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Grassroots Interfaith Education Goes Global

By Paul Chaffee


The boarding school for missionary children in northern India that I attended 50 years ago was about seven miles across mountain roads from a new school for refugee Tibetans streaming out of their war-torn homeland. The Indian government provided the buildings, CARE packages helped clothe the kids, and food was found. But they had no teachers. So, as young Tibetan Buddhists who had lost their parents, they used the tools at their disposal to start their education.

They assembled silently for eight hours a day, sitting in rows of four in open fields. It was not long before teachers showed up and school began.

Communities around the world, far too often mired in poverty or victims of local conflict, are hungry to learn how to live and work in an interfaith-friendly, peaceful world. Without schools or budgets or the institutional infrastructure which education generally depends on, people are developing their own teaching and learning activities. ‘School’ has begun, and the focus is on developing leadership.

United Religions Initiative’s Special Vantage Point

URI is a network of more than 735 (and growing) local interfaith organizations (“Cooperation Circles”) in 91 countries. Participating groups share URI’s interfaith vision, but they don’t pay dues, they raise their own budgets, and they create their own agenda and programs. A number of them are creating their own educational projects. The network is lean, spare, and donor-dependent. But it promotes digital tools, lots of story-telling opportunities, and an emphasis on grassroots leadership development. Circles come large and small. Some are highly collaborative with other circles and with local, non-URI interfaith activities. Other circles stay largely independent, but still connected, which is a huge asset for everyone involved. The connectivity across hundreds of circles provides access to extraordinary stories of interfaith activity on the ground floor, in tough environments, with minuscule resources.

Members of the Muslim Taraqqyati Wa Falahi Adara, a URI cooperation circle in West Bengal, on a day devoted to planting trees. – Photo: URI

Members of the Muslim Taraqqyati Wa Falahi Adara, a URI cooperation circle in West Bengal, on a day devoted to planting trees. – Photo: URI

The “Muslim Taraqqyati Wa Falahi Adara” is a Cooperation Circle with 25 members drawn from Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities in Burnpur, West Bengal. For them interfaith education meant starting with computer training for children, held in a mosque.

“It was difficult to convince the local mosque to have this type of centre within a mosque where children of various faiths would come to join,” admits Salwar Ali. “Thanks to one of our members, we convinced the mosque authority and obtained the permission to run this type of centre.” Families who had written off such technological training because they couldn’t afford it were delighted. An early outcome was that as the children of different faiths became friends, their parents become friendlier as well. One of their special projects is designed for kids who have, for one reason or another, dropped out of school.

“Another project we do,” Ali adds, “is the environment campaign, involving tree plantings. We plant trees at various sacred sites from different faith traditions. When we go, the members from the different faith communities, Muslim, Christian and Hindu, visit their different sites together.” At the same time, they are setting up a health care dispensary – all of this in the name of interfaith cooperation, service, and friendship.

A Big Brother Society presentation to students in Nairobe. – Photo: URI

A Big Brother Society presentation to students in Nairobe. – Photo: URI

Nairobi, Kenya, hosts a number Starehe (Swahili for peace and tranquility) Schools. Their students are selected from diverse religious and economic backgrounds. Most of them are on full scholarship, so admission is extremely competitive and the students selected particularly gifted.

A group of Starehe alums, mostly Christian and Muslim, but including indigenous African traditions and representing different ethnic communities, decided to organize as an interfaith group serving students throughout Nairobe. They started The Big Brother Society, a cooperation circle that mentors primary, high school, and university students, focusing on leadership skills and intercultural bridge-building. They work with a number of different schools, attending to subjects not typically taught in Kenyan classrooms. Lectures and workshops are offered on time and stress management, study habits, conflict resolution, purposeful living, self-awareness, communication skills, career guidance, interfaith relations, and what it takes to be a success.

Leaders from half a dozen URI circles gathered for a two-day retreat focused on empowering youth leadership. – Photo: URI

Leaders from half a dozen URI circles gathered for a two-day retreat focused on empowering youth leadership. – Photo: URI

Additionally, the Big Brother Society works collaboratively with five other Kenyan URI circles, all of them focused, one way or another, on developing generations of interfaith-friendly leaders for Kenya and Africa. Their own leaders gathered for a two-day retreat last May at the Desmond Tutu Conference Center – the subject was empowering interfaith youth leadership.

In Barcelona, Spain, Associació UNESCO per al Diàleg Interreligiós (AUDIR) promotes knowledge, dialogue, and cooperation among the various religious groups in Catalonia. This Cooperation Circle organizes exhibitions, gatherings, conferences, workshops, and trainings about different aspects of pluralism and interfaith dialogue, involving about a hundred people from more than ten different religious traditions. One AUDIR project publishes resources supporting people in the terminal phase of diseases such as cancer and AIDS. Another involves working with police officers and civil society to raise human rights awareness.

In particular, AUDIR advances education for young people who plan to continue in this kind of work, preparing them to become leaders in their communities. “We want to involve young people by providing them with resources, knowledge, and a platform to share their experience, so that they can become leaders for positive change.”

A time will come when the word interfaith will not so much point to a movement as it has in the past century, but instead serve as a descriptor of the whole human family. People, way ahead of our institutions, recognize this everywhere and have woken up to the need to make our future interfaith friendly rather than conflicted. A huge task, but folks are going to school all over the world so that it can be achieved.

Gaea Denker of the URI support team contributed to this article.