Gill Hicks lost both her legs in the 7/7London Underground bombs three years ago. She is now walking between Leeds and London [200 miles] with her new artificial legs.
I met Gill when she and her WALK/TALK Team walked through Sheffield. The Sheffield length of the walk commenced in the City’s Peace Gardens. Leader of the Council, Paul Scriven was among those who gathered to walk and talk with Gill and her team. In his words to Gill, Paul Scriven said, “I want to launch a new initiative today. Each year, during this particular week, we will encourage people to walk in each other’s shoes as a way of encouraging people to understand each other better.” Mike Love, a member of the Walk/Talk Team called on people to build a shared future through conversation. Then Paul joined fifty or so others to walk with Gill and colleagues through the streets of Sheffield.
I walked and talked with Gill. As I did so recalled that in March 1997 I had set off from the Peace Gardens to walk to 10 Downing Street along the route Gill was taking to London. I had walked to hand deliver a letter to the Prime Minister asking for a fairer deal for “Asylum Seekers”. I asked her why she was walking to London. “It’s to encourage people to walk side by side with each other and talk with each other, to encourage conversation.”
“But why are you walking?” I asked her.
“Walking is the most difficult thing I have to do” she replied, “I want to say to people, if I can do this you can do something simpler, meet with each other and talk with each other”. Gill particularly wants those who fear each other, or just never meet, to talk to each other, and “walk in each other’s shoes”.
The route brought us to Sheffield United Football Club, where former legends like Tony Currie and staff from “Football Against Racism in Europe” [FARE}, came and expressed solidarity.
The walkers moved on to Mount Pleasant Park, Sharrowvale, for a delicious lunch provided and served by Aagrah, the newest Asian Restaurant in Sheffield. Mohammed Aslam, the Managing Director of Aagrah is part of Gill’s Walk Talk Team and walking to London, supplying refreshments and a support minibus for the entire route.
Perhaps the best way to engage in conversation with friends and strangers is over a meal, and along a walk.
Gill led the walkers on to Sheffield’s newest, purpose built Mosque, in Abbeydale. The Mosque was packed with around 1000 worshippers gathered for Friday prayers. Gill was introduced as one who lost both her legs in the 7/7 Bomb explosions and was invited to address the assembled congregation. She walked up to the front and said what she was doing and shared her simple message of building good relationship with each other, of learning the art of living peacefully alongside each other.
Gill then sat down, on a chair provided specially for her, and remained until prayers were concluded in the customary manner of sharing words of peace.
At the close of Prayers members of the Congregation came to Gill and expressed words of sorrow and regret at what had happened to her. “We are very sorry for what has happened to you.” These were the words said to Gill Hicks. Words were accompanied by tears. These were not empty words.
It was one of the most powerful and emotional moments of love and forgiveness that I have ever witnessed.
It was also a moment of revelation and inspiration. The path to forming relationships of respect trust among those who fear each other includes taking steps to forgive each other for the ways we have hurt each other. Forgiveness is one of the hardest tasks in relationships. “Sorry” is one of the hardest words to say.
Community tensions are heightened by fear of those who are different from us. Kate Adie commenting in her book “The kindness of strangers” on the aftermath of 9/11, on her observation and reporting of events worldwide, says that we only become interested in strangers when we come to see them as a threat to us. This is the world in which we live. There are fears in our communities, of those who are of another faith, ethnicity or nationality, for example.
Gill Hicks could have gone around to spread a message of hatred towards the Muslim community. There are those who use fears to create hatred and hostility in our multi ethnic, multi faith communities.
I came to walk and talk with Gill Hicks fresh from the Government launch of the “Face to Face and Side by Side” strategy, which Hazel Blears MP described as “a framework for a partnership in our multi faith society”. The framework aims to create more opportunities for face to face dialogue along with side by side collaborative social action. It’s about increasing our understanding of each other and coming together to share time, energy and skills to improve local neighbourhoods.
The Walk/Talk initiative is one very good example of what we can all do. Gill says she is doing the most difficult thing for her, walk, to bring neighbours together. In one day her walk brought people together in Parks, Streets, a Football Club and a Worship Centre. In different environments she is creating opportunities for people who do not normally meet and talk with each other to do so. It is possible to challenge political and religious extremism. We can build a better and shared future together through conversation with each other.