Inter Faith Week - Interfaith Chaplaincy at the NEC

09 November 2023

The Revd David Butterworth is Lead Chaplain, Interfaith Chaplaincy, at the NEC in Birmingham. Meeting the needs of 7 million visitors each year is a big job and, in this blog to mark Interfaith Week, 12 - 19 November, David shares some of the joys of his work ensuring all faiths are welcome

Looking for reassurance about Interfaith work? Well, how long do you have? There are masses of assurances…

Every day I’m on campus at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham (NEC Group) or one of its satellites, like the International Convention Centre (ICC), there are genuine warm words of engagement, and an ethos of thankfulness all around. With an ‘Open Door’ policy, these comments come from visitors, staff, and members of the public passing through. Bearing in mind the NEC group receives 7 million visitors every year and is growing, with the Bradford ODEON conventions center opening later this year, that is a lot of warm words…

In practice, I am fortunate to meet most new starters to the business for up to 30 mins for an Induction session. The mix of gender, ethnicity, faith, specialism and various first languages are simply amazing. Most are surprised to meet ‘the Chaplaincy team’. I often start by welcoming new starters to the business by authentically extolling the genuine NEC Group ethos that ‘our people are our best asset’. Chaplaincy sits inside the wider HR and Wellbeing support team and we regularly meet as a wider group for updates and learning. These gatherings are occasionally supported by our Volunteer Chaplains, so they realize we are a diverse team of people with differing faith positions - aiming to represent the widest points of the business platform. We are also very well connected with several Interfaith groups in the wider West Midlands including the ‘FAITH Alliance’ sponsored by West Midlands Police.

Very often visitors are travelling from all over the world to large conferences and global events, many are delighted to see an Interfaith Prayer / Quiet Room is available. Sometimes we provide two or more - depending on the event type and their discernment of their clients needs. This can range from the groundbreaking massive National Halal Food event a few weeks ago or the NASUWT Teachers’ Union, CRUFTS, Dentistry or Pharmacy Events and the associated eclectic mix of visitors – sometimes all on campus at the same time - overlapping each other. The sense of ‘buzz in the house’ is immense - especially as some events are only just emerging back post-Covid. Cordially, visitors will say ‘I will only come if a Prayer Room is available… and, oh by the way, we will bring six busses of children and young people!’ Our answer is a confident ‘yes, we have Interfaith Prayer Rooms – all the time.

Naturally, in such a vast people centred business, we will have both celebrations and sad times. In the world of events and conferences it is sometimes impossible to leave the business for a funeral or thanksgiving and, so for the last few years, we offer times of ‘pause and reflection’. This revolves around offering a time of formal reflection in the diary so members of staff are able to gather together as a team celebrating the life and faith of the team member concerned. We offer a beautiful order of service with photographs, flowers offered with an authentic word garnered from team members who knew the person best. Several times we hear, ‘my work family are crucially important to me…’ or ‘my work mates are my life’ – this is so from all Faith positions. To be able to draw staff teams together at these times is hugely welcomed. In a few days’ time we will ‘line up’ with members of the staff team and visitors to the events – together we will acknowledge the two-minutes silence, as we tune into the sound of Big Ben and then sensitively lay a poppy wreath by a millstone by NEC lakeside. Nearer Christmas, we will gather with many pensioners from the NEC Group who meet once a year with a Christmas lunch and invite the Chaplain to share a brief word and prayer. The opportunities are immense.

Of course, the joys come along with challenges. Most of these are surmountable and revolve around the ask for incremental space required and the need for more volunteers to support the Chaplaincy Wellbeing facility. Occasionally we might have a visitor who thinks the Prayer / Quiet space should only be available for the few. But once they are reminded the space is not a Mosque, Church, Synagogue, Temple, or Gurdwara but rather a safe and inclusive space for all to enjoy, the temperature falls again and harmony reigns.

Visitors find it hard to believe that the space is freely offered by the NEC group – a gift to everyone. This ethos allows staff and visitors to bring their whole-self to their workplace or event and the benefits to all sides of the visitor or staff equation are immeasurable. The Comments Book is testimony to this - as are the daily verbal commendations. Overseas Visitors will often say, ‘Can we have one of these (in Canada or USA). Of course the answer is yes - if you collaboratively work with a company which massively values its Staff teams and visitors).

In closing, here is an example of Interfaith working at its best. During the Commonwealth Games we considerably supported the Athletes Faith Villages with input to the interfaith strategy and the outworking to support athletes and their international teams from all over the world. The CWG team looked to us to garner Faith Volunteers to support the athletes, their back up crews of medics and hospitality. Three Athletes Villages hosting 3,000 athletes and support teams each!

Those we encounter will quietly say, ‘this facility and your team are like a warm hug’. With the shocking news over the last months - more warm hugs of discourse are needed, and may I suggest ‘sometimes without using words.

Interfaith Prayer:

Kia hora te marino; kia whakapapa pounamu te moana; kia tere te karohirohi i mua i tou huarahi. (Māori)
May the calm be widespread; may the surface of the ocean glisten like the greenstone; and may the shimmer of summer dance across your path forever. (end)
As we inclusively greet all – the loved, the lost and the broken, looking upon each other’s face, may we warmly smile and welcome searching strangers like family. May we all aim to listen to others before being too quick to answer. When there is silence, let us reflect on the unspoken and earnestly yearn our kind thoughts to become actions of love – for all.