Tag Archives: faiths act

Faiths Act Fellowship draws to a close

Milling around at the Interfaith Youth CoreI spent the last week of May in Chicago with the Faiths Act Fellows. For many, it was the first sight of each other since we parted ways back in September. Unfortunately, only 29 of the 30 Fellows were able to attend. Bilal Hassam, who was based in Leicester, UK, was detained in Montreal on his way into the US, a casualty of America’s homeland security theatre. Luckily, we were able to Skype him in for a few of our sessions!

We spent three jam-packed days at the offices of the Interfaith Youth Core, talking over the last eight months. Each pair of Fellows gave a short presentation – basically a highlight reel – of their work, and we talked very candidly about successes and failures. As a whole, the Fellowship raised around USD $140,000, which former Prime Minister Tony Blair will personally match. The money is going to Project Muso, Spread the Net, and Malaria No More US and UK. We had around 10,000 people come to our events and reached out to around 40,000 in total. We had 350 media pieces and trained dozens of new interfaith leaders.

Tony Blair himself interrupted a series of toasts we were giving each other to say how proud and excited he felt about us. We are his Fellows, really, and he’s always very eager to talk us up. He told us that what we did was new and trend-setting and most of all important.

It was a bittersweet three days in Chicago, though. The US Fellows are spread all over this huge country of ours, to say nothing of the distance to the UK. The Canadians are also widely dispersed.  I might not see some of these people for a very long time, or ever again.

One of the unexpected byproducts of the last ten months of training and action has been the “gelling” of the Fellowship into more than a group of people brought together for a common purpose. We’ve shared trials, tribulations, and laughter, collaborated on national and international initiatives, and changed the map of interfaith work in just a few short months. These activists are my dear friends and allies.

Someday years from now, I will be asked to assemble a Dream Team of world-savers. The alumni of the Faiths Act Fellowship will be first on my phone tree. Thank you all for everything.

Why faith? Part 2

Service provider for soul and body

Service provider for soul and body

A previous post addressed the religious imperative against malaria from the standpoint of those of us in the US, UK, and Canada. So why is the Faiths Act campaign so explicit about the work of churches and mosques on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa? As it turns out, religious communities in the developing world are in a unique position to affect change, especially on the issue of malaria.

Health systems in sub-Saharan Africa are, to sound like a generalizing imperialist, stressed. Doctor shortages, drug shortages, political graft, distribution issues in remote areas (geography + the previous problems), and other bits, combined with the overwhelming numbers of people who need help, have stretched some systems to the breaking point.

Whereas health systems simply can’t be everywhere, religious communities are almost ubiquitous. Even very small villages will have a church or mosque. Imagine faith communities as an extension, not a parallel, of the health infrastructure in a given country. Consider this example of the role of religious groups in a village in Zambia:

…”[the village] may have no permanent structures but it does have a functioning Christian congregation and a traditional healer. Christian relief organizations are providing food, and a Muslim organization has dug the first well for the community. This is not unique…various church health associations in Africa are outstanding examples of community-level, or intermediary, organizations; they have some degree of central structure and organization so that they can pool disparate resources and provide some administrative and logistical support to programs on the ground; they have member congregations in most communities, both urban and rural. They are large enough to secure funding from large relief organizations, but decentralized so that such resources can flow to far-flung locations. They share common goals, but do not require uniformity in regard to doctrine or practice.” [emphasis mine]

The United Nations Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) is also no stranger to the intersection of aid and religion. UNAIDS “prioritizes work at the global level with large networks of FBOs [faith-based organizations], religious leaders, and networks of religious leaders living with HIV.” They partner with Caritas Internationalis, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Islamic Relief, and the Sangha Metta Project, to name only a few. We should all recognize the great place of faith as a driver for international development work.

What remains to be done is to connect faith communities in the “West” or, for the purposes of my work with the Faiths Act Fellowship, the US, UK, and Canada, to their co-religionists in sub-Saharan Africa. Religious communities “over there” can bridge the health services gap while religious communities “over here” bridge the resource and advocacy gap.

