In 1991 the world was in the midst of political, social and economic upheaval, and it was within this context that the GRASSROOTS Programme was born. Rooted in Christian faith, GRASSROOTS was a programme of community engagement founded by David Cowling and supported by the help of the Methodist Church and Christian Aid. It soon evolved into a network of different Christian Denominations, Organisations and Trusts.
In its early days, GRASSROOTS acted as a resource for churches, by reassessing the meaning and relevance of the Christian faith, in the world’s struggles, with the help of Project Workers (called Mission Partners) who were invited from other parts of Europe and around the world. Mission Partners led and supported a wide range of projects such as:
- Building Plural Communities in Europe
- The Cutting Edge Project linking the Church with the community
- Rags & Roses – a Community Development Programme in Marsh Farm
- Renewal from the Roots – New Ways of Understanding the Bible
- Changing Perspectives – A Development Awareness Project
- Spirituality, Regeneration and Development
- Justice Spirituality
- Faith in Europe
This work was largely inspired by learning about and having encounters with people from other cultures, and the desire to become more culturally humble and understanding. So why not learn more from the many faiths and cultures at our own doorstep? In 1996, these experiences, which had sown the seeds of inter-faith engagement at GRASSROOTS, led to the creation of the Luton Inter Faith Forum (LIF) which was officially formed the next year. In 2001 this body became the Luton Council of Faiths, or LCoF, as it is still known as today. Since then, in partnership with LCoF and with support from Luton Borough Council, GRASSROOTS has engaged in a wide variety of projects including:
- Hosting the British Council’s ‘Global Exchange Programme’ where Luton had young people from Egypt, Cambodia, Syria, the Philippines and Indonesia come to volunteer
- Developing the Inter Faith Pilgrimage, which evolved into the Faith Walk and is now known as Luton’s Annual Peace Walk
- Helping to transform many green spaces into Peace Gardens
- Receiving many visitors from the UK and overseas for learning and cultural exchanges
As the work of GRASSROOTS continued to grow, the Spirituality of Justice project planted the seeds of the Making Luton a Fairtrade Town campaign in 2007, which flourished with the help of volunteers from across Luton’s faith communities. This support and engagement enabled Luton to become a Fairtrade Town in 2011, and soon after the Luton Fairtrade Steering Group received the accolade of Outstanding Achievement from the Fairtrade Foundation, in recognition of its unique campaigning style and successes.
Today this campaign continues, with an additional focus of promoting the use of environmentally friendly materials, the availability of fairly traded goods to purchase from GRASSROOTS, and the creation of bespoke Fairtrade Gift Hampers.
Between 2010 to 2013, GRASSROOTS developed the unique ‘Faith Woodlands Communities’ Project in partnership with the Luton & Bedford Councils of Faiths, Greensand Trust and the Forestry Commission, which facilitated the creation of nature trails, peace labyrinths and a range of activities in Maulden Woods, which many groups from the community began to utilise, putting people back in touch with nature. In the areas of Art and Culture, GRASSROOTS invited bands like Berakah (a professional band of Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians) to Luton, holding multicultural evenings of sharing and celebration during One World Week, and presented local talent to hundreds of people who came to join its diverse programmes of events and initiatives. Sport was also utilised as a way of increasing engagement, with Interfaith Cricket Matches between Luton, Leicester, Bedford, Watford and St Albans being held, Interfaith football tournaments supported and then more recently, following the London 2012 Olympics, the development of a 4 year-long Community Archery Programme throughout the town, which proved to be highly successful and has left a legacy of two community archery clubs still running.
Working with Women Across Faiths and Cultures became a significant focus too, with events and initiatives taking place at a very grassroots level in partnership a women’s cooperative group called ‘Ghar Se Ghar’ (Hindi/Urdu words meaning Home to Home). From this stemmed many activities, including trips, workshops and a range of other events including its women-only event called ‘Precious Pearls’, taking place annually during International Women’s Week and which continues to grow in popularity.
As tensions and difficulties increased in the town with the activities of extremist groups from different backgrounds, GRASSROOTS started to deliver Cultural Awareness, Religion and Belief Awareness, and Diversity training programmes to bodies within Luton including Luton Borough Council, the Luton and Dunstable Hospital and the Bedfordshire Police. Interfaith and intercultural awareness remains a key consideration in much of the project work of GRASSROOTS, engaged so heavily in a community as richly diverse as Luton.
As GRASSROOTS has developed a great deal of credibility over the years, it was selected to be one of the National Hubs for the Near Neighbours Programme, which has funded and supported numerous projects across Luton, helping to bring people together and break down barriers. This partnership has also developed the Catalyst Youth Leadership Programme which is being delivered in Luton, helping to engage with and train community leaders of tomorrow.
GRASSROOTS has historically sought to engage with young people by facilitating Youth Conferences which help young people explore complex issues of identity and counter suspicion of ‘the other’ and fear of the unknown. One of GRASSROOTS’ most recent areas of work has been supporting Luton Council of Faiths continue its engagement with young people, delivering various projects in primary schools including the latest initiative which is the delivery of storytelling sessions from various faith traditions, to help empower our future generation at a young age with wisdom and cultural literacy.
This is just a very brief overview of the history of GRASSROOTS and how its work has led up to today, which would simply not be possible without the generous support of its volunteers, partners and funders. The future, as always, is unknown, but whilst society continues to encounter uncertainty, injustice and division, GRASSROOTS will strive to respond as it always has, and continue to offer ‘a different point of view’.