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Conflict resolution through the arts

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The tragic deaths of five Australian soldiers last week in Afghanistan highlights yet again the ongoing cross-cultural and interreligious violence that is very much a mark of our times.

Usually we look for solutions to conflict through talking, through negotiations amongst politicians, community and religious leaders. The interviewee featured here is taking a very different approach: she places her hopes for interreligious peace and understanding through promotion of the arts.

Helen Summers is founding Director of the Interfaith Centre of Melbourne, and since it began in 2000 she has been the driving force behind many large community arts events.

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Summers’ early professional life was devoted to teaching English to migrants, and to the higher education of teachers of English. The last job she had in this sphere was as Assistant Professor of English Language at Bond University in Queensland.

Then her life took a turn towards religion and spirituality. In the 1990s she was living in New York and started attending the Anglican Cathedral of St John the Divine on the Upper West Side. The Dean of the Cathedral at the time, James Parks Morton was an inspiration to her. 

He had opened his church to leaders of other faiths, and hosted services conducted by them. In particular he made close connections with Shinto leaders from Japan, and later when he retired from the Cathedral, he founded the Interfaith Centre of New York.

At the time, Summers also met Rabbi Joseph Gelberman who had started The New Seminary for Interfaith Ministers in 1981. He became another pivotal influence on her life. She felt called to train as an interfaith minister, and joined the two year seminary program.

After ordination, when she returned to Australia, she founded the Interfaith Centre of Melbourne. It aims to build religious and spiritual understanding and respect among the multicultural communities of Victoria. 

A special focus of the Centre is promoting arts and cultural events. In 2003 Summers curated A Shining Example: The Golden Age of Spain before 1492, a performance of poetry and music from medieval Al Andalus, a period in Spain when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative harmony and prosperity.

Other examples of events produced by Summers are The Rumi Concert, a performance of Rumi’s poems by Coleman Barks, world renowned exponent of the Sufi mystic, and Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World, an exhibition of 64 artworks by 51 women from 21 Islamic countries from the collection of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts.

In the lead-up to the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Melbourne in December 2009, Summers chaired the Arts and Culture Committee of the Parliament. In that role she produced the massive Sacred Music Concert with 18 international individual and group performances, and a host of other smaller performances and religious art exhibitions.

In 2010, in collaboration with the Islamic Council of Victoria, she organised an evening of songs and story with Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) called Ten Promises to Peace, at The Great Hall, National Gallery of Victoria.

Ever the spiritual entrepreneur, Summers has several future projects in the planning stages. These include an interreligious group tour to Al Andalus in Spain with TV documentary coverage of the journey, a performance in Melbourne of Sir John Taverner’s seven hour masterpiece, The Veil of the Temple: An All Night Vigil, and various other exhibitions and performances. 

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Helen Summers, interreligious dialogue, culture, arts, dialogue



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Existing comments

This is an inspirational article. Interfaith groups can use the arts as a meeting point. I would love to have attended the Rumi Concert!

Pam | 06 September 2012