From the Ground Up: SGI-UK’s Westminster Chapter

An aerial view of London looking over London Bridge and the Thames
[Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash]

This series profiles local Soka Gakkai organizations around the world, looking at how they are responding to the new global conditions.

Central London is the heart of a sprawling metropolis that is usually bustling with visitors from all over the world, a swirling current of diverse culture. But when a lockdown was declared in late March 2020, the city quickly lost some of its characteristic luster.

While the lockdown may have slowed society down, our peace movement has gathered pace.

Meeta Thareja is an SGI-UK vice chapter women’s leader in Central London’s Westminster Chapter: “It was like the life of the city came to a screeching halt. The noise of airplanes, traffic and the hustle and bustle of activity completely disappeared. The streets were empty, and all the restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops closed.”

Westminster Chapter covers an area packed with famous attractions such as Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles recorded many of their hit records. The headquarters of many global companies are also located there.

The pandemic and subsequent restrictions on movement and gathering impacted everyone severely. The members of Westminster Chapter quickly adapted.

Chanting for Peace

David Bloomfield is the chapter leader: “Right after implementation of the lockdown, we arranged synchronized chanting for members of the chapter every weekday evening and on Saturday mornings. We chant wholeheartedly for the quickest possible end to this pandemic and safety of all members, their family and friends.”

The chapter is composed of 6 districts, with some 180 people. The lockdown forced a new approach to the chapter’s activities. With a determination to support each person and ensure they “leave no one behind,” chapter leaders poured their efforts into encouraging members over the phone. They formed small study groups and moved all their regular meetings to an online format. Youth members helped those not familiar with smartphones or computers.

“While the lockdown may have slowed society down, our peace movement has gathered pace. Each district began their own chanting and weekly study meetings. Some friends also participated in these meetings. During these months, each district strengthened its unity,” says Meeta.

Adversity became a springboard, and the challenges have spurred the growth of the chapter, with more people participating in study and discussion meetings than previously.

Hope, Determination and the Pandemic

The pandemic had a huge impact on the UK’s economy as well. GDP was estimated to have fallen by a record 20.4 percent between April and June. Ilaria Gallo, the chapter young women’s leader, was one of many who experienced major challenges at work.

She had begun her apprenticeship in a media company in January 2019 and was due to be made a permanent employee from May 2020. When the lockdown was declared, everything changed and her company halted all hiring.

“It was really a tough situation for me. But I determined to receive my permanent contract. I chanted a lot! I also did my best, working from my home. As a result, I finally received my permanent contract just before the end of the fixed-term apprenticeship.”

The more I chanted, studied and encouraged members, friends and colleagues, the less anxious I felt. Hope appeared in my heart.

Max Longhin has been a flight attendant for a major airline for 30 years. Owing to the effects of the pandemic, his company announced it would be making a large number of employees redundant. “I was anxious about my future and couldn’t sleep well at night.”

When the lockdown began, he dove into Buddhist activities. “The more I chanted, studied and encouraged members, friends and colleagues, the less anxious I felt. Hope appeared in my heart. I knew that no matter what, it would be the best situation for my life and happiness, and that I can transform any poison into medicine.”

Max retained his job and says he is now praying for the recovery and development of his company, as well as encouraging many friends and fellow members.

The youth of SGI-UK in particular have continued to reach out to each other and to friends over social media and conferencing platforms to keep a flame of courage and hope alive.

Leaders of Westminster Chapter feel strongly that in such an era of uncertainty and crisis, the significance of the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism becomes increasingly apparent.

As Ilaria says, “In our society, negative emotions such as fear, apathy and resignation are spreading. There are many people around me who are giving up on their dreams because of uncertainty. They have lost hope. Nichiren Buddhism teaches us that we have immense power and possibility inside of ourselves that can create great value and hope, so we can overcome any difficulties. Nichiren Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai stand for hope.”

Adapted from an article in the October 6, 2020, issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan.