July 23, 2009

Day of Interfaith Youth Service: American pluralism in action

Atlanta teen refugees from Bhutan and Nepal
and immigrants from Pakistan and India
relax after a day of interfaith dialog and service work

Birendra Odari
| Bhutan
At Emory University, I learned about differences between religions, such as that some are monotheistic and some are polytheistic. My religion, Hinduism, is polytheistic. That means that just as a family has more than one person, we believe there is more than one god.

Bhima Thapa-Magar | Nepal
Our day at Emory was really fantastic. It was my first time with that kind of thing in the U.S.A.: doing volunteer work, being with such good students from other states and different religions, and talking about it. … I learned that Muslims pray on Fridays, and that students are excused from class during prayer times. I taught about my religion, Buddhism. We pray to Gautam Buddha as a God, our Book is called Tripitaka, and the place of prayer is called Gumba (stupas). Also, I shared about my years living in a refugee camp. They were very interested to learn about life in the camp. …

Sabah Khan
| India
I learned many things, and the main thing is volunteering, as I haven't been to any volunteering locations until now. …

I taught that during the Muslim holy month Ramadan, Muslims fast the whole month from dawn to dusk without water and food. The entire Quran (Muslim holy book) is recited in mosques and all over the world with the five daily prayers during Ramadan. During this month, which provides an opportunity for Muslims to get closer to God, a Muslim should try to — See not what displeases Allah (the name that Muslims call God), Hear no evil, Do no evil, and Look to Allah with fear and hope.

Bishnu Odari | Bhutan
This is my first time in the United States to meet these many teenager friends. I am really glad to be with them. They are such great and friendly people, which I never thought would be. When I first met the students at my school, some of them laughed at me and the other new students and it seemed they didn't want to be my friend. So I thought it would be the same at Emory. But these people were not that way. I met Saehara from California. She was with me the whole day and shared lunch with me. She was like my best friend whom I miss a lot. I also met Cody, our group leader, who was the funny one, and Brian, a group member who shared a lot about Christianity and wanted to learn more about Hinduism and other religions. …

I learned that Christians of the different branches of Christianity have different and opposing feelings about their religion.

I explained that Hinduism is polytheistic and mainly believes in the three-in-one God known as "Brahman" that is composed of Brama (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). The Hindu religion has millions of Gods and Goddesses, and these three are only the beginning. I also shared that the Hindu people believe in their "karma" — that doing good begets good, and doing bad begets bad. And with good karma, a person can be reborn into godhood, and with bad karma, a person can be reborn in a bad condition or even as an animal in their next life.

Tilchand Mapchhan (Naresh) Thapa | Nepal
Thanks for a chance to help others, share views about religion, make friends, and work together. "United we stand, divided we fall" is the main point I learned. Religion is a way to pray to God, and it is [usually, not always] a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. All religions are the same [in some ways] but praying and believing in God is different in each religion. …

If we have to make the day better than yesterday, we have to be united to do work. We did that in friendship and cooperation to help African students who need books for their schools, and the U.S.A. donates them. If you don't know anything, ask others, and if you do know, share with others and help them. … I hope we will again have the same type of program to help and get together to make others happy. Emory Day of Interfaith Youth Service was really great because to help others is a great thing in human beings. And if we help others, they will help us when we need help.

Kamal Dahal | Bhutan
It was an opportunity to learn many new things. Every moment I spent is now a remarkable memory. Meeting people from various backgrounds and states was like drinking salty water, which makes me more thirsty the more I drink. I got to learn about worshiping styles and beliefs people have about their gods. All holy talks are blessings for me. They pave my way to giving service. The lessons each religion teaches are the heavenly path, where we can kiss the summit of greatness and success.

Beyond the great knowledge I got, I had a golden opportunity to give my time to people who have a keen interest in learning and in exploring this world. I shared my heart and soul with other kindhearted fellows in sorting books for Africa.

Nirmala Regni
| Bhutan
I was so happy to see people from different countries and listen to their feelings and thoughts about religion. This is my first time taking part in an International Faith Day. … It was really interesting to sort books in the book storeroom where we all danced together. Later, we all played soccer, which was another interesting part of International Faith Day.

