This was a theme that emerged from the ‘Journeys of Culture and Faith, Stories of Us’ forum that took place at Darebin Intercultural Centre on Wednesday night. It was organised by the synod’s Uniting through Faiths unit, in partnership with Darebin Council, the Ethnic Communities Council and Victoria Police.
Five young people from different faith and cultural backgrounds shared their experiences of diversity before attendees broke into smaller discussion groups.
Semisi Kailahi, a Uniting Church member and son of a Tongan minister, said many young people in Australia have grown up in a multicultural and mulitfaith society that is more tolerant and diverse than previous generations.
“Growing up in Sydney, I remember having a Catholic friend, a Hindu friend and a Sikh friend,” Mr Kailahi said.
“One way I was trying to communicate with them was to find a common factor – for us, it was cricket.”
Mr Kailahi believes most young people would have no issues seeing a mosque built in their neighbourhood.
“Growing up in a pluralistic society, I haven’t experienced that sort of loaded baggage of history that a lot of the older generation have,” he said.
“I think it’s important for young people to express that autonomy to bring in the point of view from their society and inform their elders that the society they grew up with isn’t always the case.
“A lot of the division that happens in our society is because we are so content with our division that it’s almost unfathomable we can unite and become one people.”
Several speakers expressed concern about the labels and stereotypes people associate with their faith.
Rebecca Fiala is a Jewish studies teacher and was head of Netzer, a progressive Zionist youth movement. She identifies herself as a “left-wing Zionist” and said the complexity of her faith is often lost in public discussions about religion and politics.
“Being a Jewish doesn’t define me, but it has been something that has constructed my beliefs and identity. It is something I am extremely proud of and sometimes extremely ashamed of,” Ms Fiala said.
“It’s not something simple – it’s complex and not something that comes across in the news or that I can teach my class in one day.”
Ms Fiala said it is important for young people to have a safe space to express their beliefs and respond to questions about their faith.
“It’s important for you to be able to say to somebody ‘here is what I believe and here’s why’,” she said.
“I would like Israel to be a place where everyone is welcome. I would like everyone on this planet to have a homeland they feel safe and secure in. But that is not something I will say unless I’m in a comfortable space.”
Abuzar Mazoori, a refugee from Afghanistan, shared a story of an encounter he had on a train to the Melbourne CBD.
During the trip, he began talking with a middle-aged woman and mentioned he has not seen much of Victoria outside Melbourne. An older woman who overheard his story joined in the conversation and offered Mr Mazoori her beach house for a week so that he and his family could enjoy a free holiday during Christmas.
He later invited the woman to share a meal at his place and the two families still regularly keep in touch.
Mr Mazoori said his story demonstrated what a generous and welcoming Australia could look like.
“This is a place where we can live with different perspectives, different beliefs and thoughts and different backgrounds,” he said.
“When we claim to have the most multicultural society in the world, we give opportunities to everyone regardless of who they are and what they do.”
The forum took on added significance given the current debate about proposed changes to section 18C the Racial Discrimination Act.
Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan has voiced the Church’s concern over the proposed changes and said replacing the words ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’ with ‘harass’ could lead to more public expressions of overt prejudice.
“As representatives from Indigenous and culturally diverse backgrounds have pointed out, this change is being advocated predominantly by people who have no idea what it’s like to endure racial discrimination in Australia,” Mr McMillan said.
“I believe the changes proposed by the federal government present a serious threat to social cohesion in our multicultural society.
“I urge all politicians of good conscience to do the right thing, and refuse to pass the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.”