The World Faith Blog

World Faith: The Interfaith Service Network

With Love from Beirut 4 July , 2008

Greetings from Beirut!

On this Fourth of July I will be celebrating with some friends here Beirut, most of which don’t know what the holiday is or what it represents, but are joining me for supposed “moral support.”

After graduating, I have decided to push World Faith full-time as a volunteer. While I am still sending our organizational plan to foundations and other contacts in search of funding that permits me to sustainably continue this pertinent work, I am also traveling to make it more “fundable.” Essentially, if there was something holding back a potential funder from supporting World Faith, I want to remove it.

So I am in Beirut now, working to help the local chapter here, 2gether, regroup after some of their key members left the country after the last bout of violence. The issue raises a more general trend, that the social entrepreneurs and promising leaders of the future leave, draining Lebanon of some of its greatest talent for the future.

Next week I will go to Amman, through Damascus, for a few days, finishing the week in Cairo. I’ll meet up with Mustafa Abdullah, the leader of Winston-Salem for World Faith chapter, to start cultivating our contacts there to see if a chapter can be started there as well. I look forward to returning to Cairo and seeing some good friends of mine, like Michael Esso, a fun-loving but dependable friend, and Angie Balata, a humbling and inspiring friend who is as quick-witted as she is sharp-tongued. Other friends await and I know it will be a good trip. I’m awaiting details, but it still looks I will continue on to Khartoum, Sudan to do the same.

While working here, at the moment from the United Lebanon Foundation’s office, I have been inspired at the value of human contact. For instance, when I flew into Beirut I had no reservation for a hotel, so I returned to the hotel we stayed at when we did the first trip of The Lebanon Project back in January. Not only did the manager, and most the staff, remember me, but he refused to charge more than half the listed price a night. Le Marly Hotel is a friend of World Faith.

Also, the frustrated state of the Lebanese population has never been more apparent. Upon passing a photo of Rafik Hariri, and digitized numbers next to him: 1 2 3 4. I asked my taxi driver what the numbers were… It has been 1,234 days since the (likely Syrian) assassination of Hariri. Yet in these few years, the Lebanese have survived more political stability than the US has since the US Civil War. Some have lost hope, resorting to accepting the status quo, or leaving Lebanon. Others retain hope, but wait for the blood-stained political leaders, virtually all guilty of crimes against humanity during the Lebanese Civil War, with non-regional and non-religious leaders who seek to unify Lebanon. However, I have found very few that are inspired enough to take action. One in particular sticks out to me.

If there were an interfaith project happening anywhere in greater Beirut, Nader Houella would be there, and there is a likely chance he had something to do with the planning. In a country of memories, Nader dreams. I don’t think I have talked to Nader on one occasion without him telling me of an idea he has had. Beyond this, he actually works to carry them out, a trait hard to come by in Lebanon. We are talking about putting together a unity concert for August, and I do believe it will happen. More to come as details progress.


The Lebanon Project: The Beginning and the Next Step 30 January , 2008


A vision is something that is extremely personal, hard to express, and harder to manifest. I know this as I have spent most my time and effort on building my own vision of World Faith. The Lebanon Project was not my vision, but the vision of some inspired and quick-to-mobilize NYU students who wanted to lead a service-learning project to Lebanon with the backing of World Faith. Organizationally this is ideal as each World Faith project should not require micromanagement, and decentralization is a key term I use frequently when describing the evolution of World Faith. However, on The Lebanon Project’s first service-learning trip, I had the blessing of joining them as a participant.

I arrived in Beirut as tired as the rest of us after two days of travel (and many unsuccessful attempts at solving a rubic’s cube I bought for the journey); a group of 10 students, diverse in many ways. From Muslims to Christians, Jews and Agnostics, We as a group had to have at least 17 passports among us, as we were such an ethnically diverse group. We immediately all expressed a touch of shock to find the irony of Lebanon: The nation which represents so many headlines of political instability and religious friction is not only clean and modern, but cosmopolitan and relatively calm.

