Youth-Led Pluralism in Our World Today: Identifying Ourselves in a Diverse Society

Posted on August 29th, 2010 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, InterViews

Written by: Divya Bhatia, Shreya Bhatia, Maria Saraf

In her landmark book, Encountering God, Diana Eck discusses the increasing religious diversity in the world. She notes that “today people of all faiths are more or less aware of one another, and those who articulate the meaning of faith for today must do so in the complicated context of religious plurality.” Taking this reality of religious pluralism one step further, and proactively engaging with such diversity, is the idea behind Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program, established in Sharon, Massachusetts. The program, nicknamed “the YLP” by its high school participants, gives teens the opportunity to learn more about the religious “other,” thereby reflecting upon and developing their understanding of their own beliefs on faith. The YLP gives teens an environment in which they can connect with other teens of different faiths.

Throughout the year, we participate in multiple facilitation and project management trainings to develop the leadership and communication skills we use to plan and run our youth-driven conferences and community events. By using the skills learned in the trainings, we create community programs through which the town embraces cultural and religious differences. As a goal to achieve a more pluralistic society, teens are in the driver’s seat to create the projects themselves, from start to finish. Watching a project fall into place, we enhance our leadership experiences and gain an enormous sense of confidence. The heart of the events we plan revolve around the importance of good communication skills that allow us to increase cooperation among diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in our community. As leaders, we facilitate understanding among diverse people and encourage people to learn about each other and, by finding similarities and respectfully learning about differences, share ideas that benefit the community as a whole.

One of the main challenges to pluralism is the idea that we should work to understand those with beliefs different from our own. Although there is no simple answer, one way to think of it is that by being a part of the wider interfaith movement, we are not merely representing our own religious traditions, but strengthening our understandings of our own faiths by learning about other religious traditions.

Our meetings take place in various houses of worship in order to ensure that we become familiar with the traditions of others. From our own experiences, the best way to achieve a pluralistic society, one in which people actively engage in religious diversity, is to embrace diversity in our everyday lives. And we do that by attending one another’s events so we can walk away from them with new insights about ourselves, other people, and the world. For example, every spring, during the Hindu festival of Holi, YLP teens play a classic game of Holi by throwing powders of bright, exotic colors and water on each other, creating a vast array of colored shirts (that just minutes before playing were white). By participating in this festival and learning about Devika, whose story provides the foundation for the festival of Holi, we learn about Hinduism by experiencing it first-hand. Furthermore, during Ramadan, we hold an Iftar dinner to break the fast at sunset after a whole day of fasting. Many YLP teens also fasted for the whole day, experiencing directly what it is like for the millions of Muslims who fast during the holy month of Ramadan every year. After a full day without food or water, putting the flavorful biryani and delicious fresh fruit chaat in our mouths, we learned about the hardships faced by many in our world and the luxuries we take for granted. Taking part in these religious experiences, we create diverse groups and have everyday exposure to the religious “other,” realizing the shared values and ethics of various faiths around the world.

Building on the notion of shared values of different faiths, we even host many events in which we connect with people around the world. For example, almost one year ago, a group of YLP teens met to plan the annual Teenage Interfaith Diversity Education Conference (T.I.D.E.). The planning committee set the stage for what was to become the facilitation, logistics, and recruitment committees, each consisting of teens that spent countless hours planning each and every minute of the remarkable conference. At the T.I.D.E. Conference this past May, diverse teens from all over the US, including New York, Albany, Cincinnati, and Massachusetts, roomed together, ate together, and led and participated in faith-based learning, dialogues, and skill-building workshops together. People of all religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds came to this amazing conference, which was a learning experience for all.

Additionally, this July, we held an Iraqi exchange program planned by a small committee of teens. We began the day with community service, got extremely dirty while harvesting produce under the boiling sun, and then ate lunch at a local Indian restaurant. After the lunch, we made our way to a Jewish temple; for many of the Iraqis, it was the first time they had been to one. There, the rabbi engaged us in a question-answer seminar and gave us a close-up view of a Torah scroll. One of the highlights of the day was the meaningful discussions about religion, life, education, and the war in Iraq. It was so interesting for everyone to hear the views of people who have actually experienced it. Then, we visited the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, Massachusetts. Throughout the course of the day, we learned so much and even had many of our own stereotypes debunked. Even though we were all from such different places, we connected on universal and cultural themes, things that all teens around the world are concerned about. Their love of Lady Gaga was definitely something we related to. Overall, it was a powerful and enriching experience that we will never forget.

Being part of Interfaith Action’s Youth Leadership Program is not just about learning and experiencing each other’s religion; it is about forging strong bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime. Because of our contact with people of many cultures, we are more accepting, not only as an interfaith community, but as individuals. We ask more questions out of genuine interest. And by asking the right questions, we overcome the problem of ignorance.

For instance, a Hindu girl was invited to a Seder by her Jewish friend because she asked how the Jewish friend’s family celebrated Passover; two Jewish and Muslim high school students ended an online conversation with the word ‘peace’; and two Indian Hindus and a Pakistani Muslim are collaborating on this very article. All of these scenarios are results of the openness and acceptance that interfaith work has instilled in us. We learned more about others, but also about ourselves.

Divya Bhatia is a senior at Sharon High School and this is her fourth year in Interfaith Action. Along with being a senior facilitator, Divya plays tennis and sings classical Indian music.

Shreya Bhatia is a sophomore in High School and this is her second year affiliated with Interfaith Action. Shreya also enjoys playing tennis, practicing karate, and dancing.

Maria Saraf is a junior at Sharon High and this will be her second year in Interfaith Action. Maria loves playing basketball and lacrosse.

2 Responses to “Youth-Led Pluralism in Our World Today: Identifying Ourselves in a Diverse Society”

  1. […] From The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue […]

  2. Margie says:

    What you kids are doing is great work and I’m so proud of you all!