Multi-Faith Youth Group

Love Thy Neighbor 2016

The night of the event arrived. Our youth were dressed in white shirts and black pants to go with the theme of “From Darkness Into Light”. The youth prepared for the evening and helped with ushering. There were many excellent performances and pieces of the heart shared by the community from kids to youth to adults. The lights faded out as the youth worked through their dramatic reading, bringing people back to the darkness of September 11th so many years ago.

09-08-16-love-thy-neighborThen, as planned, the lights shot back up as the youth took charge as a beacon of hope through the reading of Marianne Williamson’s poem: “We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The youth also helped close the event by reciting the Universal Prayer drafted by the original youth group in 2012. The youth were able to enjoy the rest of the night with wonderful food among a community who they had helped inspire to new light and life together. September 8, 2016

Planning for Love Thy Neighbor

 One of our seniors took the charge in coordinating the other youth to plan our annual performance at the Love Thy Neighbor peace event. The youth found a text from a first-hand account by Penelope Trunk on her experience in New York on September 11, 2001 and a poem, “Our Deepest Fear”, by Marianne Williamson. The youth trimmed down the script and made decisions on the final written and performed product (lighting, role assignments, staging). Another senior took charge with directing the group. The coordinators acted as audience members to give feedback about volume, enunciation, and presence. The youth got deep into their role in the dramatic reading of the narrative and poem. Most of the youth had just learned to walk and talk by September 11th, so they took their time to visualize what happened 15 years ago as told by the personal account in order to bring the audience back to that time. August 24 & 21; September 1 & 6, 2016 

Ramadan: Fasting and Fast Friends

Out of our planning from March and the many questions from non-Muslim youth about Ramadan, the youth helped plan a pre-sunrise suhur, a day-long fast, and an iftar after sunset that evening. Starting before the sun rose at 4:00 in the morning, our group met at IHOP.

Sweat beaded our foreheads as the minutes ticked closer and closer to sunrise. The conversation was focused on what our plans were for the summer, including Our Town by Just Communities of Arkansas for a couple of our youth who we had recommended.

06-25-16-ramadan-breakfastFinally, we received our food and we consumed as much food and water as we could before sunrise. Over 12 hours later, we gathered again at the Islamic Center. The community was pleasantly surprised to have a few of our non-Muslim group members talk about their experience fasting and join their iftar, learning about the traditions and trying new foods. Many minds were opened that day to new experiences and to new friends. June 25, 2016

Paths to Peace

Though we know the desired outcome of peace, we often do not visualize the way for04-03-16-peace1ward. The first step our youth took in this visualization was discussing who their guide on the path is. This could be someone alive or dead in their own faith, a different faith, or of no faith who guides or inspires them. We heard about world leaders such as Shaykh Ninowy of the Madina Institute, Marth Luther King Jr., Ghandi, the Pope, and the Dalai Lama as well as local teachers, faith leaders, and family members. Ea04-03-16-peace2ch of them set an example to follow, made it easy to go to them in spirit or conversation, and challenged them to do more and do better. Our youth then planned out how they could be an inspiration or guide to others through their choice of reading at the Pilgrimage for Peace. We quickly found the speech by Malala Yousafzai at the Youth Takeover of the United Nations in 2013. After a04-03-16-peace3 silent reading, we called out passages we liked and why we liked them, then trimmed until we had a reading focused on youth power and peace.

At the Pilgrimage itself, the youth enjoyed walking in solidarity with the community to remember why we work for peace and then presented a moving example of what peacemaking can look like in practice. More and more opportunities for growth and leadership in the group and in the community are coming our way for our youth. March 13, 2016 (Dialogue), April 3, 2016 (Pilgrimage for Peace)

 Robed in Harmony

02-24-16-t-shirt-backIt was a long-time coming, but we finally sat down together to finalize our t-shirt design. Building upon the work of one of our youth artists, the creative and enthusiastic minds of the youth completed the concept, design, and final purchase of the t-shirts. The cooling blue t-shirts carry a powerful symbol on the back.

