Bay Area Interfaith Connect

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Bay Area Interfaith Connect

Additional News Stories from 2010


Interfaith in Toronto?

Paul Chaffee, Executive Director
Interfaith Center at the Presidio

Years of reading this newsletter does nothing to quell my amazement at the multitude of interfaith activities reported here every month. So tempting, sometimes, to think of the San Francisco Bay Area as an interfaith one-of-a-kind! A week in Toronto last month completely banished my temptations toward provincialism . - Paul Chaffee, October 30, 2010

Jan and I were invited to Canada's biggest city by interfaith activists. Their work had been featured here at NAINConnect 2008. Now they wanted us to witness the interfaith ferment on the northern shores of Lake Ontario.

Our host was Scarboro Missions, a small Catholic order with decades of global social justice engagement. A strong and abiding commitment to interfaith activities led the Order to create a new department - Scarboro Missions Interfaith (SMI).

Paul McKenna, who leads SMI, is creator of the Golden Rule poster, the simplest and most powerful interfaith tool in the world today. Having hundreds of thousands of posters distributed in 20 languages (so far) is remarkable by itself. But the poster tells only a small part of Scarboro's interfaith activity, in Toronto, in North America and the world.

Our first morning at Scarboro we watched 50 bussed-in 11th graders being introduced to world religions in a five-hour workshop by Kathy Murtha. It was a pure joy, actually astonishing to see how much fun they had, how much information and wisdom they absorbed, and how serious, still, and creative a rambunctious bunch of teenagers can become with a master teacher. (This happens four times a week; new students every time. They started the program for Catholic schools. Now public schools are sending busloads as well. The students' favorite part of the workshop? Two sessions during the day given to meditation.)

Paul McKenna and his team organized a dozen meetings for us with religious leaders from all over Canada's largest metroplex. They wanted Jan and me to see and hear what they are doing and in return to share a bit about the San Francisco Bay Area interfaith culture. We spent most of one day with two dozen young adults and their mentors from around the region. We met and broke bread with leaders from the Interfaith Council and visited the sites of a variety of multi-religious educational ventures and service providers. The historic and ongoing Jewish-Christian engagement and cooperation, with Muslims as full participants these days, is impressive and fully glocal (global & local) in focus.

We spent most of the last day at the University of Toronto, a subway ride downtown. Modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, UT has numerous theological faculties and religious studies programs along with 30 chaplains (two for most traditions, including Pagan and Humanist, and including LGBT representation). On top of this is a new Multi-Religious Building where prayer and meditation goes on most hours of each day in a variety of traditions. Everyone's invited to the free talk-about-any & everything-tea-and-muffins party each Wednesday, and you can attend assorted interfaith programs each week. The day before we visited, they hosted the Dalai Lama. Strong on hospitality. Altogether, very high on the Wow!-meter. It sounded and felt like the 21st century happening in beautiful new ways.

At the end of the day, even those most involved in Toronto's interfaith culture can't keep up with all the multi-faith bubblings in their midst. Feels just like the Bay Area. That equivalency suggests the power and goodness of the multifaith relationships growing spontaneously, willy-nilly across North America. We may not know it, given the thousands of miles that separate these two remarkable global communities; but Greater Toronto and the Bay Area, each with about 5 million souls from all over the globe, share a new kind of interfaith culture, a vital source of hope and satisfaction for the glocal religious community-at-large in coming years.

We have all sorts of things to learn on both sides of a Bay Area-Toronto interfaith relationship. One thing, though, is absolutely identical in our communities - the best part of the work is the relationships which develop. The people we met in a week came from every tradition imaginable - gracious, friendly, wise, engaged individuals happy to interact as soon as you meet. They were just like the people here at the Presidio Chapel in San Francisco and the thousands who are involved in interfaith relationships around our beautiful Bay. Getting to know one another is not only the work at hand, but the reward. Makes for a joyful journey and a joyful homecoming.

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Temple SquareWhat happened at NAINConnect this year?!

by Paul Chaffee, Interfaith Center at the Presidio director & NAIN trustee

Presenters | Historic Presentations | Young Adults | Salt Lake | Get Involved

North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) is a web of grassroots interfaith relationships among 86 interfaith-engaged organizations committed to “building bridges of interfaith understanding, cooperation, and service.”

With a tiny budget, no staff, and a working board, NAIN operates as a loosely knit association of like-minded interfaith activists whose annual NAINConnects predate the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and United Religions Initiative.

