you decide to become an engineer?’  The feed-back revealed a great range of motivations – shaping the world, building something tangible, creating something that lasts, making a difference.

There were also practical reasons, like ‘what can you do with maths and physics (if you do not want to be a doctor)’? and personal ones, like ‘my art teacher was my inspiration for engineering’.

In the second part the staff members shared personal engineering issues and interests. These included; the political decision making process around engineering like, the UK’s High Speed 2 Rail Project; the role of art and science in making iconic buildings; the need for new links between environmental and water engineers;  the different roles that scientists/engineers can play – pure scientist, science advocate, issues arbitrator, or honest broker.

It seemed that everyone – staff and students – enjoyed the conversations. No one needed any encouragement to participate! Everyone talked about things that really matter for their work. It was a conversation across the usual roles of the teacher and learner.

What is the role of chaplaincy here?

I think we have skills to facilitate these kinds of conversations. In our own work we need to listen carefully in order to help others find deeper meanings. To do this we can let a conversation move across different realms – personal experience, technical implications, values, ethics, key texts and their interpretation, ideas and beliefs, as well as the social, the political and cultural context. We are used to conversations that stretch across ideological boundaries and contain conflicting views.

Big thanks to ‘MoTiv’, to Rachel and Mitesh from Civil Eng Soc, and to Alison Ahearn.

In memoriam:Dr Isa Abdur Rahman


In early June we heard the sad news of the death of Isa Abdur Rahman. Isa was an Imperial student who qualified as a doctor in 2011.He was working as a doctor in Syria with when he was killed by shelling.

I did not know him personally but remember him being one of the key workers at Islamic Society events I attended. He was a great charity fundraiser.

Nida Mahmud wrote this great tribute to him and comment piece in ‘Felix’ the Imperial College Student Union paper. She wrote under the title ‘What religion truly means’.

‘Isa’s name translates to “Jesus” in English; Jesus is an important prophet for Muslims, one who strived for the betterment of mankind. Isa tried to emulate the qualities of the prophet by devoting his youth, health, richness, time and, ultimately, life, for the sake of God through humanitarianism. This beautiful example is particularly relevant in light of the tragedy that occurred in Woolwich earlier this month, showing how religion can be and is a motivation towards beneficence. Isa left Britain to use his medical skills to save lives, and both his death and the death of Drummer Lee Rigby have brought sadness to a great many people. The Quranic verse related by Deputy PM Nick Clegg last week at a conference with Muslim leaders thus feels particularly relevant: “If anyone kills a human being, it shall be as though he killed all mankind. Whereas if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he saved the whole of mankind.” My thoughts and prayers are with the families of both, and it is my hope we will see unity through their loss.’

for those who donate their bodies to medical education

DSC_0872We have just been as an ecumenical and multi-faith team to  the service to give thanks for the people who have given their bodies for medical education, research and training.This year over 450 people who have died donated their bodies to Schools of Medicine and Anatomy in London and the South East.

Southwark Cathedral was packed out with family and friends of those who have died – many having to stand around the pillars and at the back.

I was there with my colleagues. Rikke was representing the Lutheran Church as well as Imperial. We were joined for the first time by our Buddhist colleague Karuna. We all sat together with the other Chaplains for the simple but very moving service. The key event is the singing of a beautiful funeral liturgy composed by John Taverner. During this medical students slowly carry a large basket of flowers through the congregation and lay it at the foot of the altar. The students also walk  passed tables full of photographs of those who have died.

The bodies are used to teach anatomy to medical and dental students. When this is over, after one or two years, Chaplains conduct funeral services.

Donation in this way is a very generous act, without which it would not be possible to educate and train doctors. It also makes great demands on family and friends who have to wait for such a long time before being able to lay to rest the remains of people they have loved.


Learning from the religious life of others: the Syrian Christian and the Shia Muslim in conversation

Last night I went to a great speaker meeting organised by Imperial’s Ahlul Bayt Society who represent Shia Muslims. The session was on religion as a motivation to work for social justice. There were two speakers who knew each other well and it was a delight to see them working together. Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi talked about the witness to truth and peace given by Iman Husain the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. His friend Rev’d Nadim Nasser talked about his reflections as a Christian about the life of Iman Husain’s. It was great to see both speakers easily talking about their own religious tradition and that of someone else. Both were able to talk with authority about Jesus and Husain and share their reflections. It was a partnership performance that encouraged me greatly – deep dialogue and understanding between people from different religious traditions is clearly possible. But it does require a true committment to the deep sources of transformation in ones own faith.

Nadim talked about needing to ‘learn the art of difference’. Encountering people with very different views, experiences and cultures requires her argued a set of simple skills. They key thing was to get used to knowing our fear of the unknown. When we practice this we find it easier to be in a place where we know very little and have everything to learn. This made sense to me after all our interfaith dialogue work over years. And apart from Nadim I was the only non-Shia Muslim in the room.

Medics Carol Service : a matter of life and death

‘Death’ was the last word of the reading. The sound of the word  hung in the air of the Church as the reverberation slowly faded. It was not the most  festive of moments in the School of Medicine Carol Service.

The reading was ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by TS Eliot and was followed quite merrily and naturally by the choir singing ‘We three kings’. A month before it had  been an easy decision to put the Eliot poem into the service. It came  after the reading from Matthew’s gospel telling of the wise men who follow a star looking for a newly born child destined to become and king. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But as the sound of the word slowly dissolved into the space of the building I really though that this was just too serious and heavy for an end of term Carol Service.

Most of the poem deals with the troubles of the journey,  ill camels, expensive food, hostility towards the travellers and the bad winter weather. The last lines ask  what exactly they  were seeing when they found the new born child in a stable ‘Was it a birth or a death?’

It is a poem that acts out the Christian idea of the deep truth of God being revealed or becoming visible. The gifts include myrrh, the substance used for anointing and embalming a body after death. There is a heavy symbolism in the birthday gifts that really point towards the end of Jesus’ life.

Of course a congregation comprised of medical students and teachers is going to be more familiar than most with moving frequently from moments of birth to moments of death. It is an unsual sample of the 18-25 population where most of the 300 people attending have been present at a number of births and deaths. And afterwards in the catching up over mince pies and mulled wine I heard two stories from students sharing very recent hospital experiences of patients dying. In Holy Trinity Church where we held the service there is a carved screen above the altar. In the lower part is a small nativity scene. Standing high above it is the main piece – a crucifixion. A 3 D version of Eliot’s poem and a faint reference to the experiences of medical students?

The full text of the Eliot poem and a recording can be found at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070