A circle made of 7 religious symbols is surrounded by silhouettes of people dancing and holding hands with the word “multifaith” scrawled above it in different languages of the world. The youth were proud of their design as they deserve to be.

02-24-16-t-shirt-planThis design will be moving in itself but even more so when worn by our diversity of passionate leaders and peacemakers. February 24, 2016

Passing the Baton: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Testament of Hope

01-17-16-mlk-1 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Our youth shined on in the example set forth by Dr. King, our faith and community leaders, and the young adults who organized this event at Temple B’nai Israel. One of our youth gave the group a tour of the temple highlighting places of importance to her and her community. She was beaming with enthusiasm as she shared this part of her life with her peers. After the service, the youth had a lively discussion around quotes from the event that stood out to them and why they were meaningful. In the end, adults and youth realized their power to bring light, love, and hope into the world if we do so with vigilance and community. January 17, 2016

Friends Who Study For Finals Together…

 As a final hoorah for the end of 2015, our youth decided to gather to study for finals together. One of our seniors led the charge, pushing for a social event to happen and then planning it out. No adults were around to bother them, though one of the adults happened to be around and took this picture. All the youth there enjoyed themselves and felt prepared for finals. Happy New Year! Peace, love, and harmony to everyone! December 18, 2015

West Little Rock Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

A spirit of gratitude leads to “radical hospitality” as defined in the message at the West Little Rock Thanksgiving Service. Our youth were lading examples of that hospitality and spirit of gratitude. Many of our youth attend the Islamic Center of Little Rock where this annual event was held for the first year in its history. Our youth of diverse faiths welcomed guests of all faith backgrounds, ages, and professions into the service. Our youth stood together on stage sharing with the room their practice of gratitude in their faith: respecting the interconnected web of life neither as “good” or as “bad” but of love, saying “toda” or “Baruch Hashem” or “Hamdullah”, greeting others even strangers with a warm smile and a polite “hello”.

One youth conquered her fear of speaking in front of the Islamic Center to translate a section of the Quran. The youth helped collect an offering for medical services for people suffering from and fleeing the Syrian civil war.

The youth were witness to a unifying community event with Muslim, Ch11-23-15-thanks-presentristian, and Jewish celebrating the diversity of our beautiful country and the necessity of hospitality for the immigrants who create and enrich that beauty. Finally, the youth were able to practice hospitality in the dinner that followed, meeting with youth from different faiths and speaking with the adult leaders they heard during the service. November 23, 2015

Responding to Violence

Tragedy affects us differently. Some of us are numb. Some of us are exhausted. Some feel shocked, angry, sad, guilty, confused, or helpless. To discuss the attacks on Paris, Beirut, and the Russian plane, we took our time to create a safe space as always. We ate our pizza over conversation, celebrated our 11-15-15-birthday-3
birthdays in November, and opened with an easy question.

To prepare for our Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, we asked the group how we expressed gratitude and said thanks in our faiths: gratitude in at least one of the five daily prayers, “Hamdullah” whenever something good happens, reminders from parents to be grateful or not take for granted, daily dinner rituals, prayers before a meal, focusing energies on the positives or only on what is necessary. From there, we began our discussion of the attacks. We chose a word to describe our feelings. Many youth chose “exhausted” from the constant media posts, how the tragedy never seems to end, how it seems cyclical with violence begetting violence and racism consistently and insidiously releasing its poison. Some were angry at the prejudice they were facing for their faith and yet guilty for not doing more to counter the image presented of them. Others were guilty or helpless, wishing that our bridge-building in our youth group seemed like more than baby steps toward peace. However, we did not let despair end our day. We brainstormed action steps, including planning facilitated workshops and creating student groups around these issues and writing letters to officials (school leaders, media heads, etc.). Our youth left the meeting feeling a little lighter partly for getting their emotions out but also for knowing they have a group of peers (and adults) who have their back in a shared mission for peace in our communities. November 15, 2015