Interfaith Center at the Presidio has been a NAIN Member since 1996. Seven registrants this year came from the San Francisco Bay Area. NAINConnect 2010 took place in Salt Lake City, July 25-27.

The morning after the final banquet this year at NAINConnect, our airport shuttle filled up with a Hindu, a Unificationist, two Christians, and two Muslims. The doors were barely shut when the driver, a Mormon, asked if we were “part of the interfaith group here.” We were, we said. He thanked us for visiting Salt Lake City and spoke at length of his admiration for what we do. He asked how we handle prayer at an interfaith event.

Prayer and meditation punctuated each part of the conference, we explained, with representatives from different traditions presenting at different times, each speaking from her or his own tradition. That pleased him, and he asked if we could have a meditation as we drove. We handled that a bit awkwardly, but a sense of the holy, and of family, suffused our van. Our driver took backroads to give us a short city tour before reaching the airport. Thanksgivings all around as we headed to our planes.

Those 20 minutes in a shuttle perfectly exemplified what happened at this year’s NAINConnect, devoted to “Many Faiths – One Family, Building a World of Harmony.”


Amazing cadre of presenters & goodies

NAIN’s Salt Lake planning team got it right on critical elements of interfaith conference creation – a broad diversity of speakers and registrants, plenty of interaction and schmoozing, and 50+ presenters (most with brief, pungent presentations).

Speakers were engaged experts from a host of academic, civic, corporate, nonprofit, religious, and social service arenas, all bringing serious interfaith concerns to the table. The interaction of about 100 registrants and Salt Lake religious leaders, for a few days, caught the vast landscape of interfaith culture emerging today.

Our planners mixed in music, dance, and video, including a concert of readings and music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Symphony. Being with 500+ performers and ushers guiding 8,000 visitors didn’t detract from the beautiful intimacy of the sacred space and soaring music on Sunday morning. After the broadcast, the choir sang The Battle-Hymn of the Republic “for our interfaith friends visiting today.” Joining the Battle-Hymn’s language with the interfaith cause was a bracing, First Amendment kind of experience.

Another plus, most registrants would confess, was the remarkable cuisine. The Salt Lake Buddhist Temple offered an opening-night dinner, with beef on the menu, and an amazing interfaith children’s choir. A full day of programs at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral and Center included a beautiful fruit & grain breakfast as well as a sit-down dinner, catered by the Sikh-run restaurant, Bombay House, with wine available. We were graciously offered an immaculate lunch on the 26th floor of the Mormons’ Church Office Building, served with pink lemonade, rather than tea or coffee, and amazing vistas in every direction.

In the hills above the city on the final evening, a long sunset lit up a Middle Eastern vegetarian feast hosted by the Jewish Community Center. Desert Wind Music’s three Arabs and three Jews shook the building with their drums and melodies. With tummies filled, most of us linked hands and danced our way through the tables until plates of baklava were brought out and the schmoozing and goodbyes got serious. In all, it was a bountiful gift of Salt Lake interfaith hospitality.


Two historic presentations

North American grassroots interfaith culture was powerfully challenged to grow in two new directions during NAINConnect 2010. Both deserve report.

The conference’s keynote featured Douglas Johnston talking about faith-based diplomacy, an interreligious peacemaking approach which has often threatened his life. At a gathering of Taliban leaders in Pakistan, after he self-identified as a follower of Jesus, one imam stood and said, “I won’t talk to anyone but Muslims!” Doug responded, “Doesn’t Muslim mean ‘surrendering to God’ – and if so, are we not all Muslims?” Which brought the house down, and the conversation continued peacefully.  His Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (1994), co-edited with Cynthia Sampson, is required reading at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute and in universities and seminaries around the world.

Founder of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, Dr. Johnston told stories about bringing religious and political leaders together to work for peace in the world’s worst conflicts. Considerable time went to unpacking the roles of respect and forgiveness in peacemaking. (How faith-based diplomacy works in our own communities would be an intriguing theme for a future Connect, with numerous projects across North America helping to lead the conversation.)

The simplistic, often unfortunate divide between Abrahamic and Asian religions was challenged with the premier screening of Gerald Krell’s The Asian and Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America. NAIN responded with a long-standing ovation. The two-hour film will be broadcast on PBS this fall in one-hour segments, sponsored by Connecticut Public Television. For a child of Christian missionaries in Asia, the film was emotionally overwhelming, a movie I’ve waited my whole life to see.

