Interfaith down under
Today's guest blogger is Cassie Meyer, Content Director at the Interfaith Youth Core. She has a Master's Degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School focusing on American Religious History.
When my colleague Jenan and I were in Melbourne, Australia a few weeks ago training a group of young people at Monash University, everyone asked us, "Why are you here?"
People were surprised to see two American interfaith organizers in Melbourne, not because interfaith work is foreign to Australia, but because we were three weeks too early for one of the world's biggest interfaith events, the Parliament of the World's Religions.
It tells you something about the energy of the young people we were working with that they gave us three days of their time before the Parliament - with which most of them are involved - even began. Anna, a PhD student at Monash and the lead organizer, convened one of the most diverse groups I've ever worked with: Indonesian-born Australian Muslims, an American Coptic Christian, Baha'is, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and two Sudanese refuges, one Muslim, one Christian. Our goal: help these young leaders build upon the interfaith work already happening in Melbourne - primarily amongst adults - to catalyze an Australian interfaith youth movement.
We spent a lot of time before our trip wondering how Interfaith Youth Core's work might translate to an Australian context, particularly our emphasis on "common action for the common good". In Australia, the government addresses a lot of the issues addressed by the private sector in America, and the idea of volunteerism so prevalent in the U.S. is therefore less immediate.
Yet this idea of common action has captivated Freeman, a 21-year-old Buddhist monk who splits his time between a Buddhist monastery in Queensland and interfaith organizing in Melbourne. Freeman first learned about this approach when he came to Chicago for IFYC's 2007 conference, and realized it spoke to his own Buddhist commitments of compassion and peace. When he returned to Australia, he gathered a group of religiously diverse university students to envision InterAction: multifaith youth network . During our time in Australia, we participated in InterAction's inaugural event, rebuilding a neglected community garden on Monash's campus with about 40 diverse young Melbournians. As we debriefed the event later, I asked, "So, why common action for the common good? Was it hard to convince people that this was important to do?"
Ali, a Pakistani-born Australian Muslim, leaned forward in his chair. "People asked a lot of questions about the project - where would it be, who would it benefit. But the question no one asked was why. The question of why young people of faith should plant a garden, and the question of why they should do it together never came up. The importance of interfaith action was self evident. No one asked 'Why?'"
The simplicity of this idea remains with me. I spend a lot of time trying to explain my work to people: why it's important and why I'm not compromising my own Christian identity to do it. What if it just made sense that as a Christian, I live out my commitment by working with non-Christians, as deeply committed to their traditions as I am to my own?
This doesn't cut out theological debate; it doesn't mean that I give up my firm commitment that Christ is, indeed, the way, the truth and the life.
It does means that there's space for us to ask a whole different category of "why" questions: Why do so many people die each year of malaria, even though it's a completely preventable disease? Why do nearly 900 million people lack access to clean water? And perhaps most importantly, why don't we try, more often, to answer these questions together?
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.
December 8, 2009; 6:05 PM ET
Religion & Leadership
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