Many people asked about Hinduism. And I shared that it is the oldest practiced religion, with the third largest following after Christianity and Islam. More than a billion followers practice and 90% live in South Asia, particularly India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. From the Indian subcontinent, it spread by migration, not conversion and evangelism, which are absent from Hinduism. Hindus also live in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S.A.

The back story
Since 1993, the Candler School of Theology has run a three-week residential summer program — the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) for Christian rising seniors nationwide. Rooted in the Christian tradition, the program of justice-seeking theological education includes a “Day of Interfaith Youth Service” when participants engage in dialog and service work with Atlanta teens from other faith communities.

This year, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim voices of newly arrived refugee and immigrant students at Atlanta's Druid Hills High School added to the mix of local participants from the Jewish Community Center of Atlanta and the Islamic Speakers’ Bureau.

The refugee and immigrant students' participation was a project of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group, which helps ease the transition of our new neighbors to Atlanta. The students' ESL teacher, Smaranda Livescu, identified them to me and to Leslie Sokolow, who spearheaded the volunteer group, which was recently featured in the CDC newsletter (April 2009): CDC Volunteers Aid Bhutanese Refugees.

Sharing traditions: Hindus, Buddhists,
Jews, Christians, Muslims, and an agnostic

The day featured much dialogue among the participants (total: about 75, including me and the other chaperones). In small mixed “home groups,” they shared their religious traditions, and how each tradition regards doing service for others.

As participants shared stories about their backgrounds, the refugees’ experience in refugee camps (some were born there and others lived there 17 of their 18 years) and the perspective of their beliefs, traditions, and values captured the interest and imagination of their peers (most of whom were born in America or grew up here).

Hands-on learning
(interrupted by spontaneous dancing)

The afternoon off-campus service project, sorting warehoused books to be donated to Africa, was an ideal hands-on application of the morning discussions.

One new Bhutanese neighbor was excited about the books they were allowed to take from the warehouse recycle bins. His collection, carefully culled: an English dictionary, an SAT preparation guide, and M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. ("What drew you to the book?" I asked Birendra. "It is the title of the Robert Frost poem I learned in the refugee camp school," his sensible reply).

Heartfelt thanks
On the way home after dinner and soccer ("We won!"), these ambassadors of courage, optimism, and tireless hard work uniformly expressed “heartfelt thanks!” to the organizers and hope to “get such an opportunity next time, too.” They also thanked “everyone who shared their thoughts about religion.”

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Anonymous said...

thanks for this wonderful write-up! I've sent the link on to the Interfaith Youth Core, which is the organization that trained me in doing this event.
peace, Beth

Anonymous said...

I got to attend this event because of my relatively new position as the Director of Communications for Candler School of Theology, sponsor of the Youth Theological Initiative. I was completely blown away by the maturity, mutual respect, warmth, and hearts for service that these young people of such diverse geographical, political, and faith backgrounds displayed. I can only say that I have never felt more positive about the future of our world than I have after interviewing these amazing participants. Thank you, Tamar, for sharing some of their insights and reflections with the rest of the world through this posting!
Laurel Hanna

Judas said...

I still carry a profound joy for having met you all, and a tender sadness for its having been so brief. Thank you for lovingly sharing a portion of the Great Pilgrimage with us. And if our paths should happen not to cross again: Namaste, Shalom, Asalamalakum, Peace be upon you. (But if they do cross, We're not quiting the game next time until we count all the way to 10...)


thank you

Tamar Orvell said...

Dear Naresh,

Thank YOU for your active participation at Emory, and for your gentle ways and humanitarian acts that brighten people's lives (as your feedback in this post indicates).

Bhima said...

Thank you Mrs. Tamar.
I miss u lot.................
love Bhima

Tamar Orvell said...

Dear Bhima,

Your feedback on the day makes clear that you participated with all your heart and soul. And that you learned much and enriched the experience for your fellow learners. I miss you, too!