Walk for CommUNITY

For many youth, this was their first Walk for CommUNITY. For others, this was the first year that they had done the Just Communities of Arkansas walk with the Multi-Faith Youth Group. It was a pleasure to stand among so many 11-01-15-jca-hillrepresentatives of organizations promoting pluralism in the city. We were able to walk together to meet schoolmates, family friends, and strangers. We found cardboard boxes and slid together down the grassy hills by the Clinton Presidential Library. We talked about the future of the youth group while celebrating the end of the walk with pizza. We are excited to do this walk again next year! November 1, 2015

Diversity Toss

Though we are a group of people with multiple faith identities, we are also a group with many other identities. Looking at one another, or ourselves, solely through the lens of faith or the lens of skin color or any other singular identity offers a distorted image. It is an image further tainted by our own biases or expectations. We started this conversation with prayer and a question about what we wished others knew about our faith. The youth were able to express how they wished others saw them: away from media portrayals of extremists, as pioneers in gender equality, as useful wisdom for life’s daily questions, as humble. We then moved on to an activity where members wrote down one identity each on seven notecards (i.e. their race on one card, their faith on another card, their favorite hobby on another card, and so on). Youth had to toss away the identity that would be easiest to give up and explain why to the group. Then they tossed two more at once. Then they picked the identity that would be the most difficult to give up, the one most important to them. Finally, a person to their right took an identity away and tossed it from them. In our discussion, everyone felt they had really explored their values and still had more to explore, that they had learned so much about one another, that they saw how two people may identify outwardly the same but inwardly value those identities for different reasons and to different degrees. October 25, 2015

Moving Mountains

Becoming complacent is an easy way to build walls between one another. To escape these mental walls, we escaped the physical walls of the church for a day. At the base of Pinnacle Mountain, slowly our group, including two new members, arrived. We ate together, caught up with one another, and met our new members. We officially started the meeting with prayer from each youth and with a discussion of whether you consider yourself religious or not. Taking 10-11-15-pinnacle-chill-1this identity into consideration, we discussed our faith in the context of the shooting at Oregon’ Umpqua Community College. The youth see the ideals of their faith, giving up anger and seeking the strength to forgive, and struggle to reach those ideals. The youth were interested in the trend toward secularism in their peers and in society, questioning the relevancy of their faith while holding out hope in the ideals. Finally, our group enjoyed a climb up the mountain to continue to tear down the walls between us and between who we want to be as a community. October 11, 2015

Arkansas Peace Week

“Shalom” is a greeting of peace and yet it means “wholeness” – we have peace we are one with all the parts of our being, one with our god, and one with all the different people in life. Peace is important to our multi-faith youth group in principle and in action. Many of our youth were already participating in Peace Week through school or their faith group. At an interfaith peace event at the Islamic Center of Little Rock, we heard about “shalom” from many speakers then practiced peace during the call to prayer that evening. During fellowship, we met a girl who will be joining our youth group. For some of us, it was the first time we had been to the Islamic Center and witnessed a call to prayer. We also attended Peace Fest with music, speeches, booths from peace organizations, art activities, henna, and food trucks. Our youth had a great time chatting with one another, eating food with their families, and getting henna on our hands. Through such gestures of friendship, like henna, we continue to build relationships across communities and even across understandings of our own communities. September 25, 2015

Love Thy Neighbor 2015

Wonderful moments arise when you encourage youth to take leadership. The youth had practiced for weeks on their own and then completed a final rehearsal by themselves before the event started. HOP-023
They knew their cues to go to the stage for the reflection and the Universal Prayer. One youth not participating in the reflection recorded a video of the performance on her phone. The most nervous speakers of our group pushed through their fears to deliver an excellent performance. Youth jokingly yet cordially ushered guests to the food festival. Every youth left that night hearing compliments from the attendees about how impactful their performance was. The youth were an inspiration amidst beautiful music, captivating prayers, and enlightening reflections. HOP-025Not only had the youth taken ownership of this event through their leadership but they had fun. During the festival, the youth were deep in conversation with one another in line and over food. As their coordinator, I was proud to take a step back to admire the beautiful moments these youth shared with each other and with the community. September 10, 2015

