How A Million Planning Meetings Taught Me to Humanize: Reflecting on the New England Interfaith Student Summit

12698482_1210046665691835_7266303570145258112_oI remember sitting in my friend Karissa’s living room, crammed between Sean and Antonia on a vintage couch, typing furiously. Around me, my fellow Interfaith Council members shouted questions to no one in particular:

“We need to update the website to change the time of the workshops!”

“When are the t-shirts getting here?”

“Did someone confirm the lunch order?”

This warm Los Angeles night, the twelve committee members of the Student Multifaith Leadership Conference (SMLC) worked late into the night. The SMLC was only one week away. We felt excited, but overwhelmed- how would everything get finished in time for the big day?

The inaugural SMLC took place five years ago this April. I remember plopping down on my couch that Friday evening when all of the chaplains, student leaders, and community leaders had finally gone back to their respective campuses. Though not everything went as planned that day, the committee agreed that the SMLC was a success. I took a long look around the room at my fellow Interfaith Council members who had become my closest friends. This conference had offered us so much- a chance to meet students from other campuses, event planning experience, and most of all, it had brought us together in a way only late-night planning sessions with snacks and laughter could.

This past Friday, the student leaders of the Northeastern University Interfaith Council (NUIC) welcomed over 100 students and staff from college campuses around New England to the first ever New England Interfaith Student Summit (NEISS). The day made me nostalgic for my last year at the University of Southern California (USC), the year I wrote two theses, chatted with Antonia long into spring evenings about our futures, the year the Interfaith Council “peace-lucks”, our informal snack hangouts, birthed the idea for the SMLC.

I remember that year feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work on my to-do list, yet somehow having the most fun during my time at USC. I remember sitting on Karissa’s couch a week before the SMLC thinking, :”Oh my goodness, there is too much to do! And yet- how the heck did we pull this off!?” I remember those planning sessions now, and I know that the friendships we formed working under stress and lack of sleep are unlike any other. I remember this past month watching the NUIC leaders with the utmost attention to their project, the NEISS, learning to work together and support each other. This past Friday, I witnessed the laughter among them, mirroring the close relationships I cherish with my fellow USC Interfaith Council members to this day. The truth is, I remember those late-night meetings more than the actual SMLC itself. I remember laughing at the chaos of coordinating all the moving pieces. I remember rushing out to buy Karissa a birthday cake so we could celebrate as we worked. I remember feeling so proud of our team, just like I do today.

The New England Interfaith Student Summit offered a Master Class with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee. I have admired Ms. Gbowee for some time, as the founder of an interfaith women’s movement in Liberia, her home country, that brought an end to the Civil War in 2002. Hearing her stories of triumph, struggle, and ultimately of working across difference made me think about my own foundational beliefs as an interfaith leader. Ms. Gbowee spoke about shared humanity in her keynote address to Northeastern on Thursday evening, posing a powerful question to all of us. She addressed the Northeastern community with a powerful assertion: “Until you have the difficult conversations, the ones that acknowledge our differences, you will walk around campus seeing the people like you as people, and the people not like you as objects.” She continued, “I see your humanity. Do you see mine?”

Thinking about shared humanity brought me back to Malawi during my training for the Faiths Act Fellowship. The Fellowship brought thirty young interfaith leaders together to travel around the world, gathering stories of interfaith cooperation around the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. With nine of the other fellows, I spent almost two months traveling around Malawi to learn from religious leaders about their communities’ actions to end poverty, specifically, to treat Malaria and other infectious diseases. I remember visiting a community hospital in the Mangochi District, an area in central Malawi on the bank of Lake Malawi. The hospital boasted three doctors- more than any in the district. Some hospitals in Malawi had no doctors, as we learned.

A line outside the hospital had already formed that morning as the twelve of us (ten fellows and two guides) piled out of our seven-person van. The line was comprised mostly of young women, many of whom craddled their newborns in their arms. The dust kicked up around us as we wiped the sweat off our faces. We followed our guides into the hospital and proceeded down a long corridor toward the Malaria ward. As we filed into a narrow room with several beds, our guide began to explain the history and structure of the hospital. I listened intently, scribbling notes. When the lead in my mechanical pencil broke, I glanced up, and suddenly the guide’s words fell away. A young woman around my own age at the time met my gaze. Her dark eyes seemed to call out to me with a look both inviting and filled with fear. In her arms, she craddled a tiny baby. The baby was pale and slept peacefully. Our guide gestured to the woman. Matter-of-factly, he said: “This child has Malaria. The paleness of the baby is due to severe anemia. It is not likely the child will survive.” My eyes welled with tears as I maintained eye contact with the young woman. How could my guide be so factual about this? Was he used to this? Did this mother know the chances of her baby surviving? Did it matter?

Ms. Gbowee described the immense work it took to bring the women together before they began the work of building a movement. She said, “We had to work on ourselves first. We had to show each other that we are more than someone’s wife. We are people. And we have passions, and we can use them to make peace.” She remembered telling the women that they could find common ground, despite their differences. Then she said something that so closely resonated with my own story. “When a Muslim woman cries at the loss of her child, are the tears different than that of a Christian woman with the same loss?”

I left the hospital in Mangochi holding back tears, recalling something my own mother told me once. I had asked her if she was excited when I was born. “I was terrified,” she said. “Here I was holding this tiny person and I knew that I was responsible for keeping you healthy and happy. And more importantly, I was responsible for teaching you to be a good person, to care for the world.”

Witnessing the NUIC leaders plan the Summit these past two months evokes Ms. Gbowee’s message of shared humanity. The leaders remained attentive to difference- from dietary customs to Shabbat observance. They offered the beginnings of difficult, perhaps deeply painful conversations about religion, race, and suffering in the world. Yet, they committed themselves to working together, and they formed deep friendships beyond the differences in their own creeds. They laughed together and listened to each other. I called my mother, exhausted after the seemingly endless week of printing, emails, and food orders, and told her how proud I was. In my thoughts, I sent silent messages of thanks to my USC Interfaith Council friends, feeling grateful for the friendships we hold dear today.

 

 

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