Told from the perspective of Abrahamic and Asian religions in the United States, it demonstrates how the nation’s emergent interfaith community is so much bigger than even interfaith activists have realized. May it be seen over and over again as the children of Abraham and the children of Asia get to know each other better.


Interfaith young adults stir the pot

For years NAIN’s board has actively solicited young adult (18-35) participation – people who haven’t grown gray yet! They are consistently represented on the board, and six young adult scholarships are typically offered for each year’s Connect.

This year the door blew off its hinges. Thirty applications showed up, three times the usual. The board responded by reaching into reserves to double the scholarships to 12. Karen Boyette, NAIN trustee who championed their cause, told about being astonished by their qualifications. Stay with me for some details!

  • Erin Bilir, a high-school senior in Denver this fall, founded her school’s interfaith group, ETHOS, to discuss Ethics, Theology, Humanity, Oneness, and Society. Her commentaries have been featured in NPR’s All Things Considered, the New York Times Upfront magazine, Ms. Magazine, and the Huffington Post. She’s written four award-winning, professionally produced plays and is founder and host of Girl Talk , addressing issues shaping the lives of young women.
  • Peter Womack, a young African-American MBA and attorney, converted to Conservative Judaism three years ago, directed a human rights educational program for DC public schools, and recently founded the InterFaith Settlement Foundation. Dawinder “Dave” Sidhu is a civil rights attorney who has held research positions at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown and written a textbook titled Civil Rights in Wartime: the Post-9/11 Experience.
  • Alisa Roadcup is Communications Director for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and summarized how the Parliament has developed its web presence. She co-presented in Salt Lake on using social networks for interfaith programming with Sumitra Srinivasan, an active Hindu in Toledo and Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of Toledo.
  • Michelle Jackson, with degrees from UCLA and Harvard Divinity School, creates interfaith programming at Vassar College. She spoke powerfully, poignantly, without judgment, about being the only African American woman at the conference, generating a constructive thread of conversation for the next two days. Hillary Kaell, Jewish and from Ottawa, is finishing a Harvard PhD specializing in the history and practice of North American Christianity. She’s worked with Harvard’s Pluralism Project, is a paid consultant for PBS’s Religion in America series, and joins the faculty of Concordia University in Montreal this fall. All 11 scholarship recipients (the twelfth, stranded in India, couldn’t attend) brought special gifts and amazing service experiences to share. All were engaging presenters.

The people power didn’t end with the younger generation. Besides attracting Parliament leadership, two United Religions Initiative global trustees attended, Anne Roth and Rebecca Tobias, as well as URI-North America Regional Coordinator Sandy Westin, who handed out “Synergize” buttons to wear. Paul McKenna, from Toronto, told the story of creating the Golden Rule Poster, a beautiful, simple tool that’s become the most widely distributed interfaith resource ever. All this but a sampling – dozens of presenters hit homeruns.

Like all good interfaith conferences, it was local, it was global, and a comfort to anyone who dreams about a harmonious interfaith future. For photographs and more detailed reporting on the week’s workshops, go to Judy Trautman’s blog at http://judylt.wordpress.com/. Judy leads the Communications Committee on NAIN’s board.

Appreciating Salt Lake

A large local team made NAINConnect 2010 a success. But four planners were with us throughout, quietly making everything flow easily. Jan Saeed, long-time NAIN trustee, first raised the hosting proposal seriously with Salt Lake leaders little more than a year ago, a very short time for pulling this together. Brian Farr, an internationally engaged Rotarian specializing in conflict resolution and peace, now newly elected to NAIN’s Board; Rev. Ivan Cendese, Executive Director of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable; and the Roundtable’s Chair, attorney/musician/MC extraordinaire Alan Bachman – with Jan, they were the ‘team’ we saw, always around, helping in little or big ways. I can hear everyone who participated saying “Thank you!”

Kudos also go to NAIN’s Chair, Bettina Gray, interfaith film producer, composer, resident of Berkeley, California, and host of Spiritual Resources, a web-based series of interfaith conversations co-produced with the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. Bettina masterfully kept connected the planning team on the ground in Salt Lake and our virtually participating NAIN board members. For which we all were beneficiaries.


If you’re interested in being involved in NAIN…

Last week I volunteered to join NAIN’s Bylaws and Board Development Committee. Under normal circumstances, such an act, I think, would render me certifiable. Mad and masochistic.