Key to this work, and to the mission of the Faiths Act campaign, is that we do so from an explicitly interfaith standpoint, e.g. churches, mosques, synagogues, temples working together. Management consultants used to call it synergy. We call it common sense. Mosquitoes don’t care who you pray to.

October Newsletter from Interfaith Youth Core

This post appeared in the “Movement in Action” section of the Interfaith Youth Core’s October email newsletter:

For most ordinary jobs, training or orientation usually denotes a few hours, perhaps a day or two, devoted to learning the ins and outs of one’s new organization. The Faiths Act Fellows trained for six weeks on three continents. This is not an ordinary job.

The Faiths Act Fellows were assembled like some sort of top-secret strike force, recruited from universities and community organizations across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. Each one of us brings a wealth of experience. Many have excelled at interfaith peace building. More than a few speak multiple languages. Some of us have even spent time in the developing world working to increase the fortunes of its peoples.

During our London training, we learned what it meant to be ambassadors for the Millennium Development Goals. We spent long hours on the theories behind coalition-building and malaria advocacy work and formed mutually-inspiring friendships across faith lines. In between visits to various houses of worship, we snuck in strategic planning sessions.

From there we split into three teams and traveled to Mali, Malawi, and Tanzania to see malaria’s effects and to meet the people for whom the disease is a constant worry. Some teams practically lived in hospitals or research facilities. Others spent their days meeting with local interfaith groups doing malaria eradication work on a micro scale.

The Fellows then returned to Chicago to share what we learned and to figure out how to tell the world about malaria. Eboo Patel told us that we were the vanguard of a new global movement. We met with Tony Blair, who told us very seriously that he was inspired and amazed by the work that we already have done and are going to do.

We are social entrepreneurs: We have seen need in our communities and beyond and we are working to end that need. Up until now we have been single actors, connected only by a loose sense of mission. But now, tied together not just by a mission but by the common values of our various religious traditions, thirty young leaders are constructing “hubs” of multifaith understanding, cooperation, and action. In cities stretching from San Jose, California to London, United Kingdom, we are laying the groundwork for an international coalition that is moving, quickly, to eradicate malaria deaths.

The Faiths Act Fellows have trained on many levels. We have come to know our enemy malaria very well, but we have come to know our friends even better. These friends are scientists, rabbis, activists, priests, imams, teachers, community organizers, and of course each other. But our best friends, I think, are the people who we met on our travels. Malaria is a real danger for them. Now it’s personal.

I once referred to the Fellowship in a unitary sense as “a 60-armed, 30-mouthed intercontinental juggernaut with a bone to pick with malaria”. On October 1, we began our work across the world.

Why faith? Part 1

Church and mosque next to each other

Church and mosque next to each other in Zanzibar

Today I leave Chicago along with twenty-eight of the other Faiths Act Fellows (my site-partner Hafsa lives in the city). I’m not flying home since home for me is only 100-odd miles west of Chicago. Tonight I’ll meet up with some of my old professors, mentors, and friends from Aurora University to play catch-up on the last nine months of our lives. Later tonight, I’ll make the hour drive out to my family’s farm in the countryside. Then I will sleep the sleep that only comes after seven rigorous weeks of training on three continents.

On July 30th, I walked into a room on the campus of University College London and met the people that I’ll be sharing the next eight months (and beyond) of my life with; learning, collaborating, commiserating if necessary, and striving towards a goal that at first glance appears incalculable even to a western audience. The Faiths Act Fellows are going to lay the groundwork for an international coalition of people of faith focused on promoting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); specifically MDG 6, which concerns the eradication of malaria deaths.

In such work, there are many stakeholders: policymakers see the MDGs as promoting political stability; international development professionals aim to raise the standard of life for billions; business people see investment and growth opportunities in fresh markets. Each group has an equally-valid impetus (yes, even the capitalists) for their work. What, then, is the “hook” for religious people? Why are the Fellows tasked with building ties between and among faith communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada?

For people of faith, there is a moral-universal imperative to advocate for the downtrodden, to shelter those without homes, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to do everything within one’s power to make this planet a more just place. These are the people that we need on board with our work; faith communities inspire hope and carry the vision of a better tomorrow.

