Tag Archives: interfaith youth core

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.

The feeling of common prayer

Westminster AbbeyI was speaking with a friend about prayer in Islam. For him, praying was a way to put the world and all else out of mind – represented in a somatic sense by the placing of one’s hands to either side of the head as if to say, “Get behind me, world”. Then he would stand in nearness to God and lay out praises and supplications.

Personal and communal prayer are interesting things. For many, prayer is a way to communicate directly with a higher power. Others find a meditative state within prayer. I myself still wrestle with the difference between prayer as such and a prayer. The former connotes activity and engagement, while the latter seems more static by definition.

I suppose that the diversity of prayer in the world is a testament not only to our cultural and religious diversity, but to our various personal ideas of communion with something beyond us.

I’m reminded of a piece that I wrote for the Wackerlin Center for Faith and Action’s Monthly Musings archive a few years ago:

I recently invited some friends and colleagues from the Interfaith Youth Core to Aurora University for a planning meeting. Before the meeting, one of these friends, a Muslim woman, asked if she could perform her evening prayer in my office. Naturally I obliged, and pointed her toward Mecca. As I left her and walked back into the Chapel to be with the other meeting participants, someone asked me if we had squared away the prayer situation. I replied in the affirmative and added, “I just hope I got the direction correct, because you know what happens when you pray in the wrong direction, right?” It was a quick joke, and we laughed a bit, but it made me think more about the idea.

The piece went on to speak about there being no “wrong” way to pray, but it made me smile as I thought about how prayer connects us to each other in ways that we might not imagine. We can say to one another, “I may not know how you feel when you pray, but I do know what prayer feels like.” I feel that the universality of this bond needs to be explored by people of faith.

Charitable activities

During yesterday’s visit to London’s Central Synagogue, we had a meeting with Rabbi Marcus to discuss a few of the things that our team saw during the Shabbat service. One of the Faiths Act Fellows asked the rabbi what manner of charitable activities the synagogue engaged in. Rabbi Marcus paused and inhaled with great gravitas before saying, “Any religious community that did not engage in charitable work would find it very hard to justify its existence.”

He went on to describe the activities that the synagogue was involved in, including helping poor communities in Belarus and sponsoring medical supplies at a hospital in South Africa. In reflecting on what the rabbi said, I found a very strong justification for the work of the Faiths Act Fellowship.

If we look at the Abrahamic traditions’ founding “stories” or at least eras, we see that social justice and charity were pretty huge components. Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and brought them to a place of safety. Jesus and the Apostles went around healing the sick and feeding the hungry. Muhammad and his followers basically built a giant social welfare system in Medina and then Mecca. For all three traditions, helping those in need was a sine qua non of their existence. Remove the charity, and what is left? It brings to mind a (I think) poignant quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.   And tho’ I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

I know what you’re thinking – you’ve heard that at weddings and it’s “love” not “charity”. You’re wrong – the Latin is “caritas”. You do the rest.

That’s the shared value of service and charity present in all religions. That’s what the Faiths Act Fellowship is about.

Faiths Act Fellows Training – Day 2

For some unknown reason, I’m sleeping absolutely terribly. I won’t blame the mattress – it’s only doing its job – and I have no idea what could be the problem. I woke up this morning difficultly and in pain.

That being said, I’m ready for more action! We headed out as a team to London’s Central Synagogue this morning for Shabbat services. It’s a beautiful place, rebuilt in the late 1950s after it was destroyed by (of all things) a German bomb during the Blitz in May of 1941. After the service we descended to the basement to say kiddush and had food with the folks, who were outstandingly warm and welcoming, especially when we described the important nature of our malaria awareness work. When we’d had our fill of fruit and cakes, we returned upstairs to discuss things with Rabbi Marcus. He was very funny and helpful, explaining some of the elements of the service that the Gentiles among us didn’t understand (me included). These site visits are geared towards expanding our “religious literacy” to enable us to better do our work over the coming months.

We returned to WallaceSpace for our afternoon workshops. It was a long five hours of pretty intense discussion. We were playing around with the topic “Who is a Faiths Act Fellow?” and trying to get everyone’s sense of the necessary skillsets and responsibilities of our crew of thirty. I think it was an eye-opening and important experience for us – we’re getting down to brass tacks about what it means to call ourselves Faiths Act Fellows.


