More than half the residents in our neighborhood in London are of Bangladeshi origin, and the local schools attended by the girls we work with are largely made up of kids from that community. All of the girls, and most of their friends, are from Muslim families.
Several years ago we started something called Girlz United, when some of the local girls started to outgrow the holiday club project we run. At the beginning, as we were applying for funding for the project, we asked the teenage girls, "What do you want to do?"
One replied, “We want to meet some girls who are different from us.”
And so, with that honest request, Girlz United was born. We teamed up with two Christian youth groups from other parts of the surrounding area and organized activities and day trips to introduce the girls to one another. Throughout the course of the following year, tentative friendships were formed over a graffiti project, a high ropes course, and a meal out.
The year of activities culminated in a residential weekend.
This was where the relationships and conversations went to a deeper level. They reached out hands to help their new friends across an obstacle course, asked and answered questions with respect and honesty, burst into a spontaneous sing-along around a campfire, and discussed their thoughts around the various labels they wear: girl, teenager, Muslim, Christian.
The weekend was summed up beautifully on Facebook by one of the girls:
“Whether Muslim or Christian, we are all like one big family of crazy girls and it’s just lovely that we can come together with our faiths with pride and confidence.”
One year later, a quick poll of the 20 girls on the second Girlz United residential revealed that they were from families from ten different countries of origin: Ghana, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, Somalia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Jamaica, Uganda, and England.
This led to some fascinating conversations around the role of culture in religious practice. It was so exciting to see these young women practicing relational skills that will carry them far as they navigate our changing world.
But perhaps the most impressive thing on this second weekend wasn’t the organized discussions, but what was chatted about late into the night in the girls’ dorms. Topics included: prayer, arranged marriage, the Ebola outbreak (which was at its peak at that time), and the Trinity.
Needless to say, Girlz United has been invaluable in providing these girls the opportunity to build genuine friendships with others who are different from them. They have the chance to explore faith, to disagree respectfully, and to openly express their opinions, questions, and the challenges they face. Perhaps these girls can lead each other into the truth of God's love for them better than even we could!
Plus, as neighbours to some of these girls back in London, we are able to continue to walk with them as they figure out their faith and their place in the world. It really is a beautiful thing to be a part of, and a great joy and privilege to be journeying with the girls in this way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Leanne Sedin serves with InnerCHANGE in London. She divides her time between youth work, community music, and getting to know people from different cultures around the city. Leanne has lived in the UK all of her life.