Rachael Watcher

Rachael Watcher, Wiccan elder and ICP videographer, was elected to the NAIN Board of Directors, making her the third sitting Bay Area trustee.

What special circumstances sent me over the edge? This volunteering responsibility requires regular communication with Grove Harris, who spent years putting up Harvard’s Pluralism Project’s magnificent website. She went on to become program director for the 2009 Melbourne Parliament of the World’s Religions, tasked with culling 500 workshops for the Australian Parliament from the much larger pool of workshop proposals, and then scheduling and managing those selected.

Becoming a bylaws committee member also entails a closer relationship with James Wiggins. Jim talks happily about finally achieving retirement: he devoted 10 years to the presidency of the American Academy of Religion, 20 years to being Chair of Syracuse University’s Department of Religion, and (after 38 years in the classroom) devoted the better part of a decade directing InterFaith Works of Central New York, a multi-service agency with 35 staff members.  Truth be told, I can hardly wait to start working with Grove and Jim on issues that matter a lot to us.

If you are interested in getting more involved with NAIN, take a tour of www.NAIN.org. Individuals can join as Associate Members. The ‘voting’ membership is made of 86 interfaith-engaged groups and organizations (though we probably grew last week). Then, if you are interested in more involvement, contact NAIN’s Chair, Bettina Gray, or one of the other executive trustees with e-mail links at the site.

NAIN Board
NAIN’s Board met at the Golden Rule Home in Salt Lake before NAINConnect 2010. Top-l. to r. Jan Saeed, Judy Trautman, Karen Boyett, James Wiggins, George Stern, Teja Singh, Midge Falconer, Paul McKenna, Paul Chaffee, Rob Henkinson; Bottom-Grove Harris, Woody Trautman, Bettina Gray, Don Mayne, Betsy Wiggins.

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May 14, 2010

Remembering Jack Lundin

First and last, I’ll remember Jack Lundin as a friend. His warmth and good humor never left him. His indefatigable commitment to interfaith relations meant driving an hour each way to attend meeting after meeting after meeting with nary a grump. I can’t remember him ever saying no when asked to help. Particularly he said yes when asked to sit down and play or to lead us in singing or officiate at an interfaith wedding. The only passionate anger from this gentle man was for the Church and any other community when we don’t offer respect and provide justice for all of God’s children.

Many who enjoyed working with Jack at those meetings and interfaith celebrations don’t know the back stories. How he introduced big-time Chicago jazz and Christian worship to each other back when it was unimaginable anywhere else. How he was the most popular TV talk-show host in Chicago, putting in seven years at ABC. How, as a Chicago pastor, he served members like Martin Marty, the most distinguished church historian of the 20th century.

Rev. Jack LundinHow he raised over a million dollars to support nursing services within congregations. How his gifts on the jazz piano and drums launched a parallel performing career that lasted all his life. How he developed a cruise-ship chaplaincy during his ‘retirement’ that took him and Marti to the seven seas. How the final book of the many he wrote and edited was the first interfaith songbook ever published. So many back stories in the life of Jack Lundin! We stand thankful for its richness and for his sharing so much with everyone he knew.

Jack was a Lutheran pastor down to his DNA; always an advocate for a more inclusive, progressive Christian faith engendering care for all human beings. But for the last 20 years of his life, he took up a special cause. When so many his age play golf all morning and bridge later on, Jack gave himself heart and soul to building relationships between the followers of different faiths. He was a founding member of United Religions Initiative and the San Francisco Interfaith Council. He’s been a financial supporter and stalwart on the Interfaith Center at the Presidio’s board of directors for the past dozen years.  

Jack’s pioneering role in interfaith culture came in championing the arts as critical tools in building relationships. He began an international group with the unlikely name of Expressing United Religions Initiative in Music and the Arts. His dream: to connect artists and performers committed to an interfaith vision and to making a difference with their creative gifts.

Jack organized the interfaith Seder dinner at URI-North America’s first summit, in Salt Lake City in 2001, and chaired the ‘worship committee’ at numerous conferences. He spent over a year gathering and managing the interfaith team that assembled the songbook, One World, Many Voices in 2002. Chants and hymns he composed are included. Later he was part of the core team at the Interfaith Center that organized an international competition to design sacred space where all traditions might feel at home; it drew 160 submissions from 17 countries. Last December, starting to fail, he was joyful at being able to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne.

