Movement Magazine of SCM – Autumn 2008
From the outside, Peace Mala Headquarters looks like a Swansea terrace house next door to a supermarket. Inside, it’s still a terraced house. Only it’s not.
Pam Evans, director of Peace Mala, asks me if I’ve noticed that the house is different. I had. By the time I’ve been introduced to Pam’s assistant Ruby and got through to the main room – once a lounge area, now converted into a full-on office, I think I’ve passed about six distinct and different shrines and images. A Tibetan shrine. Buddha. St. Francis. A corner surrounded by orthodox icons. She takes me through to the back into an elaborate and sizeable ‘peace garden’, where a Zen stone garden sits alongside a Mecca-facing Islamic prayer space and a tree decked with prayers and tokens which, Pam tells me, was blessed by a druid. Well, if you’re going to do multi-faith, you might as well do it properly. And getting the faiths on board is what Peace Mala does. Peace Mala came into being in 2002. In its basic, most simple form, a ‘Peace Mala’ is a bracelet made of fifteen multicoloured beads, two rainbows’ worth, with a white bead in the middle. Each bead represents a major world religion, or a group of world religions. It’s a teaching tool. You give each of the kids in your RE class a kit and as they put it together, they learn about what these faiths are, and the message of peace that underpins each of them. Peace Mala’s aims statement says the project is directed towards ‘supporting human rights, confronting bullying and all forms of prejudice’. Bullying is where it started. In 2002, Pam, a former SCMer, was an RE teacher.
“It started in the aftermath of 9/11. I started seeing a lot of racial and religious intolerance. Some children were being bullied because they were Muslim. Everything came out of the woodwork.” Pam saw undercurrents of intolerance that had never been voiced in public before “It was on a Thursday. I was in school. I thought, what simple message of truth can we use? All that came to me was the Golden Rule. It exists in every scriptural tradition.”
Drawing on her experience as a teacher, Pam came up with the idea of the bracelet. “It was tactile. Something the children could make. A symbolic bracelet that promotes tolerance.”
Pam is quick to underline that point: although the bracelet represents an intended harmony of several religions, it promotes tolerance between religions. “We don’t promote religion.”
Is there anything wrong with promoting religion, though?
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with the spiritual essence of the great faiths of this world. But in organised religions, politics creep in. The original message gets lost.”
But aren’t you promoting religion by distributing the bracelets?
“We’re not promoting any faith over another. What we are promoting is a creative education that empowers and embraces all. The purpose of the bracelets is to empower the kids.”
Although Pam is critical of organised religion, she views the flipside – organised secularism – as potentially even worse.
“It dehumanises everything. In a secular society, we’ve lost touch with our spiritual essence. Spirituality is really important.”
But how do you define spirituality?
“A sense of awe and wonder at our existence in this vast and wonderful world. You look at a starry sky and wonder about your place in it. And these are questions that children do think about.”
Children all over the world are thinking about it. In January, a group of Lutheran teenagers in Pennsylvania ran a peace retreat using the Peace Mala, and over the last five years the project has been used as far afield as India and South Africa. The Peace Mala project won, among other things, a Prince’s Trust Millennium Award, along with a number of local and community awards for education. Rowan Williams was, until recently, a patron of Peace Mala, and the charity received endorsements from the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II, and – and if you’re of a certain age, this is just as great – Bonnie Tyler.
Inevitably, Peace Mala has faced opposition. I feel the need to editorialise a little here, and say something about how depressing it is that I can write that opposition comes ‘inevitably’ to a charity that tries to teach kids how to get along with people from different religions through showing them how to make rainbow-coloured friendship. But not too much, because that would be an unnecessary digression.
The opposition came from Christians. Shortly after Peace Mala had won the Millennium Award, a school headmaster had a quiet talk with Pam. “He asked me if I’d heard any mutterings from the evangelical quarter. Apparently the elders of an evangelical-pentecostal church wrote a letter of complaint objecting to Peace Mala.” While planning an event to commemorate the attacks on the World Trade Centre, members of the Christian contingent were obstructive: “We were going to light candles. And I swear this minister objected, saying, ‘We believe in grace, not grease.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When you encounter that sort of an attitude, you feel a real sense of despair.”
So opposition turns up every so often. And it’s always Christian? No opposition from Muslims, for example?
“We’ve never had any problems with Muslims. They’ve always been really positive. They often set boundaries.” Pam tells a story about a Peace Mala event in London where the Muslims involved found that they were unwilling to pray with other people participating while holding hands. Instead, they constructed a Peace Mala out of a length of rope, long enough for everyone to hold onto together, and onto which were tied peace messages. And then they took it to a synagogue.
Pam’s main business is teaching school children about religious tolerance. Pam refuses to be drawn on the wider implications of the interfaith movement. “I can’t really comment on interfaith, really. I’m Peace Mala. It’s what I do. We’re hoping that it will strike a chord with the youth that will stay with them.”
I have this question I ask people sometimes. It’s this: would you rather be right or good? Which rarely gets an answer straight away. Usually, people ask me what I mean by that, and the discussion goes that way. I try it on Pam and Ruby. Ruby, without hesitation, says “Good”, and Pam only hesitates a second before saying this: “Compassionate would be a better word. I think all we can hope to be is compassionate. When people asked the Dalai Lama what his religion was, he said ‘Lovingkindness.’ I’d hope it’s mine, too.”
Pilgrimages and Gardens
Pupils from St John Lloyd Catholic Comprehensive in Llanelli have been named as joint winners of the Peace Mala Award for Youth (senior section) for their efforts, which included a peace pilgrimage to Italy. Almost 40 youngsters set off on Maundy Thursday, saying peace prayers of different faiths during their 10-day tour of holy sites in Italy.
While there, they presented a book with a version of the Peace Mala beads to the Vatican, in St Peter’s Square. A Peace Mala candle was also given to another pilgrim who promised to take it to Jerusalem.
2008 is the third year of the Peace Mala Awards for Youth, which saw a record number of entries from schools across the UK. The other senior winner is Coleg Sir Gar, where A-level art students at the Pwll Campus, in Llanelli, produced artworks reflecting their personal experiences of bullying, and calling for greater peace and understanding. The students then held a Peace Mala garden party, at which the artworks were auctioned to raise money for charity.
In the junior category, Crynallt Primary School, in Neath, came joint first for their efforts, which included creating a Peace Mala corridor, featuring the pupils’ artwork, and the unveiling of a ‘peace chair’, based on the idea from the Bardic tradition, which was covered in rainbow ribbons, cut-out people figures and coloured beads. The pupils conducted a special assembly for the occasion, featuring peace prayers from all the different religious traditions, to coincide with a national Day of Goodwill. They were joint winners with a Woodheys Primary School, Cheshire, who created their own ‘spiritual labyrinth’ out of box hedges, based on an idea from Chartres Cathedral, together with a ‘prayer tree’ containing messages of hope for world peace. The school also sent Peace Malas to a partner school in South Africa, who they have been supporting through fund-raising efforts throughout the year.