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: http://www.worldfaith.org