Youth Redefining Interfaith Activism Globally 16 March , 2012
I’ve never found an easy way to explain how an evangelical Christian from rural America came to found an interfaith youth organization with chapters across the world. It began in the summer of 2006.
It was past midnight when I flew into the airport in Alexandria, Egypt, not knowing a word of Arabic. My host from Couchsurfing, an international hospitality club, whom I’d never met, was waiting beyond customs. I was having a Tower-of-Babel moment at the immigration desk. “Enta men fain?” he said.
“I don’t speak Arabic… Do you speak English?” After a few rounds of this, an Egyptian in line behind me, hearing me try out different languages, came to my rescue, translating my Italian into Arabic.
I came to Egypt to do independent research on Christian-Islamic relations. I was under-prepared. As a student at New York University, my friends were puzzled by my move. I was studying Music Business and managing an unknown singer named Stefani Germanotta (who later donned the stage-name Lady Gaga), so I was better known for booking rock acts than religion.
Those who know me better recognized the pivotal role my faith as an evangelical Christian has for me, and know of my insatiable curiosity about “the other.” What started as a month-long trip became a lifetime journey.
Birth of a Notion
That visit to Egypt, observing both interfaith collaboration and some rare instances of violence, inspired me to pursue interfaith work. A month later, I moved to Cyprus for the summer, working the night shift as a cook in a small restaurant in Larnaka, a small and calm town on the Cypriot coast. A month later the Hezbollah-IsraelI War broke out. With the Beirut Airport bombed, the U.S. evacuation of Lebanese Americans was conducted by boat to the nearest port… Larnaka.
My relaxing beach summer rapidly unraveled as I volunteered with the U.S. State Department’s efforts to evacuate more than 10,000 people in eight days. I left on the last plane of evacuees, returning to the U.S. in mid-August. If Egypt inspired me to do interfaith work, the Lebanese evacuation gave me a sense of urgency.
Back in New York, I became determined to join the interfaith world. I met with several organizations but was troubled: the “interfaith” events I attended were primarily religious leaders talking about their different points of view. Remembering the conflicts I saw in Egypt, it was primarily young people, both as victims and perpetrators of violence. I became convinced that old people talking can’t counter young people taking action. As expected, I didn’t win too many allies early on with this perspective.
That fall we had our first “World Faith” meeting at NYU. My best friend Florentina, her dorm mate Vinita, a Hindu student, a Muslim freshmen named Tanzila, who read about us on Facebook, a Bahraini student named Dalal I’d met the week before, my friend Rob, who lived next door in our dorm, and I got together. I was idealistic, but not convinced that the sixof us were enough to change the world.
Being “social entrepreneurs” means taking great risks to create positive social change. In this vein, World Faith is run by volunteers, some of whom serve fulltime. They serve without salaries, though the ultimate goal is to generate a sustainable level of support for local chapters and the global network.
The Early Years
I became an Interfaith Youth Core Fellow, meeting interfaith leaders like Eboo Patel and Joshua Stanton, graduating from New York University, and working on World Faith nearly fulltime. This entailed traveling the world to find like-minded young people to start World Faith chapters in places like India and Lebanon.
Up to this point, World Faith was largely a story about me. From here on, I suddenly became a small part of the World Faith story.
Abdul Shakeel Basha still recalls when the Babri Mosque in Mumbai was demolished, leading to widespread violence across India. He showed up at a relief camp for victims with a plan to volunteer for five days. He stayed for five years. When the similar religiously fueled violence broke out in Gujarat that left thousands dead, he moved to Gujarat to volunteer in relief efforts, at times putting his own life at risk.
Shakeel and I met for the first time in 2009. As an activist in Delhi, he was frustrated by the systemic marginalization of poor Indians, especially homeless youth. “They have rights and protections by law,” he explained, “but the very institutions that are supposed to protect and support them actually suppress and abuse them.”
