American youths bridge religious divides
Teens in a Boston suburb lead the way in building relationships among religious faiths in their community through Interfaith Action, a program that has captured attention abroad.
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The IFA's overall program involves youth meetings twice a month, as well as outreach to the public schools and other community agencies.Skip to next paragraph
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"During the first half of the year, we learn about different faiths and visit houses of worship," explains Aleena Zaidi, a senior on the leadership team that plans events. "The other half of the year, we put into action what we've learned, through dialogues, conferences, and community service projects."
Active in IFA since her freshman year, Aleena says one of her favorite projects is the antibias and antistereotyping workshops they hold each semester at the middle school.
"We asked the teens a few years ago, 'How do you want to make a difference?' " says Janet Penn, IFA executive director. "They created a program to go to public middle school to teach four classes."
When students first join IFA, they go through a 12-hour leadership training program involving self-awareness and deep listening skills, run by program director Tabitha May-Tolub. Later, they are trained to facilitate programs in the community.
Last March, the group hosted 15 Middle Eastern imams who were on a State Department trip across the United States. The Muslim leaders participated in a public meeting held at the town library, where tough questions were raised, creating some challenging moments.
"The imam from Syria afterward came up and said, through a translator, 'This was the best part of our trip.' " Ms. Penn recalls. "Youths led the dialogue and shared what it was like for them to combine their Muslim identity and their American identity."
That has led to an invitation for the group to travel to Jordan.
Dr. Worchel – who has evaluated several programs aimed at reducing religious and ethnic conflict, including camps such as Seeds of Peace in Maine – says the effects of one-shot programs often don't last over the long term. IFA may show more lasting benefits, he says, because students participate over a two-to-four-year period.
"It's like a farmer tending a field. You plant the seeds, then you water and weed and fertilize," he says. "Also, it's easier to do prevention before a crisis arises than to try to treat it once there's a history of violence and distrust."
$25,000 grant to spread religious pluralism
Dan Resnick, who grew up in Israel and came to the US as a teen, has felt the impact. He joined IFA because his parents wanted him to. "Experiencing that kids from different religions and cultures can come together as friends and work together to produce amazing results really encourages me," he says. "I see it's not just war and conflict and that diversity can actually be good."
Dan suggested that IFA hold a conference for teens throughout the Boston area to share their experience. They partnered with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, and found that interested high school students showed up from several states in the region.
IFA now has a $25,000 grant to work with other town institutions like the recreation department and the public library to develop long-term programs that foster healthy pluralism more broadly, such as among elderly residents.
The teens are enthusiastic about how interfaith engagement has changed their own lives, too. Aanchal Narang, a Hindu, says she had to go into her own faith more deeply in order to talk about it with others. Many are pleased to have gained new leadership skills, including confidence in public speaking. Virtually all speak of having good friends of different faiths who "hang out together," where before their close friends were like themselves.
"At first maybe you don't expect much from Interfaith," Dan says. "But it really comes through and means a lot to people. And when you apply to college and write about your favorite activities, it stands out."