The service-learning projects were varied but revealing. After touring the destruction in the south of Lebanon, we brought art supplies to an UNRWA refugee school for Palestinian children. As we encouraged the each student to draw their idea of peace, we were quickly shown the varied ideologies of peace: a map of Palestine with a fence around, a flaming building with rockets flying at it, and a field with what appeared to be children running in it. I inquired about the latter. The child said to me that he understood peace to be when, “children can play together; Christian and Muslim children, and even Jewish Children.” Amazing. What Martin Luther King spoke at age 34, this refugee child unknowingly reflected at age eight.

From the varied service-learning projects and dialogue events we had, one theme was definitely revealed to me, which completed some unfinished thoughts from previous travels in the region. After this trip (in which I also went to Syria), I have now personally been in Palestine/Israel, and every country that borders it. I have the heard the same stories from many perspectives; more than one per country. This trip, especially with our time spent in the south, particularly in the Beqa’a Valley, had a tendency to come back to the wars and occupations with Israel, being in 1975, 1982, or 2006. I realized that as Americans, we have a tendency to only see the headlines and the numbers at best, if we are even informed of that much. After meeting our volunteer guide through the south Mohammad, I learnt that his home had been leveled in 2006, “collateral damage.” Now I can no longer think of the situation of 2006 in sheer numbers and headlines. I suffered from this disconnect before this trip, even though in 2006 I was only 100 miles away, working on the US State Department’s evacuation, but I still had missed this great lesson that was revealed to me: When you go and meet people on their terms in their homeland, and you hear their story, regardless of your political opinions, you must put a human face to the headlines and statistics. The humanization of all parties makes you see conflict in new light. THIS IS A MODERATING FORCE.

When the service-learning trip ended, and my fellow participants returned to New York, and I began my next journey (after a slight detour to Damascus, in which I was ridiculously ill). I met with several leaders of interfaith work in Beirut to learn about the history and past failures of interfaith work in Lebanon (including some projects that ended in death threats), and I met with young minds frustrated with the current state of affairs who have the ideas but not the forum to share them. After my week of learning as much as I could about the role of religion in politics and media, I rented out a local café’s meeting room and held an open meeting for anyone interested in interfaith projects in Lebanon, about three hours before I had to be at the airport for my return flight.

Ten religiously diverse young people, from age 19 to 26, met me there. After briefly sharing my own experience, I allowed the attendees to share their own views and frustrations. I noticed a theme, so I asked a friend of mine present, Ziad, why when we met and I asked how he identified himself, he answered, “a citizen,” and not “Christian,” or “Muslim.” He answered, and the others agreed, that, “Our political parties, the structure of our society, is all built on religious lines, which is hurting the unity of Lebanon, we need to secularize!”

I responded to him with a dilemma, “But then if our generation is fixated on secularization, what is left in the discourse of religion in politics and the media? The conversation is dominated by those who use the religious language for division and disunity.” So I proposed, “Rather than secularizing, what if we pluralize, in that we respond in the public discourse with religious language applied to unity and peace-building?” The conversation stretched over two hours, and it resulted in everyone in attendance agreeing to meet a week later to design their own interfaith service team, as a World Faith chapter in Lebanon. I was ecstatic. I flew back, worn out yet inspired, and solved the rubic’s cube in the Moscow Airport. A week later, they came together and met, bringing in some new friends, and agreed on a name (“2gether”), and slated their first event for March 1. As one of them recently wrote me, “The journey begins…”

What is both inspiring and frustrating is that with all the groundbreaking work I have seen World Faith be blessed with in contributing, inciting, inspiring and facilitating, we have done it with relatively little funds. Everyone is volunteers, and we are still waiting for our non-profit status to finalize. We are a few weeks away from opening applications for our Humari Dunya project in India slated for June (led by the amazing and inspiring Soofia Ahmed), which we need to fundraise for, and since I have returned to the US less than two weeks ago, I have received messages from people interested in start local World Faith chapters in four more locations. We are also working with a local organization and the City of New York to create a pilot program of developing a protocol for houses of worship to mobilize as proselytizing-free Ready Receiving Centers in emergency situations of different sorts, which I hope to export to other World Faith chapters in the world. Even in publicity, we have been hugely blessed, as in the past four months I have personally done three TV interviews (including Good Morning America), two radio interviews and one print. I am three months away from graduating and pray that I will be blessed with the opportunity to go full-time with World Faith, and the biggest uncertainty is the financial viability of such a plan. I am working on sustainability programs as well, but even those require starting capital. So I am going to continue with what we have, but in the coming months I will be also begin reaching some of the limits of what we can do. So I work in faith that the means will become available as the scope of our projects increase, even as the speed of growth continues to amaze me week by week.