Faiths Act Fellows Training – Day 1

The Faiths Act Fellows met for our first day of training this morning. We’ve spent the last three months getting to know each others’ bios and pictures, discussing the Fellowship over conference calls, and in some cases, chit-chatting through Facebook. It was the first time that all thirty of us were in the same room. And something amazing happened – it was like we had all known each other for ages.

faiths act fellows

Sure, we still had to ask names and schools and occupations and permanent site placements, but there was an underlying layer of understanding and friendship waiting for us. This is to say nothing that we’re all very outgoing and intelligent people who like making friends, of course. <Insert interesting smiley-face character here>

We had some people come in from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to talk about about the nature of the Fellowship and what it was we were working towards. Staffers from the Interfaith Youth Core took over training for the rest of the day, which involved a few hours of workshops and a visit to London’s Central Mosque, where we attended Friday prayers with around 11,000 congregants. That’s a lot of people.

At the end of the day, we teamed up for an amazing dinner and laughed and made plans for the next ten months (even though many of our plans will be written during the next six weeks of training!) and headed back to our residence hall for the evening.

I’m probably too excited to sleep. This is going to be an amazing Fellowship.

Landing in London

My plane from Denver took off about three hours late due to mechanical failures, general delays, and harsh rains – pretty much the three main reasons (not counting geese) that can screw up air travel. That being said, I also screwed up my seat assignment by not checking in early. They settled me in the geographical center of coach. Two people on each side of me.

HOWEVER, as we were boarding, a woman offered me an identical seat (or so she thought) 5 rows back so she could sit with her daughters. I graciously accepted and walked back to find a beautiful aisle seat at the very end of the plane with enough leg room to stretch one whole side at a time. All things work out for the best, you know? :)

The flight itself was pretty shaky, even for a 777. On approach to London we went through the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. I actually like it – it makes things interesting. We were rocking back and forth, coffee was spilling, children were…laughing. And then we touched down and I took myself across London on the Tube. I’m checked in and unpacking my junk and ready to get training for this stuff. I think we’ll be hanging out mostly with folks from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation here in the city – I can’t wait to get started! I’ve appended the video version below:

Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation

Someday, we won't need these.

Someday, we won't need these.

Well, it’s come down to it. I leave next Tuesday for six weeks of training for my new job (my first day is October 1st) and I couldn’t be more excited. A bit of background:

A year ago, an encounter between Eboo Patel, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation led to the creation of the Faiths Act Fellowship. The Fellowship is a select group of young interfaith leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. Over 700 applications were fielded for these positions, and the search process lasted from the initial application essays in January to phone interviews in February and individual and group interviews in March. I’m one of the 30.

The Faiths Act Fellows will spend the next ten months working to create an international, interfaith coalition, focusing mainly on youth within religious communities in the US, UK, and Canada. This grand coalition will make the eradication of malaria its great goal. Malaria kills a million or so people a year, mostly children. Like Rotary International and polio, we want this interfaith coalition to “own” malaria eradication. It can be done.

Next week, I fly to London for two weeks of training with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Then the Fellows split into three groups and head to Mali and Malawi and Tanzania, where I will spend three weeks meeting with health professionals on the cutting edge of malaria work. Then it’s two more weeks in Chicago training with the Interfaith Youth Core. After that, I visit my family for a few days and head back to Denver to pack my Dodge Neon with my girlfriend and what little else I can carry and zoom out west to San Jose, where my site partner and I will office out of the Islamic Networks Group, a local interfaith hub.

I’m so excited that sleep fails to come easily. This is big. This is brand new. We aren’t just going to be doing the Fellowship – we’re going to be building it.

Each interfaith team (my site partner is a Muslim woman) will have a different strategy. I plan on engaging in some pretty large-scale web-based advocacy. If you’re reading this, there’s a fair chance that you can help us reach even more people. I’m serious – drop me an email or comment on this post and we’ll see what we can figure out.

And as always, thank you.