The Faiths Act Fellows all come from very different religious traditions and different backgrounds, but we all have one goal: foster a new international coalition of churches, mosques, temples, governments, and NGOs to make the scourge of malaria a thing of the past.

The sheikh is my best friend

“The sheikh is my best friend,” shotus Father Mpinge. My site-partner Hafsa and I smile, too. The sheikh-in-question is actually the imam of the largest mosque in town. Mpinge is the parish priest of St. Francis, the largest Catholic congregation. We didn’t expect such a statement from him.

As it turns out, the priest and the imam met after a town meeting some years ago. Father Mpinge offered to drive the imam home afterwards. Since that day, they have been fast friends, meeting regularly and even seeking each others’ advice about community issues. We see many of these friendships in Tanzania – they’re what I call “de facto interfaith” – people here work and interact with each other because it’s a religiously-diverse area.

It’s strange, really. When we ask about religions working together to educate their followers about malaria prevention and treatment it’s like we’re describing something completely foreign. The idea is always met with excitement and affirmation. We want churches and mosques in sub-Saharan Africa to collaborate towards eradicating malaria deaths. The real test of our work will come when faith communities here move from “de facto interfaith” to “interfaith action for the common good”.

Zanzibar is a real place

Note: This is my first post using QuickPress! YAY!

For years I’ve heard of this mythical island out on the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. It’s called ZANZIBAR, and it’s quite nearly as awesome as I thought it would be. Zanzibar is 99% Muslim, which is a bit of a departure from the mainland where things are more mixed. This is reflected in the architecture and of course, the people. We’ll watch the sunset tonight while we eat dinner.

We landed here after a rocking 2-ish hour ferry ride from Dar es Salaam. Tomorrow we meet with the island’s Malaria Control Programme leadership. Malaria is almost gone from this place – when I explained the reason for our visit (learning about malaria) to a local, he looked at me funny. :)

We’ll be here for two days, long enough to take in some ruins (the oldest Catholic Church) and maybe visit some beaches.

Then we’re back to Chicago for two more weeks of training with the Faiths Act Fellows. I think I’ve learned more about malaria and public health in Africa in three weeks than most people might do in a few years at school.

I can’t wait to meet up with the other Africa teams in a few days to plan the next eight months of our interfaith coalition-building against malaria.

Interfaith Livin’

AngelI was called upon by our team boss to lead the group during today’s “early morning interfaith spiritual reflection”. Since we’re all young people of faith, I suppose it’s only natural that we learn a bit from each other by sharing something from our own tradition. To be honest, it took a lot of thought to figure out which direction to go with this assignment, but I eventually settled on the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

So I recited this piece and then weighed in. To me, this prayer has two main themes. The first is service to others. It’s about being active in trying to help people. Bringing sadness to joy and darkness to light are not things that one can accomplish passively. The prayer implores god to make him or her an instrument of peace.

But the second theme, and basically the second half of the Prayer of St. Francis, begs to be sufficient in one’s selflessness. I take this to mean that even if I possess super-powers for helping people, it’s better that I do so from the shadows. I’m active, but I’m not concerned with my own station in life. It’s akin to refusing to eat until everyone else has been served.  I put these thoughts out there and let the group silently reflect for a few minutes.

The first comment came from Pritpal. She had led our reflection yesterday morning (the difference between spiritual and material wealth), and informed us that she had almost selected the Prayer of St. Francis for her session. While visiting Assisi in Italy some years ago, Pritpal came upon the prayer and felt a strong connection to it. She mentioned that the especially important part for her was, “For it is in giving that we receive,” and that these words were also very important for the work that we are undertaking as Faiths Act Fellows. But her admonition was curious – Pritpal is not Catholic. She’s not even Christian.

My friend Pritpal is a Sikh, and she has made reflection upon the Prayer of St. Francis is part of her daily prayer cycle. I think this is inspiring. She felt that the message of selflessness resonated with the Sikh tradition, and she draws important lessons from its words, as I do. Although we have very different faith histories and even slightly different interpretations of the prayer itself, we see eye-to-eye on its call to action and selfless service.

