Building Bridges

Introduction to session
Introduction to session
Image: Singing Bowl Media
Source: Museum Victoria

That’s My Story

The Building Bridges through Interfaith Dialogue in Schools Program (‘Building Bridges’ for short) was initiated in 2004 by the Rev. Dr Tim McCowan through the WellSpring Centre. It began with three Melbourne faith-based secondary schools: Bialik College, Carey Baptist Grammar School, and King Khalid Islamic College (now called Australian International Academy - Coburg Campus). In 2009, the program involved 23 schools across metropolitan Melbourne.

The Building Bridges program aims to help secondary students of different faiths, religions, cultures and values in Years 10 and 11 to build bridges of trust, understanding and friendship. This is done through experiential learning of key skills of dialogue. Students share in relations-building games, a vegetarian meal and the recounting of personal life experiences in small facilitated groups over six sessions through the year. These create a foundation to negotiate, respect and engage with each other’s differences and commonalities, which are important qualities for future leaders of any country.

To listen to another’s life story is to be trusted with something precious. As we listen, we easily connect with the incidents, feelings and responses of the story-teller, as well as become intrigued by their differences. In this way, we discover our common humanity – that behind our visible physical differences, we are humans with similar hopes and dreams, joys and struggles, gifts and flaws. We learn that we are more alike than different, which reminds us that we share a common human story, which is ‘our’ story.

Tim McCowan* talks about Building Bridges

The catalyst for Building Bridges was an interfaith dialogue series I facilitated at the WellSpring Centre in 2002. This series of programs involved adult lay practitioners of different religious traditions sharing their personal journey of faith, including the experiences that had shaped their lives.

‘That’s my story! That’s just like what happened to me!’ This was my spontaneous response as I listened to a young man speak of his experiences of encountering God whilst away with friends interstate. And many others that night felt exactly like me.

This young Muslim man told of how he had awoken early one morning and felt a desire to go into the lounge and be quiet and still for a while. As he sat quietly, he became overwhelmed with a sense of love that enveloped his whole being. He attributed this experience to the presence of God, so he bowed low to the floor in gratitude and surrender. This proved to be an important turning point in his life, and so powerful that he still struggled to articulate this experience even several years later.

As I listened to his story, it resonated so strongly with my Christian story, that I was shocked! It immediately reminded me of my own experience of being overwhelmed by a love that I also attributed to God, in my own journey of faith several years before. Like him, I was also moved to silence and prayer and struggled to put words around the amazing experience that unfolded within me. That experience created a bridge of understanding and trust between us, a bridge formed out of our common experience. It helped all of us to discover each other as fellow pilgrims on a journey of faith, attempting to make meaning from the varied experiences in our lives.

Peter Bentley, the Director of WellSpring, and I then began to dream of inviting secondary students to experience this truth for themselves, through engaging in this approach to interfaith dialogue. We wondered what effect it might have on their futures and ours.

The Building Bridges program is the result.

* Dr Tim McCowan is the WellSpring Centre's Director of Reconciliation.