I vividly remember shaking and nervously holding the mic and my crumpled piece of paper with my notes as I made the opening speech of my first Youth Interfaith event in July of 2015. Since then, I’ve learned so much and have come across an exciting, growing, and amazing journey.
As a Muslim-American who wears the hijab, or the religious head covering, I often found that my peers were extremely curious about my faith and my hijab. Trying to explain everything in the two minutes before history class became a little difficult for me. Simultaneously, as Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric grew in the U.S. and on the news, I realized I had to do more. I had to create an environment in my little conservative southern town where discussing religion and belief systems was not taboo and was actually encouraged.
With that idea, no money, and my notebook in hand, I started to plan. I started the Youth Interfaith, a by youth and for youth organization that promotes inter-religious understanding through dialogue events and community service. Through the Youth Interfaith, I bring together high school and college students from across the city to events where they can discuss their belief systems and learn about different religions. In a community and in an age where discussing religion is typically frowned upon, these events are incredibly vital. At the dialogue events, we play games, socialize, and of course, eat food; these may seem like insignificant things, but I’ve grown to learn that these are actually the most important aspects of the event. Above learning as much as possible or memorizing the pillars of a different religion, the goal of the event is to create a bond and sense of unity among the attendees through common activities like games or like eating Subway together. If everyone establishes that connection, people realize that at the end of the day, we are all human. And our disagreements over our beliefs do not and will not mean that we cannot work together.
At the same time, I also had to learn that disagreement is crucial to my events. People do not compromise their beliefs at Youth Interfaith events; when the discussions begin and attendees sitting together reach a point of disagreement, I encourage them to keep the conversation going. Because that’s where the rest of the world fails. When we disagree, we stop the conversation and awkwardly try to cover it up, or we fall into violence and disrespect. But, at Youth Interfaith events, I push students to talk about these differences. To analyze them. To appreciate them. Ignoring our differences will not bring about change, but familiarizing oneself with these differences will create peace.
Now, that’s a lot to absorb, but that’s why I started a second part to the Youth Interfaith. Instead of just having dialogue events, I host community service projects so that we can practice the ideals of working together that we discuss at the dialogue events. Following one “cycle” of dialogue events, as I call it, all the attendees go out and perform service together. From packaging food for the homeless to going to a nursing home, any form of service and collaboration really helps strengthen that bond. One of my favorite things about going to volunteer is that we always get asked, “What church are you from?” or “What school are you from?” And the awesome thing is that we can give the most unexpected answer. That we are not from one church, but from many churches, mosques, and temples. That we are from many different schools, cultures, and backgrounds. The look on people’s faces when we tell them where we are from and the ideals we stand for is truly priceless.
The Youth Interfaith is not perfect, but it’s growing and becoming stronger and better each day. I’m learning how to make the events better. How to create that bond and sense of unity. How to reach out to the community more. And thankfully, I’ve learned how to confidently give an introduction at the Youth Interfaith events.
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