I’ve spent most of two decades in Canada, involved in interfaith dialogue, but mostly in Ontario and mostly with members of the Abrahamic faiths. Last week I was invited to Abbotsford. BC. I’ve never been there and when I mentioned the name, a friend said “interfaith in Abbotsford is when a Mennonite speaks to a Sikh because those are the two largest, most conservative communities there”. I informed my well wisher that there would be six faiths represented in BC, more that I have dialogued with here. So no judgments please!

I was a guest of Satwinder Bains, Director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley. I confess I didn’t have time to do my homework so my host filled me in on the one and a half hour drive from the ferry to Abbotsford which is beautiful farming country.

It came as a pleasant surprise to know that this area of the Fraser Valley has the highest proportion of Indo-Canadian people of any metropolitan area in Canada. The Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies is also the only one of its kind and is a hub of information for people who want to do business with India and who want to understand the relationships and opportunities between India and Canada. The Centre enhances the economic contribution of the Indo-Canadian community in BC and has become a national information repository, and a site for valuable social, cultural, and economic research.

One of the strengths of The Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies is that it acts as a catalyst for transforming UFV into a place that reflects the diversity in the region. It was to promote this diversity that Bains initiated an interfaith dialogue at the Centre, titled “The Role of Faith in Promoting Pace and Harmony in our Communities.” Bains had warned me not to expect too large a turnout because this was a new and unique event for the Centre. Also it had snowed that night. So it was a wonderful surprise for all of us when about 75 people from diverse local communities (as far as Vancouver) turned up at the Centre to attend.

The speakers were Harold Rosen from the Baha’i faith, David Giesbrecht, Christian, Gurmit Singh Tiwana, Sikh, Kusum Soni and Oscar Khalideen for Hinduism and me, representing Islam. Our Jewish contributor, David Mivasair could not make it due to the snow and traffic back ups.

I was the first presenter so I tried to set the stage for how important is for people of faith to work with governments and the secular world to pursue peace. I referred to a lecture I had just heard by Dr. Stephen Lewis in which he spoke about the G8 summit (being held in Canada in 2010) where faith leaders are holding a simultaneous summit to ensure that the millennium goals of the G8 countries are met. Kusum Soni read from the Hindu Scripture about peace supported by words of Oscar Khalideen and Harold Rosen spoke about the universal mandate of their faith for peace and harmony. Mr.Tiwana, a self confessed spiritual guru and poet, was a delight because he generally slammed all religions for having moved away from their spiritual message and becoming too politicized while David Giesbrecht enlightened the audience about the outreach and charitable work being done by the Christians.

After our presentations we opened up for questions. It was apparent from feedback that the audience was very engaged and there was no lack of honesty and directness. Two reactions amazed me. Nora Field, an elderly Christian lady who had been a teacher for 47 years stood up and said she had never felt so warm or welcomed before and she wanted to apologize for the racist feelings she had held for ethnic communities. She mentioned how refreshing it was to hear that at the core all faiths were the same. Another young man, came to me and said he had never met or interacted with a Muslim before and was very touched and pleased to learn that we are like everyone else! A young Sikh man (originally from Toronto) addressed the Sikh community and said they must look inward and work at some of the social issues that plague the community.

Best part was that the community decided to have such dialogue and discussion once a month and keep building the fragile bridges that we started that night. I may be going to Abbotsford more often – hopefully in the summer this time.

Raheel Raza is a consultant in cultural diversity and interfaith issues, an author, public speaker, journalist and filmmaker. She lives in Mississauga.