Soon after, Shakeel decided to join World Faith, taking on the social entrepreneurial role of national director for World Faith India. Three years later, he has built two schools in Delhi slums that provide education for 150 children. He’s convinced the local government to hire 14 World Faith volunteers to staff and run these schools, while they work in the homeless communities of Delhi, providing emergency response, finding pro-bono legal help to end unlawful slum demolitions, and mobilizing religiously diverse volunteers to give over 6,000 volunteer hours last year. Shakeel, like all World Faith regional directors, did all this without a salary.
Interfaith Peacemaking + International Development
While Shakeel’s story is truly remarkable, it is no longer unusual. The same social entrepreneurism that inspired Shakeel to build World Faith India, drives thousands of others to build interfaith development and service projects across the world. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a handful, leaders of World Faith chapters in Bangladesh, Egypt, Lebanon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan, along with leaders in ten other countries we’re talking to. World Faith has essentially doubled in size every year, which is why we feel we are only at the beginning of building a world movement of interfaith action.
World Faith has become a cutting edge of the intersection between interfaith peacebuilding and international development. Too often global challenges intertwine these issues, but we address them separately, as if they weren’t connected.
Take Nigeria as an example. Few places need interfaith peacebuilding more than Nigeria, but peacebuilding itself will not be enough. Specifically, the British Council found that the most significant factor in avoiding a possible Nigerian civil war is providing 25 million additional jobs, primarily for the youth. Essentially, no peacebuilding efforts will end a seeming religious conflict with economic issues at its roots.
Similarly, economic development is dependent on a viable society. Nothing scares away investment and squashes opportunity like communal violence or political instability. Both of these forces, violence and economic stagnation, disproportionately affect the youth. We see this as a global trend. In places like Nigeria, as World Faith Nigeria’s national director Obi Peter attests, peacebuilding and development efforts cannot viably function separately.
Herein lies the problem and the answer. Both peacebuilding and development efforts typically see young people as the problem. It’s a tempting conclusion when you see the young unemployed and the young perpetrating violence. But youth represent the most under-utilized asset in such communities. Entrepreneurism, unused higher education, social and geographical mobility, and widely expansive social networks are just a few of the crucial characteristics that represent the key ingredients to progress. That is why World Faith chapters are each created and led by social entrepreneurs, usually young adults themselves, who mobilize their fellow youth to action. They provide solutions. Are these solutions innovative? Are they really helpful?
Meet Jared Akama Ondieki, the national director of World Faith Kenya, operating as a nonprofit called CEPACET (Center for Partnership and Civic Engagement). Jared witnessed development projects in Kenya failing because they typically only addressed one of the many stacked and intertwined issues. Take the plight of widows at Lake Victoria, near his hometown of Kisii.
Thousands of widows have resorted to the informal industry of buying the day’s catch from the all-male fisherman at the docks. Culturally women aren’t permitted to fish. Reselling the fish at the town market, they often can barely feed themselves and their children. Along with the poverty, the fishermen often require the widows to sleep with them. Most fisherman sell to more than one widow, and many widows have several fisherman they buy from. The result is an HIV rate of 10-40%, much higher than the national average of 6.3%. It’s a challenge that spans poverty, public health, culture, education, and women’s empowerment.
Jared and a group of Muslim and Christian young people in Kenya had an idea. During a closure on the lake due to overfishing, they approached 100 widows who wanted an alternative income. These women and their children moved to a community farm, were taught to farm and harvest seed, and within a year became self-sufficient. They even had loaned money out into the surrounding community. Last week we heard they are breaking ground on a second farm.
With more that 500 activists volunteering over 16,000 hours in ten countries last year, impacting the lives of over 50,000 people, we see a global trend becoming the foundation of a world movement. This is the beginning. World Faith has doubled in impact every year for the past three years. With interest bubbling right now for new chapters in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South Asia, I have no doubt about exponential growth this coming year.
It means constantly adapting to the realities on the ground. They are always unique. But it turns out that the imagination, curiosity, and generosity of young people in every religious tradition, confronting global issues in their own backyard, can create interfaith action anytime, anywhere. It is transformative and contagious and a blessing.