Rehearsal for Love Thy Neighbor 2015

In the six weeks from our planning meeting, we had two group practices and the dress rehearsal. Our youth had a great deal of independence, so the effort they applied to this presentation is testament to how much they believe in the interfaith work they are doing. We had high expectations for their presentation. They had two weeks to come up with stories. Stories went through multiple drafts. The slam poem had to be in sync. Recitations were shared over phone. Encouragements were shared right along with areas needing improvement. Staging was agreed upon then had to be changed at dress rehearsal. Each youth would have a role to play in the night, whether the performance or ushering or music or introducing the Universal Prayer. At the end of the dress rehearsal, we were anxious but confident in our performance. Even our youth who had stage fright were ready to perform and show the community who they are. August 16, August 30, and September 8, 2015

Dialogue and Planning Meeting

Planning an event together is one way to build relationships, especially when our event has to have themes of hope, pride, rejuvenation, and nourishment. This year is the 4th annual Love Thy Neighbor peace event hosted by the Interfaith Center. Each year, the youth group plays a major role in the program. Our small group of planners was very creative in their ideas for the event – a presentation of a visual art piece, a slam poem, a reader’s theater, speeches, stories, film. Their ideas played on the strengths of their peers, encouraging one another to action. We discussed implications of different ideas; we did want to reinforce myths that interfaith efforts attempt to make everyone the same; we wanted to celebrate the differences of everyone in the room while urging the audience to act or peace and harmony. In the end, we decided on a reader’s theater involving stories written and performed by a representative from Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity. We also decided on a slam poem written by two of our youth to deliver the message of hopeful action we wanted to leave in the hearts of our audience. July 26, 2015

Service in the Garden at the Arkansas Foodbank

With help from a Clinton School of Public Service graduate, we were connected to the Arkansas Foodbank for a service project. Two of our Muslim girls, the Clinton School graduate, and I (Blake Tierney, coordinator) participated in service along with Foodbank staff.
07.09.15 (onion bag)

While harvesting onions and cleaning flower beds, we were all able to chat about our faith and who we are. Much of the conversation involved Ramadan, which the two girls were celebrating at the time.

Their service while fasting shined a light to expose our excuses for when we do not serve our community. 07.09.15 (Foodbank)
It was a great experience to connect with one another across faiths and through faith while connecting to the earth that sustains us all regardless of which faith we profess.

We were happy to serve our community and happy to be caught red-handed thereafter for our service. P.S. onions dye your hands red, and, yes, pun fully intended. July 9, 2015

Meditation and Interfaith Spaces with P. Allen Smith

The cameras were rolling. Our youth opened with prayers from their faiths.05.30.15 (outside)

Rev. Susan Sims Smith introduced a simple meditation using a mantra with your breath.This was no judgment of yourself or your constantly busy brain but an attempt to achieve even a second of peace through boring that part of your brain.

The youth had plenty of opportunities today to prepare – we met before the cameras arrived to discuss the activities, we explored the Arkansas House of Prayer, and we started the meditation session without the cameras rolling. Afterward during food and fellowship, we laughed together for many of us did not even realize the cameras had started filming our meditation (some of us even possibly falling asleep).05.30.15 (meditation)

We celebrated the graduation of one of our youth from high school. We chatted with former youth group members. We also were surprised by P. Allen Smith actually showing up. He talked to us about what he does and his role in creating the outdoor space at the House of Prayer. Finally, we settled in to discuss these kinds of interfaith spaces, the experience of meditation in the space, and about our faith journey to this point with MFYG.

