Council to award highest honour to Cllr James Shera
Cllr James Shera MBE S.Pk is to be made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Rugby, in a ceremony to be held on Thursday 27 April.
The special meeting of Rugby Borough Council will confer the honour, the highest available to the borough council, for Cllr Shera’s outstanding contribution to interfaith and race relations.
The title of Honorary Freeman can be awarded to persons of distinction and any persons who have rendered eminent services to the borough. It was last awarded to an individual in 2009, but has more recently been awarded to the women’s Rugby World Cup winning England team.
Cllr Shera is best known for his long, unbroken period representing the Benn ward on Rugby Borough Council, having been re-elected for a record tenth consecutive term in 2014. However, he has also set records by becoming the first Pakistani to be elected Mayor of Rugby, in 1988, and becoming one of the first recipients of the Star of Pakistan, awarded by the President of Pakistan for services to community and interfaith relations, in 1992.
He had a key role in the Myton Hospice facility at St Cross Hospital and the new Warwickshire College building, whose entrance road is named after him.
Shera moved to Europe in the late 1960s, having been brought up in a small rural community in Pakistan. A devout Catholic in a Muslim majority country, Shera was destined to train to become a priest. However, he was the first of his family to be educated and his priest and mentor advised him to use his education to serve God by serving people. He took this advice, winning a scholarship to attend the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium – leading to a major challenge: how to get there.
Shera recalls: “When I went to the airport to buy my ticket I was told that I needed an exchange certificate, but when I went to the office to get one it became clear I would have to pay a bribe that I couldn’t afford.”
So Shera hitch-hiked from his village in Pakistan, through Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia, buying goods to sell to tourists on the way to pay for food and accommodation, before arriving in Italy where he caught the train to Brussels. At Brussels station he encountered a problem that nearly saw him returning home: the exit from the station was up an escalator, and it took a friendly, multilingual station cleaner to coax him onto an escalator for the first time.
“I had never seen an escalator before,” he explained, “and I didn’t know what to do. A cleaner came over and spoke to me, but I didn’t understand Flemish or French. Then he spoke some words in English, and he said to me: ‘I will go with you’. And at the top of the escalator there was the priest from the university who had arranged to meet me.
I don’t know how I crossed Asia and Europe. I had very little money, but I arrived with double what I had when I left. It was my faith that sustained me.”
Having completed his studies Shera moved to England, having become isolated in Belgium but with friends in the UK. He arrived in Rugby in 1970, and his first job was based at Rugby station as a railway guard. In 1976 he studied for a postgraduate degree at the University of Warwick, before becoming a teacher at Newbold Middle School, later joining the county council education department until his retirement.
Throughout his life Shera has known what it is like to live in a minority group.
“Minority groups always suffer when there is extremism,” he observed, “but I have made it my mission to build bridges, not walls. People have different views, but I follow Jesus’ teaching to love my neighbour. My faith influences what I do, not what I say.”
Shera’s commitment to interfaith relations led him to found, with others, the Brownsover Community Church, Rugby’s first inter-denominational church – “why go to different rooms to serve the same God?” – and to being appointed to an advisory board by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Three months after retiring Shera was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “It hasn’t stopped me serving people,” he says, “and it won’t stop me serving people or my God.”
“I am very grateful to councillors for endorsing me for this honour. It’s a privilege to be part of the community of Rugby.
Rugby has been good to me. I arrived with no family and no friends, but decided to be part of society. This is my home.”
The ceremony to confer the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Rugby to Cllr James Shera MBE, S.Pk will be held at 2pm on Thursday 27 April, at Rugby Town Hall.
The motion will be proposed by Cllr Michael Stokes, Leader of the Council, and seconded jointly by Cllr Clare Edwards, leader of the Labour group and Cllr Jerry Roodhouse, leader of the Liberal Democrat group.