Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Weekend to Remember: MLK and Interfaith Cooperation

From Bro. Jason Welle, OFM -- St. Joseph Friary, Chicago, IL (recently solemnly professed friar minor of the Assumption BVM Province; student at Catholic Theological Union [CTU] and preparing for ordination)

For the month of January, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to spend some time working with the Interfaith Youth Core, a non-profit based here in Chicago. IFYC was founded to promote religious pluralism, meaning proactive cooperation between persons of different religious convictions, to build a healthier and more peaceful world.

Their staff is a fun and interesting mix of Christian evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and young adults from other traditions. I’ve come to believe deeply in one of founder Eboo Patel’s fundamental insights: institutions matter. Agents of intolerance and hatred in our world seek out young people to indoctrinate them; if we consider ourselves agents of peace and cooperation, we must seek to mentor, guide, and shape the young people of our world in ways that will enable them to share the space and resources of our world as brothers and sisters.

On Sunday I participated in Poetry Pals, a program that brings grade school children from different religions together to read and write poetry. Jewish and Christian kids came together at the synagogue across the street from Barack Obama's house and read parts of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech, then wrote poems about their dreams for the future of our world. It was a very moving experience--even though these kids have only gotten together a couple times, you can clearly see the friendships forming and the bridges building!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (+1968) who along with many others struggled for Civil Rights for African-Americans in the late 1950s into the 1960s

We get together again next month…and I’ve been coerced into bringing my guitar so that we can sing together for that one… Later that day, I went up to the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston for a showing of Encounter Point, a documentary about Israeli and Palestinian peace groups. Teenagers from the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park joined teens from JRC and led a discussion afterwards about the factors inhibiting peace, both here and abroad.
St. Francis of Assisi before the Sultan in Damietta, Egypt during the Fifth Crusade (by Giotto, 13th cent. in the Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy)

It was very meaningful to me to participate in the event as a Franciscan. Our friars have been such an important presence in the Holy Land for centuries, and a Palestinian Muslim pointed me out and told the story of St. Francis visiting the Sultan during the fifth crusade, without me saying a word! The teens were moved by the afternoon--not just the film itself, but the wonderful hospitality we received at the synagogue.

I didn't realize until I was driving home that on Sunday, I think I visited more synagogues (two) than my parents have in their entire lives! We're forming teens for whom it's not strange to reach out and visit someone else's place, and for whom it's not strange to invite someone else to their place. Hospitality is a core value that must transform the current narratives; I'm thrilled that the JRC helped us take a step in that direction.

IFYC uses service learning as a primary method for building pluralism: bringing young people from different religious traditions together for service projects, followed by discussion and reflection on the values and stories from their traditions that promote and give meaning to that service. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., we promoted several service projects across Chicagoland.

On Monday, I joined several other IFYC staff and two dozen teens volunteering for Open Books, a nonprofit social venture that operates an extraordinary bookstore, provides community programs, and mobilizes passionate volunteers to promote literacy in Chicago and beyond. We gathered at their off-site warehouse, where they store many of the donated books they receive before processing them for resale. We sorted hundreds of boxes of book into different categories and re-boxed them in a more manageable form, saving the Open Books staff weeks of work and speeding the time when we can get these books into the hands of eager readers!

Part of the joy of the afternoon came in a couple funny things that went wrong...the pipes had frozen in the building, so we had to use a bathroom at a Dunkin Donuts down the street. We ran out of packing tape halfway through the afternoon and had to make a run to the store. But the beauty of it was that the volunteers didn't mind! We just kept sorting away, and we had so much fun chatting about all the many strange titles passing through our hands that the time sped by!

The group with whom Bro. Jason Welle, OFM spent time remembring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago, January 2009

It was an honor to remember Dr. King, such a forward-thinking and learned man, by participating in a program to advance literacy among youth and adults. Service doesn’t take its meaning solely from what we’re able to accomplish, but from the friendships we forge in the process.

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