A TIO Interview
France’s Coexister Sends Young People into the World
TIO: Please tell us about Coexister and what you do.
Coexister: Coexister is an interfaith organization of French young people. We were founded January 14, 2009, after a peace conference in Paris held in the aftermath of the Gaza War in the Middle East. Initially, the idea was to hinder the spreading conflict. It all started with 11 young Christians, Jews, and Muslims united under the motto “Diversity in Faith, Unity in Action.”
Our first action was a blood drive that drew 150 donors, now an annual event. Today Coexister is in its sixth year, and its members, young people from all religious backgrounds, focus on five issues:
Dialogue – We want young people to get to know each other, try to understand one another’s religion, learn how to discover their own, whilst respecting their similarities and differences.
Solidarity – Here is the core of Coexister’s activities. Getting acquainted with one another is pointless if nothing is done afterwards to act collectively, as a citizen and in a spirit of solidarity in order to reach out to members of the society regardless of culture or religion.
Awareness Raising – Schools, universities, and various associations have been calling upon Coexister’s members as trainers from the beginning. Thousands have had their awareness raised as to the absolute necessity of a tolerant multicultural society.
Training – This movement requires a strong knowledge base about the religions in France as well as interfaith dialogue skillsets, particularly among Millennials.
Study Trips – Travel is an important lever for opening young peoples’ minds. Trips to Spain last summer and to Israel and Palestine next summer enable us to develop friendships between our travellers who experiment with living together on a daily basis.
TIO: Did these trips help inspire last year’s global journey?
Coexister: Yes indeed. The idea for a world interfaith tour actually came from Samuel Grzybowski, our president and founder, and Christian de Boisredon, creator of Sparknews, a communications venture whose goal is “sharing solutions, especially at the heart of media.” We worked together for a year, planning and funding the journey, which began in July 2013.
TIO: Who went, and where did you go?
Coexister: Five of us, students from different faiths, were chosen: Samuel Grzybowski, a Christian, 21, studying history and political sciences; Josselin Rieth, an agnostic, 21, studying history and political sciences; Victor Grezes, an atheist, 22, studying history and political sciences; Ismael Medjdoub, a Muslim, 20, studying history; and Ilan Scialom, a Jew, who has studied history and political science. (A woman had originally been chosen to go, but could not. Coexister says all future teams will be gender equal.)
It was an amazing journey, visiting 70 cities in 50 countries over a period of 300 days, 70 to travel, 230 devoted to meeting interfaith leaders. We had 435 meetings and did 250 full video interviews, all of which we brought home to use in our work in France.
TIO: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?
“There is interfaith everywhere. We thought we would struggle to find initiatives, but the truth is there were more than we had time to meet. We feel it’s positive.”
“Strong diversity is the nature and function of interfaith whatever the context. Four types of group stood out: civil society (37% of our encounters), religious communities (28%), governmental or public initiatives (14%), and universities, foundations, and informal groups( 21%).”
“Depending on the context, interfaith can be very social, or very political, as in Malaysia.”
“There is very little ‘faith’ in ‘interfaith’ dialogue. Most of interfaith initiatives are non-spiritual but social.”
“Is interfaith a means or an end? More than 90% of the people we met think it’s a means and speak about the need for ‘social cohesion and mutual understanding.’”
“99% of the people we met dislike ‘tolerance’; however, we have to recognize it’s the word used in all the main international organizations (such as UN and UNESCO) and can’t be washed away so easily. But everyone wants to go beyond what tolerance suggests. People really like the concept of ‘active coexistence.’
“There are very few youth-based, independent interfaith groups in the world. Exceptions include the InterFaith Youth Core (U.S.), All Together (Bosnia), United Religions Initiative groups in Cambodia and Kenya, and www.caifriends.org in Washington, D.C. We found hardly any others.”
TIO: What has this experience meant to you personally? Has it changed you, and how?
Coexister: All of us were changed, but positively. No one was converted anyhow. We were all strengthened in our own beliefs. I (Victor) didn’t find faith in God, and the others didn’t lose theirs.
It was a real challenge to live 24/7 with each other, especially with people with a completely different background. And in fact it went so well that we are now even better friends than before. The only tensions in the group were about logistics, and we easily overcame that.
We left as friends and came back as brothers.
TIO: What was one of the highlights?
Coexister: Italy will stay in all our memories as the country where we met Pope Francis. A ten-minute interview with him helped us go on with even more trust and hope than before. While he most specially addressed our Muslim and non-believer members, Pope Francis encouraged us all to reach true wisdom by combining interfaith and intergenerational fields. His exact words were, “It’s the alliance between strength of youth and experience of age that will lead you to true wisdom.”
TIO: And what now for you?
Coexister: We will be publishing books, including one called 100 Interfaith Initiatives to Change the World. We’ve begun with a two-month tour of France, sharing about the journey with young people. We have research projects growing out of the travel. There will be conferences and a documentary. Most of all, of course, we will be preparing new teams to take more journeys!