The Power of One Multiplied Times 29
Six years ago, in January 2009, I sat on a train thinking about where the year ahead would take me. Nearing the end of my undergraduate degree, I was starting to think more seriously about what to do next. I had ideas, but nothing quite seemed to fit until I came across an international, interfaith, social action-oriented program called the Faiths Act Fellowship.
Six years later, the Fellowship remains a defining and pivotal experience for me professionally and personally, and the collaborative relationships I formed during that year continue to guide and sustain me.
The Faiths Act Fellowship was an initiative of the UK-based Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the U.S.-based Interfaith Youth Core. Thirty Fellows were placed in cities across North America and the UK, tasked with engaging young people and other allies in interfaith social action projects. Specifically, we were working to raise awareness and resources for the fight against malaria, a disease which causes hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths each year in the global south.
The Fellowship was a fundamentally collaborative process. Whilst we were given some guidance on how to approach our work, we each relied on our 29 peers for support, suggestions, and feedback as we planned events, delivered presentations, wrote press releases, trained leaders, and engaged our communities.
After an intensive seven-week training that included time learning from faith leaders, health workers, interfaith practitioners, and nonprofit activists in London, Chicago, Malawi, Tanzania, and Mali, it would have been easy to lose touch with each other in the busyness of our work and the difficulties of communicating across multiple time zones.
In fact, we found ourselves collaborating in deeper and more sustained ways as the year went on. Fellows in the UK met monthly in different cities to plan an end-of-year graduation and appreciation event for the young leaders engaged in our social action hubs. Canadian Fellows jointly planned and executed an initiative engaging faith congregations in programs to raise consciousness and funds for the anti-malaria cause. In all we shared thousands of questions, ideas, and suggestions with each other through Skype chats that lasted the entire year.
We were placed at host organizations in intentionally interfaith pairs. Collaboration with my Sikh colleague, Pritpal Kaur Riat, now a dear friend, was both formative and transformative. As a Catholic Christian, I quickly experienced the value of partnering across so-called faith lines. A common hesitation expressed by people new to interfaith work is that engaging with others will force them to play-down, reject, or even change some of their beliefs, values, or practices. Time and again I found myself deepening the way I understood and practiced my faith through dialogue, service, and action with Pritpal, the Sikh community, and the wider community of Birmingham.
True collaboration does not diminish or threaten the identity of any of its partners. Rather, it means that each party is valued in the fullness of their identity and is empowered and supported to bring their full self to partnership. Through active collaboration and relationship, I didn’t simply learn the stories of others; they became a part of my own story.
At the start of the year, we awkwardly rehearsed scripted stories of where we drew inspiration and what brought us to interfaith work. Within a few weeks I was telling anyone who would listen the inspiring story of Bhai Kanhaiya Ji carrying water to injured soldiers from both sides of a battle, about the deep and rich tradition of serving free vegetarian langar to all who are hungry, about the importance of selfless service or sewa.
During the Fellowship, we mobilized people around the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, eight international development goals established in 2000 and aimed to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Speaking at schools, colleges, conferences, workplaces, youth groups, and congregations in 2009-10, 2015 still seemed far in the future.
As we begin this new year, I’m heartened to read the United Nations affirming that unprecedented progress was made last year in the fight against malaria, in part due to the work of faith-based organizations and collaboration amongst faith communities. They are critically well-placed to have real impact through leveraging their reach, trust, influence, and institutions to spread health education messages and distribute practical support. We helped that process along.
At the end of our Fellowship year, we made plans to regroup for a five-year reunion. Last September, more than two-thirds of the Fellows traveled back to Chicago to reconnect. For three days we shared, planned, laughed, talked, and reminisced. Each of us gave a TED-style talk about what we’ve been doing since the Fellowship, and each of us shared stories of ways we have continued to collaborate with our Fellowship peers.
One Fellow started an interfaith intentional community with members of her leadership hub; others are working together to develop new national mobilization initiatives. I have remained deeply connected with the Sikh community I was based in, and last year had the privilege of working with their new interfaith school initiative as their Faith and Values Coordinator.
Each of us remains deeply committed to the values and principles we explored during our Fellowship year, even though most of the group no longer works directly in the interfaith field. And we continue to work together to mobilize our friends, peers, and communities around issues of justice, sustainability, and dialogue.
At the reunion last September, we began planning our efforts for World Malaria Day 2015, which had been the culmination and focal point of our Fellowship year. As we sat in the Interfaith Youth Core offices in Chicago, mapping out our plans for a crowd-sourced recipe book, sponsored bake-a-thons, speaking engagements, and news articles, I felt the same collaborative spirit I experienced throughout the Fellowship – and I feel truly grateful to have been schooled in interfaith work through such meaningful experiences.