World Faith in Huffington Post: Youthless Churches and the Arab Spring, A Generation of Ideas, not Idealogy 29 September , 2011
Lately, while engaged in my work as an interfaith activist, I found myself engaging in another type of dialogue: a conversation of generational differences. At times, it seems that religious leaders haven’t quite wrapped their heads around the thoughts and actions of religious millennials. Whether discussing the Arab Spring, or the lack of youth in American churches, it comes down to one defining characteristic of millennials: We are not an ideological generation… READ MORE
An Interfaith Generation Unwilling to Wait 13 July , 2011
When religious tension between Muslims and Christians rocked northern Nigeria on January 8th of this year, the refrain of religiously fueled violence sounded so much like it had before. The ‘other’ was at fault for the problems of a region, country, and world. But when the tensions boiled over and violence broke out, resulting in burning down of churches and mosques and the death over 100 people, the response was profoundly different.
This time, young volunteers from World Faith Nigeria took action. Responding to a distress call, they rescued seventy-two passengers from a bus that was set on fire by young attackers. On both sides were young adults taking action. But this time one set of young adults was responding to save lives and, ideally, prevent future violence.
Nigeria, like many countries around the world, hosts interfaith dialogues marked by the convening of religious leaders to counter acts of violence. While this work is groundbreaking and necessary, it alone is not enough to turn the trends of religious violence. Violence perpetrated by youth can best be countered by equally motivated youth working toward the greater good.
World Faith helps answer the challenge of engaging young people internationally who have the potential to either cause or resolve inter-religious tensions. Mobilizing religiously diverse youth to engage in community service projects in conflict-prone regions, World Faith enables local youth leaders to address the local needs of their communities and resolve underlying sources of strife — which are often economic or social rather than religious. World Faith has chapters in nine countries and is continuing to rapidly expand.
Few Americans can forget where they were when they heard about the attacks of 9/11. New Yorkers fled Manhattan while the rest of the nation watched in horror on television. For many husbands and wives, it meant that their loved ones were lost in the wreckage. For all Americans, no matter how far from the World Trade Center, it was a defining moment in our lives, not only as a nation, but as individuals.
The American response to the death of Osama bin Laden was mixed. While some took the the streets in joyous celebration, others hoped that their love ones could now return from Afghanistan. Most were relieved, but many weren’t comfortable with the public celebrations that broke out, feeling that celebrating death is not a part of our national DNA. While I took part in the conversation through Twitter, many took their thoughts to the blogs, including Paul Raushenbush, who shared the emotion contrast, saying, “It is a strange and conflicting emotion to celebrate a death. My professed beliefs include the redemption of evil and the potential good in all humanity. Yet I felt a sense of exhilaration when I read the headline ‘DEAD’ about Osama bin Laden.”
World Faith Director Frank Fredericks Quoted in the Hindustani Times 3 February , 2011
World Faith Executive Director Frank Fredericks’ Washington Post op-ed: The Egyptian Revolution, An Interfaith Movement was quoted in the article “Egyptian Uprising is Not Religious But Spiritual” in the Hindustani Times. Thank you to author Gautam Chickermane for the link back!
Egyptian Uprising is Not Religious But Spiritual
A lot of people have commented on my post yesterday, where I wondered whether the Egyptian uprising was Islamic. Many visitors have posted their comments, some of them rather strong, supporting and opposing the idea. I personally don’t think the uprising has anything to do with religion. In fact, if religion has to be dragged into this revolt, it has to do with the realisation of a new religion in the region — freedom. Beyond that, I believe, it is the spirit of the nation that’s behind this physical regime change call.
Coincidentally, the Egyptian uprising comes in the first World Interfaith Harmony Week, to promote dialogue and civility among the world’s religions. And almost as if it is part of a greater scheme of things, the Egyptian rebellion — following Tunisia and now spewing into Yemen — has become an interfaith movement.