Preparing young people for a pluralistic world is one of the great challenges of our era. Interfaith youth work, an essential component of this burgeoning movement, has many aspects: service, dialogue, worship sharing, leadership development, fun and games, and of course pizza—the universal sacrament uniting youth of all traditions.
Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, has committed his life to bringing together young people of different faith traditions through service projects. He writes:
What if people of all faiths and traditions worked together to promote the common good for all? What if once again, young people led the way? Across the country, Muslims and Hindus, Jews and Christians, Buddhists and non-religious, are coming together in a movement of interfaith cooperation. They are proving that the 21st century can be defined by cooperation between diverse communities instead of conflict. (http://www.ifyc.org/)
I know from experience how important service projects are in helping young people to form their religious identities and to see the world from different perspectives, including that of the poor and marginalized. In 1992, I helped to start a youth service program jointly funded by the American Friends Service Committee and Southern California Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). This program mainly drew Quaker youth, but around ten to twenty percent of the participants hailed from different backgrounds, including a significant number of African American teens. For ten years I took teens on service projects to various sites: homeless shelters, a shelter for wild animals, an AIDS hospice center, and communities in Mexico where we built community centers and homes for workers living in utter poverty, without running water or electricity. These service projects were a powerful learning opportunities for all involved, especially the teens. Many reported having had life-changing experiences.
Today interfaith youth service projects are becoming increasingly common and popular. Greg Damhorst, a young Evangelical Christian, describes how one such project arose after the earthquakes in Haiti. Determined to help, Greg turned not just to his own religious community, but also to his friends of other faiths:
I brought the idea to a small group of friends – the “executive committee” that organized Interfaith in Action’s programs. We were an Evangelical Christian, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Humanist, and we set out to plan an event at which our campus could package these meals for Haiti.
I got a hold of the cell phone number for Rick McNary, founder of Numana, Inc., with whom I discussed the logistics of the project. We started a search for facilities to host the event, the money to fund the event, and the volunteers to staff the event.
We connected with the regional office of the Salvation Army who connected us with the local corps at the same time that a phone call from Washington, D.C. out of the Salvation Army World Service Office confirmed that a federal grant was going to fund our project.
With that, a community-wide, multi-faith endeavor was born. The event was moved to an abandoned Hobby Lobby building on the west side of Champaign and staff from Numana, Inc. flew in prepare for the event.
In a single weekend, 5,112 volunteers from every walk of life, faith and philosophical tradition passed through that site to lend a hand. In less than 12 hours, 1,012,640 meals were packaged for shipment to Haiti where they were protected by the 82nd airborne and distributed by Salvation Army humanitarian workers.
This is a story of coming together; it’s a story of cooperation; and it’s a story of interfaith work. As an evangelical, this is a snapshot of how I desire to live out my faith. To do so alongside people who I desire to show the compassion of Jesus makes it an even more compelling endeavor.
Jesus said “I was hungry and you brought me something to eat.” Consider the significance of inviting others to join in such an activity. If you ask me, this is a simple yet profound way to communicate the compassion of Christ, meet the needs of the world, and build a better community. (http://www.ifyc.org/content/feeding-hungry)
Another way to enable young people of different faith traditions to connect is through interfaith get togethers. In 2005 I helped organize an “interfaith icebreaker” which included Muslims, Jews, Bahais, Christians and Hindu youth. We met at a synagogue, played games, sang songs, and shared stories about our faith journeys. It was a powerful experience that was written up in a local newspaper.
We also organized an interfaith café, which took place during the month of Ramadan/Tishei (October) in 2006. Around fifty youth showed up for discussions about their faith traditions at a local Presbyterian church. Later many went to the nearby mosque in order to partake of iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset. We ate delicious South Asian food, watched the Muslim prayers on close-circuit TV, and learned about Islam from various Muslim speakers.
Our local interfaith organization created a youth council. We called on youth from different faith traditions to come together to plan their own programs and also to have input into adult programs. This work led to discovering and nurturing youth leaders, some of whom went on to organize programs of their own.
The local chapter of the Parliament of World’s Religion also encouraged youth participation. Youth were involved in planning our pre-Parliament events and took part in panels and organized workshops. They also provided service at our banquets and other events. Several were given financial assistance so that they could attend the Parliament gathering in Melbourne, Australia, in 2008. This event, which drew over 6,000 religious leaders from around the world, had an exciting and inspiring youth program.
I am convinced that interfaith organizations are ideally and uniquely suited to do this work. The need for building interfaith understanding among youth is clear: we live in a society that is not only culturally but religiously diverse. We need to appreciate religious as well as cultural diversity in order to get along. Schools have made an effort to teach about cultural diversity, but have been reluctant to focus on religion—a much riskier topic. Interfaith organizations can provide opportunities for youth of different faith traditions to get together, talk openly, and learn from each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. The goal of this work is to help youth to gain a clearer understanding of their own faith and an appreciative understanding of other faiths.