Each question, youth and adults had to turn to a different neighbor to discuss their response, then they reported back to the larger group. The discussion was quite fruitful. Many youth admitted growth in their faith while in MFYG in the few months we had been together. We felt that an interfaith space can be physical but the people and the social environment are also very important for a safe place to interact and be. Silence and circles also seemed important to our group for holy spaces. We ended the day with the Universal Prayer.05.30.15 (dialogue)

After such a strong day of building relationships, the group prayed together with beauty and strength that amazed many of us. We are excited to see our film on P. Allen Smith’s television show, but we are more excited to see where our youth group grows from here. May 30, 2015

Jewish Food and Cultural Festival

04.26.15The Jewish Food and Cultural Festival was an opportunity for our youth to serve the Jewish population of Central Arkansas by helping them raise awareness about their culture, history, and faith while also celebrating it together as a community. Our small group arrived a little before 2:00 to sign-in and explore the music, the food, the art, and the “Ask a Rabbi” booth. We were split into two groups, one to help break down boxes and count tickets at the Pastries vendor and one to help serve the remaining food at the Deli. Once this was accomplished, we split into another two groups to clean out the meat cookers and to count tickets wherever we were needed. It was amazing to see the support for the Jewish community through the number of volunteers who were there and the monetary success which we helped them observe. Our youth had an amazing opportunity to speak together over their service and reflect about what parts of their tradition they felt were most worthy of celebration. April 26, 2015

Pilgrimage for Peace

To walk in solidarity for a value that is common among all our faiths was important for our youth. We met at Heifer Village, walked together across the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, and gathered again at the Beacon of Peace and Hope in North Little Rock. 03.29.15 (Selfie)

For the little under 1.5 miles, our youth were able to engage in one of the most important elements of peace: building relationships. During the program at the Peace Garden, we listened in silent reverence to the names of the people killed in Little Rock the last year. We connected to one another through music, poetry, and prayer. Our group also had the chance to begin the closing of the ceremony with the Universal Prayer.

03.29.15 (Walk)Halfway through, some young people moved the crowd with excerpts from the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those young people, Nimesh Wijewardane, Shahnur Said, and Maddie Robinson, proudly represented the Multi-Faith Youth Group and their faiths of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. 
Finally, our youth group helped close the ceremony by reciting the Universal Prayer that the MFYG group wrote in 2012. The event was an excellent opportunity for our young people to take away a great understanding of the need for peace and their role in building that peace. March 29, 2015

Dialogue Meeting

When you struggle with your faith, you care about your faith. When you deeply care about your faith, you find space for people of other faiths. I almost wrote that you make space, but in fact you find it because the space is already there.

Our question today sparked a long and winding dialogue. People learned new things about different faiths, professed admiration for the faith of others, bonded over struggles they have shared in their different faiths, and discovered a deeper appreciation for their faith and the faiths of others. Our question was “what is a belief in your faith that is particularly challenging to you, and how do you deal with it?”.03.15.15 (Close-Up)

The responses began to lean toward “what was wrong with my faith”, such as the treatment of people on the margins or the division between reform and orthodox or the outlook on suffering. However, with some guidance from group leaders, the dialogue shifted toward beliefs you care about but find difficult to live out because of society or human tendencies. We shared worries of feeling threatened or disempowered or feeling like you are doing something wrong either in your faith or in society; however, group members reminded one another about the freedom and power in committing to your faith amidst struggles.

After the discussion faded, we showed the new group our past contributions to the September 11th peace event held by the Interfaith Center and brainstormed ways we could contribute this year. We also took another quiz since so many youth liked our quiz from the first meeting. This time we were trying to determine which passage went with which faith tradition. The difficulty was in that all the passages had to do with the Golden Rule. The quiz enlightened some youth (and adults) to the texts of other traditions and to the shared focus on empathy and hospitality. Our meeting ended yet again with a birthday celebration. March 15, 2015

Dialogue Meeting

There is room to make mistakes. We started back into an MFYG tradition of asking a question to spark dialogue. In response to the question, “What do you love most about your faith?”, one of our girls responded that there is room in her faith to make mistakes.02.22.15 (Dialogue)

This idea resonated with people of other faiths and with the group leaders as important for our interfaith dialogue.

02.22.15 (Postcards)Whether new like our youth or experienced like our group leaders to interfaith dialogue, having room to make mistakes and to be forgiven invites deeper and longer lasting dialogue.

