The reason for the focus on Stella Reekie was that this year, 2002, was the 100th anniversary of her birth and the 40th anniversary of her death and it seemed an appropriate moment to remember and celebrate her. Stella was born on 29th July 1922, the youngest of eight children in Gravesend, Kent and died in Glasgow on 28th September 1982. Her life had been one of service. As a young woman she had joined the Red Cross so that she could work with refugees in Europe. It was this that led to her being present at the liberation of Bergen – Belsen, something she never talked about, but the horror of that experience must have seared her soul. That and the experience of working with refugee children caused her to reflect on the inhumanity of life without Christ and, as she herself admitted, it was this that led her to sail from Liverpool in 1951 to join the Church of West Pakistan.
There are many stories about her work in Pakistan – her popularity and readiness to help with all sorts of problems, her wonderful capacity for communication even when her understanding and knowledge of Urdu was rather shaky, her work with women and children, her indefatigable visiting of homes and villages and something that seems to have characterised her all her life – her ability to exist on little sleep. There were two colleagues from Pakistan present at our celebration in St Mungo’s. One had been a Pakistani pastor with whom Stella worked closely and the other a Scottish missionary also in Pakistan at that time. She told a story of how she would visit Stella in Gujerat, and Stella would always drive her to the bus for her journey home. The only flaw in that plan was that Stella was always late because she was busy about many things but insisted on the lift. This then meant Stella driving at breakneck speed after the bus until she had overtaken it, causing it to halt so that her friend could then board it.
After seventeen years as a missionary Stella returned to Scotland and was eventually employed by the Home Board of the Church of Scotland as a community worker, working with the large number of immigrants who had come to Scotland in the 1950’s and 60s, mostly from India and Pakistan. It was at this point she became a deaconess, working in community relations from her own home in Belmont St. Glasgow. In 1972 she went to live in 20 Glasgow St. which had been bought by the Church of Scotland as a centre for her work. This then became the International Flat, a centre for immigrants, especially women who at that time had little opportunity for life outside the family. She organised English classes, cookery and sewing classes, meals for the wives of overseas students, summer play schemes for children in the area. She helped the new Scots cope with the bureaucracy involved in finding accommodation, employment etc. She welcomed everyone to the Flat which became a centre of hospitality and developed friendships which, as our celebration showed, have stood the test of time.
Most of the people present at St Mungo’s on 2nd October had known Stella through the International Flat and her work in establishing the first interfaith group in Scotland. Stella was convinced that new citizens would only be accepted and integrated into the wider community if that community knew something of their faith. So, the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths held monthly meetings when a member of a major world faith would give a talk on their faith, answer questions, provide food and give time for small group discussions. Each year there was a Presentation of Faiths in a prestigious public building for three full days which allowed school children to visit and learn and adults to be entertained by groups such as the Jewish Male Voice Choir. This was a time when the teaching of world religions was being introduced into the religious education syllabus, with very few published resources so the meetings and events of the Sharing of Faiths became a focus for teachers trying to come to terms with world faiths and make contact with places of worship.
Three people, Canon David Lawson, Mrs Brij Gandhi and Mr George Ballentyne, all members of that first Sharing of Faiths committee shared their memories of Stella and her interfaith work. David recalled how he lived very near the International Flat and often, especially after meetings, Stella would phone and invite him round for coffee. Sometimes this was to reflect on a meeting they had both been at and which had reached a decision which was not quite what Stella would have wanted. How were they to put it right? These conversations and coffees lasted into the wee small hours which never disturbed Stella who could exist on very little sleep.
Brij had got to know Stella through her parents when she visited them from Kenya and was even encouraged by Stella to do some voluntary work in the Flat during those visits. When Brij and her family moved to Glasgow, Brij became a member of the Sharing of Faiths and worked with Stella at the Flat. She remembered how much Stella asked of her even when she reminded Stella that she had a husband and young children to look after. It was part of Stella’s genius/ charism (?) that she was able to involve people beyond what they were prepared to give and believed possible. As Maxwell Craig, the chair of the Sharing of Faiths said in the booklet published after her death,” That she did so successfully time and time again was part of the miracle”.
George had become involved in the work of the Flat when he was asked to represent the Glasgow Bahá’ís on the Sharing of Faiths committee. He recalls his first meeting when, as a naïve Baha’i he thought people would respond to his involvement by becoming Baha’is, he found himself siting with someone who had been in the concentration camps; someone who had lived through the Partition of India; others who had endured pestilence, famine, and war – whose faith had been, literally, a matter of life and death for them. While interested in interfaith George expressed his gratitude to Stella who had shown him how to live it. It was her model, her example that set the tone and direction for most of his adult life, right down to the kind of jobs he had done.
This sense of gratitude was echoed by many at the celebration, especially David and Brij as well as Sr Isabel who had chaired this time of remembering. Interfaith had become a spiritual adventure for all of them and they had all been involved in it in some way or other ever since those early days of the Sharing of Faiths. They saw their work as part of legacy of Stella who forty years after her death was remembered with affection and thankfulness. When Stella died in 1982 the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths was the only inter faith group in Scotland. Now there are 20 local groups, including Interfaith Glasgow, and a national body, Interfaith Scotland, which carry on the work begun by her over fifty years ago. The seeds that Stella sowed then have borne fruit in a way that she probably would not have dreamed of. And for those of us who are reaping the benefits of those fruits and sowing our own seeds of understanding and cooperation, Stella still remains a source of inspiration and encouragement. Her life and influence are a good reminder that many of the seeds which we now sow can bear fruit in a way that we cannot imagine.