Relavant links:


The Lebanon Project Gains Media Attention In Lebanon 20 January , 2008

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While in Lebanon, participants of The Lebanon Project spoke to several media outlets in Beirut, including Al-Jadeed Television, and Al-Akhbar Magazine.  While Al-Akhbar misquoted some participants to sound Orientalist, the media attention was in support of interfaith work, which is a positive message for a divided community.  The entire article, which is written in Arabic, can be seen here. Below is a translation done by TLP’s Director Josh Martin:

American University Students Sculpt Steadfastness in Lebanon

Beqa’a Valley – Nibal al-Hayek: January 14th, 2008

Ten university students from the United States of America have spent a week in Lebanon during which they moved around between most Lebanese areas and undertook a program of activities and meetings with students from Lebanese universities, including erecting a sculpture from destroyed ruins left by the Israeli occupation in El-Khiam Prison.

The American students that visited Lebanon recently on invitation from the United Lebanon Foundation declined to deal directly with macroscopic political issues—American policy towards the Middle East, the Palestinian issue or Israeli aggression in Lebanon. The interests of the American university students emerged as different from the preconceived expectations of their Lebanese peers owing to the fact that they specialize in International Relations and Middle East Studies.

Josh Martin, 22, concentrates his interest on Lebanese society and hopes to return for a longer time in order to enhance his understanding of the political situation. From her side, Sharon Weintraub, 21, said she found the country to be an area of expansive natural beauty while she explained that Lebanese politics are extremely complicated and that she prefers listening to the opinions of different Lebanese sects in order to better understand the facts.

However, Frank Fredericks, 22, indicated that “we as Americans have been surprised that stereotypes about Arabs are not true—we used to think that we would see people riding camels, or something similar, and that Lebanon as a country lags behind the West—as we now find ourselves in a small country distinguished for its great civilization and culture.”

The American students’ visit had come by chance after communication had begun over the internet between one of the students from the ULF and one of the American students approximately one year ago. The relationship became entrenched by exchanging emails about the possibility of collaborating to organize the visit of ten students from the American state of New York to Lebanon to communicate and share ideas and opinions with students from the Foundation and others in different Lebanese settings.

The American delegation was accompanied by students of Arab and Lebanese backgrounds on their ten-day visit to the Beqa’a, the South, the North and areas of destruction in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The students also participated in many seminars and cultural dialogue sessions, particularly in the Beqa’a where tours and meetings were arranged for them in different villages and townships of the area, including a conversation with students of the Lebanese University in Zahle in the presence of filmmaker Jean Chama’oun.

In similar service projects, the students collaborated with the ULF in facilitating children’s art projects at a primary school for Palestinian refugees in the Beqa’a village of Ta’lbaya, in addition to the sculpture work at El-Khiam (using materials from the remains of buildings bombed by Israel in July/August 2006) that symbolized the importance of life and steadfastness in the face of adversity.

The Beqa’a District Head of the ULF, Dr. Fatin al-Mor, said that the American students’ visit “was a good opportunity for the American students and our own, allowing dialogue between them and the exchange of ideas and information around cultural and academic issues.” Al-Mor added that discussions only sometimes referred to overarching political issues.

Dr. Milad Sebaaly, General Director of the United Lebanon Foundation, said that his foundation aims to further human society, erase illiteracy, undertake cultural and artistic activities and engage in volunteer service work. He further stated that the exchange of student visits that the Foundation has begun to undertake (with its approximately 4,000 members in all of Lebanon) with the foreign students is a first step, and that subsequently a delegation of Lebanese students from the Foundation will travel outside the country to familiarize themselves with the cultures of Western countries and build bridges of friendship between the East and the West.