02.22.15 (Present Cards)

In addition to our question, each person picked up a postcard that appealed to them and explained to the group why it did.

Between the responses to the question and to the postcards, many responses resonated across the faiths, such as artistic/architectural contributions, liberation and hope, Jesus being a good guy, care for animals, and openness to all people. Our group then swiftly and easily decided on a t-shirt design to represent our group and elected one member to be in charge of creating it.

We invited Asif Masood to talk to the group about the Interfaith Sports Festival that the faith communities have been hosting the past few years and how we can be involved. Then we ended with our first birthday celebration!02.22.15 (Cake)

The youth had no idea it was coming, but we felt that the celebration brought the group together to appreciate the life of another youth and allowed time for the youth to build relationships within and across faiths. February 22, 2015

Faiths in Conversation

On Thursday January 22nd, students from the Bridges organization based at New York University sat with local community members in dialogue regarding service. “Faiths in Conversation”, an event hosted by the Interfaith Center of the Institute for Theological Studies at St Margaret’s, pushed guests to ask themselves what service meant in their faith, what barriers their faith (or personal experience) had to serving people of another faith, and how we could overcome these barriers.

Dinner from Taj Mahal restaurant was provided before the dialogue and a kosher meal was served for Jewish participants. The Multi-Faith Youth Group, a program of the Interfaith Center, took the lead that night with welcoming our guests. The Multi-Faith Youth Group also blessed the food with prayers from the five different faiths represented in the youth group – Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Representatives from the NYU Bridges Club and from their service host, Jewish Disaster Response Corps (JDRC), spoke about their service that week in Mayflower, Arkansas rebuilding homes. The students spoke about learning about another’s faith, growing in their own faith, and building relationships across faiths through questions and seeing others practice their faith rituals. The Faiths in Conversation guests gained insight into the power of these relationships as exemplified by the NYU Bridges students or by NYU Imam Khalid and NYU Rabbi Sarna documented in the film “Of Many” or by our very own Sophia Said and Rev. Susan Sims Smith.

Our dinner and dialogue asked each table of guests, representing three to five different faiths to share with each other their struggles and successes about service to people of different faiths. The conversation piece of Faiths in Conversation brought laughs and also serious dialogue to people across lines of faith. The result was a collection of strategies for overcoming barriers to service. Strategies included taking risks, sharing a common goal, educating yourself, and of course food.

Our guests, including local adults and the NYU students and the Multi-Faith Youth Group teenagers, all left with courage to overcome the fear of taking that first step in a relationship with someone of another faith. Not only were our guests from New York inspired by the interfaith hospitality of Arkansas, but our local guests and youth also found inspiration in power of “Faiths in Conversation.”  January 22, 2015

Dialogue Meeting

On this slick day in January, when two of the adult group leaders missed the meeting due to trouble with road conditions, our youth were able to have the first MFYG meeting of the year! Our two veteran youth group members, Shahnur Said and Shelby Powers, stepped in for the adult leaders. They passed out a quiz that the youth had to complete using the help of others in the group. There were questions that stumped a good number of youth and one that completely stumped the whole group, but the youth really enjoyed the whole experience of answering the quiz questions, talking to the other youth, getting answers wrong, and discussing what they just learned. Group norms were set, introductions were made, and dialogue began. Youth had a rich discussion regarding stereotypes that people have of their own faith and the faith of others; in addition, youth had a lot to say about the role their own faith plays in these stereotypes and negative feelings between and within faiths. Our two veteran youth then helped lead the group in a discussion of a quote from Eboo Patel and our responsibility in standing up to bullying, especially people of different faiths. The meeting ended with the greatest tool for building bridges: food. January 11, 2015

We are standing in your presence to pray for peace and harmony.

We pray for a day when your love envelops the earth.

A day when spirits that unite us are stronger than the forces that divide us.

A day when all people are one no matter what color, race, or religion.

Please grant us compassion to care for all creations; love to keep us strong; and acceptance to reduce hatred.Interfaith

Please guide our hearts through understanding, so we may coexist in harmony, and universal peace may prevail the earth.


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