Later on, we were invited to dine with the parish priest. The local Catholic church is St. Francis – coincidence? As we sat down to eat, the priest invited Pritpal to say a pre-meal prayer. She recited it its original “Gurbani” form, and the priest thanked her. The prayer called upon us to praise one God, the Giver, whose “bounty is never exhausted”. She and I later discussed with him how our morning reflection session had unfolded and how St. Francis had inspired us both. He was quite happy, and told us that all religions were indeed welcome in the house of St. Francis. During our chat, I couldn’t help but hear the azaan from the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer.

Why do people do interfaith? There are many reasons. For me, it’s the endlessly enriching spiritual conversations that I have with both my co-religionists and those from far-away faiths. I draw strength from the passion and commitment of people driven to do good works because of their religious beliefs. It was most likely the poet Rumi who was asked to describe the different religions of this earth. His reply, “The lamps may be different, but the light is the same.”

On the Kilombero River

On the Kilombero RiverAfter a quick breakfast, our team headed out this morning to the Kilombero River, the body of water that separates Kilombero District from its neighbor. One of our friends from the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health came along to find some river guides; we made a deal and climbed into two massive dugout canoes. They were ships, really – probably 20 feet long and more than 2 feet deep. Our whole team plus the four river guides fit quite comfortably. We set off on a slow cruise upstream.

I got to chatting with a man named Hatari, asking him lots of questions about the river and the Kiswahili words for things that I saw around the boat. I pointed to a small white bird called “nyange-nyange” and Hatari explained its place in local mythology. If I understood him correctly, the nyange-nyange is considered off-limits for eating. The practical reason is that the bird removes and eats ticks and other parasites from the area livestock. But the other, and probably much older reason, is that it is believed that the nyange-nyange provides the impetus for the growth of human fingernails – these fingernails in turn provide the bird with its brilliant white feathers.

Hatari, one of our river expertsIn time, Hatari came to ask me questions about what I was doing in Tanzania. I explained our work with the Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation and how we were there to learn and observe. I asked him (in Kiswahili, which I am very proud of) if he thought that malaria would always exist. He paused and laughed, saying, “Malaria is…like a runny nose. It is very not rare!” He went on to explain that there are types of malaria that can linger in the body for decades, making it very hard to completely eradicate.

Hatari was adamant that real reductions in malaria deaths were only capable through increased education. I stressed that our team saw the importance of religious communities in dispensing this education along with bednets and medicines. I pointed out that the eight Fellows with me would be joined by twenty-one others who would scatter themselves across the US, UK, and Canada in order to promote interfaith cooperation on malaria. Hatari ended up asking me far more questions about the Fellowship than I asked him about Kiswahili vocabulary. I was quite happy with this turnaround; it meant that he found our work interesting and useful. And when I explained our push for interfaith cooperation on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa, I could tell that he saw the very practical nature of the program.

Still, his answer to my question about eradicating malaria was unexpected to say the least. I had anticipated such an answer to be an adamant YES, but Hatari was saying that malaria was a fact of human existence and would likely never disappear. It reminded me of a maxim that we heard often during our training in London: “Dying of malaria is like dying of a broken arm. There’s no reason why it should happen.” The real struggle for the Faiths Act Together campaign will be combating the perceived banality of a disease that affects millions.

Welcome to Tanzania!

Tanzania Road

After a very long day of travel we touched down in Dar es Salaam and made our way to a guest house for the night. The accomodations were comfortable – always a good thing to have as you adjust to a new place. In the morning we took off for Ifakara in the south central part of the country.

It took us around seven hours to make the trip. The last ninety minutes or so was a long slog down bumpy, dusty roads. Luckily, our Rovers had good suspension systems. We rolled into the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health (TTCIH) right as dusk was falling, which was surprisingly early. I think we had gotten used to the day stretching past 9 pm when we were in London. We unpacked the trucks and met Joyce, the administrative specialist, and Dr. Pemba, the Director of the Centre.

After a wonderful dinner to welcome us, we retreated to our bungalows to rest. Sleep was welcomed.