INTERFAITH IN ACTION
The Plain Truth Interview with International Peace Award-winning Chaplain Subash Chellaiah.
Last summer, Subash Chellaiah, Co-ordinator of the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy at the University of Lincoln and Founder and Director at The Centre for Reconciliation, scooped the Rotary International Peace Award at the Llangollen Eisteddfod despite some very strong contenders – including Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.
The Plain Truth was intrigued to learn about Subash’s background, his current work at Lincoln University, and how he came to win such a prestigious award for his humanitarian efforts. An award which he dedicated to his parents. An inspirational ‘good news’ story, we think Plain Truth subscribers will appreciate – especially during these very challenging times.
The Plain Truth (PT): Subash, tell us a little about your early life growing up in India. And how your family life and childhood experiences led you on a pathway to the humanitarian work you went on to carry out for over two decades – and what it involved.
Subash Chellaiah (SC): I was born in South India, in a small town in the Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu, into a Hindu family who converted to Christianity when I was five. Because of the pressure from my dad’s side of the family, lack of education as limited to primary education and also harbour expansion project that affected the house as my dad house was very close to the sea about 2 minutes walk from the sea , they had to move and start a new life in a different village.
This move caused them to suffer financially. I had an average Tamil education, walking two miles each way barefoot to have lessons under a tree. Academically, I did well. And even though school was challenging, it taught me many important life lessons. I was about to study medicine; the fees were paid and I was ready to go off to college. Then a friend invited me to a Christian conference and there I was inspired and knew right away that I should instead be studying theology. I explained all this to my parents – who were delighted at the prospect! So I went to seminary and studied for two theological degrees. I then went on to study interfaith relations and reconciliation at the Henry Martyn Institute (HMI) and it was while I was there that the catastrophic 2004 tsunami struck on Boxing Day, killing around 230,000 people.
A break from my studies saw me overseeing HMI’s rehabilitation work on the coast of Tamil Nadu supporting the tsunami victims. Working with partner organisations, we started self-help groups of between 150-200 women across the coastal area in Nagapattinam and through other partners in Trichy, led trauma counselling sessions and worked with children affected by the tsunami – bringing together local communities. We worked with all the people – despite their background or belief – breaking down caste barriers and helping all ages cope with the devastation caused by the tsunami.
I also worked with fishermen to rebuild their livelihoods and with farmers to reclaim their land. It was an extremely successful project bringing all in the community together, working alongside each other despite centuries-old caste barriers. And it was while at HMI that I became part of the reconciliation work in North-East India and Northern Sri Lanka – working for peace in very troubled regions to prevent full-blown war.
A few years passed. I was married, had started a family, was living in London and working for an international charity. Then I was made redundant. But my vision was to continue with my humanitarian work. Later, on a visit back to India, I met with a close friend who shared that vision and together we started the Institute for Rural Community Service (IRCS) , an NGO and interfaith organisation. The IRCS has improved the livelihood of communities by setting up and running two crèches amongst other facilities. It was also responsible for setting up The Little Elephant School in 2012. The school is based in semi-rural Tamil Nadu and enables children from all backgrounds to go to school for a minimal fee. The school has grown over the years from six pupils to nearly 200 today. The IRCS has also run programmes to benefit the local community of which the school is very much a part.
PT: In your current post as Co-ordinator of the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy at the University of Lincoln – and in The Centre of Reconciliation – can you explain the importance for both differences and respect of people’s diverse religious beliefs. And how is that played out within the Chaplaincy role within the University and your work at The Centre of Reconciliation?
SC: I started working at the University of Lincoln in 2012. At that time, the Chaplaincy had no real structure or facilities. I slowly began to realise a Christian Chaplaincy was not meeting the needs of students and staff at the university.
A major priority was having prayer space for all, a space where all could come, be quiet, pray and feel comfortable and safe doing so. A growing number of international students come to Lincoln to study and many of them practise a religion and need to feel part of a community and feel at home when in the city. The Multifaith Chaplaincy we now have there is a welcoming presence in the heart of the university – and in the heart of Lincoln. A place for all to feel at home and have somewhere to come, talk, be quiet, pray and form lasting friendships. The Multifaith Chaplaincy has a key role to play in Lincoln. Connected with all faith communities across the city, it has been involved in numerous community events. These include World Hello Day – a secular holiday observed annually on November 21, to express that conflicts should be resolved through communication rather than the use of force – as well as international fashion shows, etc.
As well as developing the Chaplaincy to become multifaith and interfaith, I also set up the Faith Advisory Board, chaired by the Deputy Vice Chancellor. The Faith Advisory Board has representatives from all faiths and none and advises the university on matters of faith. Eight years ago, the Chaplaincy was just me. But now, I have a team of volunteer Chaplains and Faith Advisors representing all faiths and none – here to offer support for both staff and students alike. From this the foundations were set for establishing The Centre for Reconciliation (TCfR) last year at the university.
I then became involved with the Lincolnshire Youth Association, whose Director, Dr Charles Shaw – then an Anglican Lay Minister but now an Evangelical Christian Church Minister – agreed to become Chair of TCfR. I’m delighted that Charles was able to attend the Rotary International’s Award Ceremony with me as it also acknowledged all the work done within the university, business and the community. And it’s only by working with all, to help people feel welcome, breaking down barriers of prejudice and to educate, that in time we will hopefully eradicate religiously motivated hate crimes. Interfaith relations are so important in multicultural and multifaith societies – it is very much needed in the world today – coming together to offer a unified, united voice. Interfaith relationships reinforce the belief that regardless of religion, beliefs or traditions every human deserves respect.
Through interfaith work a greater understanding of other religions, beliefs, traditions and practices takes place and it is through this greater understanding and education that stereotypes and misunderstandings of other religions can be dismissed. Crucially this can lead to the reduction (and eventually the eradication) of religiously-motivated violence and hatred. This can only work when we all have mutual respect for each other. We accept differences, promote unity and celebrate diversity. Through the Chaplaincy and TCfR people do not only meet others, learn about the other person, but the potential is there to gain a deeper understanding of your own faith.
The more we try and understand one another the greater acceptance there will be and this will lead to a more peaceful and harmonious society and there is no better purpose than this. It is so important to remember that change starts with me, with you and with us all. And if we can all contribute to changing attitudes and making better communities, we can together make a better world.
Established in May 2019, The Centre for Reconciliation (TCfR) is a ‘maker of peacemakers’. Inspiring people to prepare individuals and communities, in their own contexts, to achieve a global culture of peace.