Dr. Sebaaly also mentioned that, although it may have been financed independently, the American students’ visit to Lebanon afforded them a much-improved understanding of Lebanon, its people and its politics from their previous conceptions.


بنروح لي لوبنان بوكرا 2 January , 2008

Tomorrow I am leaving for Lebanon.

This is a big milestone for World Faith (the interfaith service project organization we are starting here in NYC), as this is our first international project. We are taking 10 religiously diverse students from New York to team up with religiously diverse Lebanese students to do some service learning projects, including volunteering at a Palestinian refugee school, as well as leading interfaith dialogue trainings at a local university, which also may be televised.

This comes at a tamulchuous time, as Lebanon was put on the Travel Warning list for the State Dept again this October, and they currently do not have a president. Though I want to enjoy this project to its fullest, I realized that unlike my previous travels where I was alone, I now have responsibility for others, in a time and place prone to disaster. Disaster has been the greatest identifying mark for Lebanon in my mind, as my experience of the Lebanese evacuation in 2006 still hovers in the back of my head.

However, I look forward to what is in store for us. I will be staying an extra week after the project to meet with local leaders of the NGO and non-profit world in order to see if we can build a team of mobilized students to more consistently do work in Beirut, as we do in New York. If any one reading this knows people in Lebanon who would be interested in meeting, please let me know and feel free to email your contact and cc me ( Hope all is well with everyone and your families.

Happy New Year!


Conversations of Understanding 9 December , 2007

Ok so for The Lebanon Project, I have been asked to spearhead the development of the interfaith dialogue curriculum, which may be televised in Lebanon during our time there (special thanks to IFYC for hooking me up with some supplemental materials). Rather than cut and paste the details of the process, which closely resembles IFYC’s, I thought I would push the idea of the progress of interfaith dialogue through conversations of understanding, and see what you all think of it as a progression:1. Shared Values: This is a typical starting point for most dialogues, and for many, often the ending point as well. This is helpful for building the framework for future conversations. IFYC’s particular curriculum focuses on shared values of service, which is key, but exploration into other shared values can still be beneficial.2. Shared Experiences: Despite varied history, culture, up-bringing, and other factors, everyone can find a similar thematical experience in their life with at least one person, as you engage the group as a whole you may find a web of connections. “LINK!” 😉3. Identifying and Celebrating Differences: At many dialogue events, I found that the facilitators or panelists identified and explored the common values but failed to engage the complexities of the faith traditions. Stopping at such a superficial level denies the participants of the dialogue from accurately reckoning with the depth and complexity of each religion, in their dynamic manifestations of observance. Identifying the differences that exist in religious traditions not only opens the conversation to allowing people to engage themselves in understanding the concepts outside their own. Furthermore, the language and concepts present should not only instruct them on one particular faith tradition, but in fact inform them on a greater level of comprehension of their own faith. It is in this context that the participants will ask questions that they were too embarassed to ask (e.g. “so is communion cannabalism?”). It is only after these questions are addressed that truth growth and understanding can take hold in a great scale.4. Expression of Frustrations: Even with understanding can be frustration. This often time comes in the schism that occurs with dogma, and interpretations of such dogmas used and abused to serve political ends and the like. This definitely won’t be a conversation for the first encounter, but perhaps one after the previous steps have been confronted properly.5. What now? In the highest level, after recognizing similarities in both tradition and experience, identifying and celebrating differences, and reckoning such traditions with our own principles, can the opportunity for change. Not solely for the participants, but what change is needed in our communities, our faiths, our world. What should be the way of the world? how can we get there?There is obvious homage here to the IFYC curriculum, but the formulation of this, and the form I used to make it comes directly out of conversations with my fellow fellow, and now close friend, Soofia Ahmed. I didn’t include the part about listening to Bob Marley lyrics, but we can let them figure that one out on their own… 😉


World Faith Adopts the Lebanon Project 5 October , 2007

World Faith adopted the Lebanon Project, the first international project of World Faith.  The Lebanon Project is a interfaith service trip to Lebanon by students from New York University.   This incredible initiative was founded by Josh Martin, Alex Karasavva, Khalid Elachi, and Sarah Barkley Truitt.

The first trip to Lebanon is slated for January 2008.