As I looked out over a group of 60 high school and college students – Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Agnostic, Zoroastrian, and other’s, I thought to myself, “This is the future, or more, accurately, this could be the future.” These were students who had come for our first ever Interfaith Youth Leadership Initiative, a 3-day event held in conjunction with other various religious and advocacy groups here in Los Angeles. Did you know that high school students were interested in interfaith work? The interfaith movement is fairly new on the religious landscape, and it has tended to be populated with older, mostly progressive adherents to their faiths. But it was amazing to see students with piercings and skinny jeans talking and listening passionately to students of other faiths – “What’s with the hijab?” “Why do Sikhs wear turbans?” These students had come on their own in the summer to learn and grow in an utterly unique way.
The three days were centered around 3 broad goals: 1) To learn about other religious traditions; 2) To get to know students from other faiths; 3) To have fun together! To accomplish these goals, we did a variety of activities: 1) We visited worship sites, had students learn from mentors and guest speakers, and had students articulate their perspectives on faith; 2) Students worked on various projects together, interviewing each other, creating mosaics, and just hanging out; 3) We visited Santa Monica Pier for a scavenger hunt, had a DJ playing tunes, and danced to the Wii! Barriers and stereotypes were broken, as students learned they listened to the same music (One Direction anyone?), wore the same clothes, worried about the same things, and had the same hopes for a peaceful world.
This conference was billed as a Leadership Development Conference. Why? Because I passionately believe that the new leaders of the 21st century will have to be comfortable with pluralism and diversity, especially when it comes to religion. I probably never even spoke the word “interfaith” until I was at least 30, and I was a religious leader! But now we are training teenagers to be aware of, respectful of, and even learn from “the other.” This bodes well for our future. Does anyone really think it won’t be important to know about Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists going forward in our world?
We set the ground-rules early – no one would be trying to convert anyone! This is often the first question I get asked about interfaith work by people who are new to it – do people try and convert each other? The answer, of course, is no! We encouraged everyone to stay rooted in their own tradition, to “be” who they are, and to understand the tremendous resources available to them for social justice and peacemaking within their own traditions. But each tradition has something to teach the other, so we listened. We listened to Muslim leaders like Soha Yassine, the youth leader at the Islamic Center of Southern California, who with a nose ring and a hijab explained how she is a feminist and a proud Muslim. We listened to Valarie Kaur, a Sikh American filmmaker, who told of a moving interfaith encounter in a church after being pestered by Christians at her high school. We heard from Dan Kang, an atheist turned Christian, who found peace in a community of evangelical Christians.
This, of course, is just the first step. As these students become more comfortable with each other, we are hoping they will be interfaith leaders in their high schools and places of worship. But what a great first step! There are hopeful signs for the next generation, and I’m glad I was able to witness some of them!