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British Methodists to take part in interfaith Habitat project

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Beth Ann Brick
July 6, 2006

By Kathleen LaCamera*

EDINBURGH, Scotland (UMNS) — Methodists will travel to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan in July as part of the first-ever British interfaith Habitat for Humanity project.

The 16-member team includes Edinburgh-based Christians, Muslims and others who are volunteering two weeks of their time to build much-needed housing in the former Soviet state.

Laurent Vernet, a marketing professional and a member of the Nicolson Square Methodist Church in Edinburgh, said he hopes the trip will be an opportunity to see love, compassion and interfaith relations in action.

“I hope to have a spiritual and human experience by helping others, not only with money but with time and sweat,” Vernet told United Methodist News Service.

With summer temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the team will no doubt be sweating buckets as it helps construct environmentally friendly reed and clay housing for residents in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.

The homes will provide cheaper, better-insulated and safer places to live for families who sometimes pay up to 50 percent of their income for heating costs during harsh winter months.

The Rev. Peter Clark, Nicolson Square’s minister, has played a key role in putting the trip together. A former building design professional, he has longstanding ties with the Habitat organization and has been involved with several of its international projects.

Clark noted that few people even know Kyrgyzstan is a country bordered by China and Kazakhstan. “It’s a country that’s totally landlocked, with no mineral wealth and little arable land. Soviet subsidies that once helped support the population have long gone,” he explained.

Working together

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A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera

ZoltŠn Homoky (from left), Ahmad Hussein, Bonnie Jeanne MacDonald and the Rev. Peter Clark are members of the interfaith Habitat for Humanity team.

Habitat for Humanity has been working in Kyrgyzstan — where 40 percent of the people live below the poverty line — since 1999. An estimated 166,000 are without adequate housing.

Clark and the interfaith team believe Kyrgyzstan is the right place for the group to do some good work and engage with a completely different culture, and for members to get to know one another in the process.

“When you are a Muslim, you have a responsibility to help other people. This seems a noble project,” said Bonnie Jeanne MacDonald, a Ph.D. student and worshipper at the Edinburgh Central Mosque, located next to the Nicolson Square church. “Time is the most valuable, more so than just giving money.”

She and her husband, Ahmad Hussein, are taking time out from their research to participate in the trip. MacDonald said this is a particularly important moment for religious people to stop pointing the finger at one another and work together.

“We want to say to the people of Kyrgyzstan, ?no, you’re not forgotten’ and also ?we’re people of different faiths working together,’” she said.

“We will be trying to make a difference and will need to respond and rely on other members of the group. ? It will be a humbling experience,” Hussein added.

He admitted that some in the mosque community were wary of a mission trip with Christians, especially because of past experiences in which Christian mission sometimes included efforts to convert Muslims.

But, he said, “When I heard about the trip from my wife, I was interested. We realized we could open people’s minds and our own concept of interfaith dialogue.”

A strong relationship

Next-door neighbors for the last 14 years, the Nicolson Square Methodist Church and the Central Mosque have a long history of working cooperatively in Edinburgh’s city center.

That relationship has also made them a target. In recent years, racist slogans have been spray painted on the Nicolson Square church’s front doors and obscene material put through the mail box, criticizing the church for its good relations with the mosque.

The experience has strengthened relationships between the two communities, and the Habitat project offers one more opportunity for both to serve God and God’s people together.

“The biggest teaching of Jesus is to love one another and this is a way to express that love to the people in Edinburgh and to the people of Kyrgyzstan,” observed Joe Lambert.

He said he was a “slightly reluctant” recruit but was persuaded by the enthusiasm of others. As the volunteer church treasurer for Nicolson Square, he has a keen sense of how much congregations spend on maintaining their buildings. That’s motivated him to help others who have far fewer resources to build the homes.

All team members have been involved in fund raising for the trip, which will cost nearly £22,000 ($47,000) or £1,650 ($3,000) per person. One of the most successful fund-raisers was a multicultural family “Food Fayre” held at the Central Mosque on a sunny June Sunday afternoon. More than 400 people came to sample a wide range of culinary delights, raising upwards of £1,300 ($2,400) for the trip.

Hope for future trips

Team member and student ZoltŠn Homoky said he likes the idea of not just talking about interfaith relations but doing something concrete. He first heard about the trip during a talk by Clark at the Central Mosque and immediately thought “I fancy some of that.”

Homoky said he particularly wants to “glimpse the soul” of people in a place where, under former Soviet rule, religion was suppressed (70 percent of the population is Muslim). He also said he hopes the trip will be the first of many, serving as a pilot for future shared humanitarian projects between faith groups in Edinburgh.

Organizers feel the same way. Beth Ann Brick, a Nicolson Square member who led the fund-raising effort, is unable to make the Kyrgyzstan trip because of work commitments to the company she runs in Edinburgh. Originally from Wisconsin, she is a longtime fan of Habitat for Humanity and said she “feels a bit sad not to be going.” She, too, expressed hope that this trip will open the door to more projects in the near future.

For information about the trip, visit

*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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