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A couple of months ago I sat in on a conversation between a Christian and a Muslim, facilitated by an atheist. The discussion dealt with issues like justice, reconciliation and forgiveness.

At the end of it a major step had been taken to put right a wrong that had seriously damaged a local community group and had set back its work of regeneration by years.

Such bridge-building is imperceptible, yet it goes on all around us. It’s only when it fails that we notice the consequences. It’s essential if we are to build sustainable communities, yet the skills are seldom taught and the results usually undervalued.

That conversation came to mind with this week’s publication of the Faithful cities report by the Commission on Urban Life and Faith. It challenges the tendency to think of regeneration as iconic buildings and international events, and warns of the dangers of a gentrification that exacerbates divides between rich and poor.

The report calls for a debate on what makes a good city. That debate, to be fair, has been going on for years - from the work of the Urban Task Force through to the Academy for Sustainable Communities. What faith groups can bring to the table is their experience of living in the communities everyone else is talking about. The Commission on Urban Life and Faith talks of ‘faithful capital’ - social capital that stems from a perspective that sees in the most vulnerable people the reflection of their creator. Others describe this as spiritual or religious capital, or mission.

The terminology isn’t that important. The experience of listening to, working with and living alongside those who are poor and disadvantaged is, and must become an integral part of our policymaking.

But faith groups need to appreciate that they’re not the only ones who do that. In highlighting their distinct contributions, they need to recognise and value those of many others who are concerned to build better communities - even, dare we say it, some of the developers and economists.

Instead of complaining that they haven’t been invited to the party, faith groups need to humbly gatecrash and join in. Meanwhile those who find faith a bizarre and alien concept need to recognise that much of their antagonism may be founded on suspicion and ignorance.

Julian Dobson, editor

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