Our last conversations all got around to the same issue – using more music, drama, art, and play in our interfaith work. Talk-talk-talk was his critique. And, partly through his influence, many interfaith projects today are doing better liturgically and with music, drama, art, and play.

After all the accomplishments, the best memories are still of Jack as a friend. A bit more back story. A part of him loved nothing better than a great restaurant in the French countryside with exquisite food and wine. Jan and I never got to go on one of the trips he organized for people who shared this passion.

But we did go up to their home in Sonoma, where he and Marti, chef extraordinaire, would assemble a masterpiece in a picnic basket. We’d drive to a nearby vineyard, wander onto a hillside cut from heaven, and sit down at an outdoor table. It was hard to believe we weren’t in 19th century France enjoying the very best of the fruit of the soil. Or to say it simply, Jack Lundin loved life through and through, and we are so much better for having known him. Thank you, Jack.

- Paul Chaffee, Interfaith Center at the Presidio

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May 1, 2010

An Ethical Imperative for People of Faith and Practice

A circle ceremony with burning herbs opened One Voice in Faith, an interfaith conference in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco last month. Chanting and prayers honored the racial and religious diversity of nearly 300 social justice advocates from dozens of backgrounds, more than a third of them young adults.

An opening panel distilled the scriptural, theological wisdom regarding the issue at hand from Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant points of view. Their injunctions turned out to be remarkably similar. At issue? Alleviating the poverty of the billion plus people who go to bed hungry every night in the midst of the vastest accumulation of wealth in human history.

The keynote and panels that followed were crisp and detailed, describing a jarring local/global dance between mind-boggling suffering, here at home and far away, set against amazing, life-saving achievements.

Statistics are a crude measure but help wake comfortable people from our cocoons.

  • More than 300,000 women each year die unnecessarily in complications from pregnancy and childbirth.
  • Seventeen children under five die every minute of the day from largely preventable causes.
  • The richest 500 people in the world earn about the same as the 416 million poorest.

It goes on and on. One speaker after another detailed mind-numbing numbers about potable water and sanitation, hunger, access to education, gender injustice, healthcare and HIV-AIDS, and a degraded environment, altogether grinding up the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings in the process.

As the day progressed I felt confused. Foggy. I couldn’t square a universal religious mandate to care for the poor and the reality that poverty can be significantly reduced, with the harsh fact that one out of every six people is in serious pain and dire need right now. Four of those same six live with very little. What is wrong with this picture? Why so terribly out of kilter?

The answer came back clearly – It is a matter of will, human will. Committed people who decide to make a difference prove over and over that they can change things. Bread for the World is making an art form out of visiting Democratic and Republican legislators over and over and over and over till they see the light and support foreign development and food aid. Persistence pays with politicians.

We heard about (and I’ve joined) www.ONE.org, the 2-million member anti-poverty network started by Bono, a group focused on empowering the will of caring people to convince leaders that global poverty must be addressed.

The good news is that dozens of agencies here and abroad have joined the cause constructively. We heard representatives from American Jewish World Service, Catholic Relief Services, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, the Faith Acts Program, Project Muso (empowering women in Mali), the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and the UN Millennium Campaign. Had we the time dozens more could have been summoned. Against the ghastly backdrop of world poverty they told story after story of success, some small, some huge, each one transforming in human terms. Their witness burned away my fog.

Most conferees came well educated about the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and newcomers were brought up to speed about this global survival agenda for the human family. The MDGs were adopted by 189 nations, including the United States, ten years ago at the United Nations, with a global commitment to significantly reduce poverty by 2015. In brief, the eight Goals seek to …

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger,
  • Achieve universal primary education,
  • Promote gender equality and empower women,
  • Reduce child mortality,
  • Improve maternal health,
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,
  • Ensure environmental sustainability, and
  • Develop a global partnership for development.

Religious communities in dozens of traditions and denominations have affirmed the MDGs, started study groups and taskforces, and begun creative new projects. (Seasoned activists suggested projects with a specific, narrow focus and measurable goals. No one can do everything).

Today most countries have not had the will to live up to earlier promises; specifically, to budget 0.7 percent of GNP to achieve the Goals. Thank you Scandinavia and Holland for bucking the trend! Contributions from the United States hover at about 0.2 percent, a far cry from what we promised and a tangible challenge to take to Congress and the administration.

Slowly, mid-morning on the second day, the conference began morphing into a group of networked individuals committed to developing the public will to address the basic needs of the neediest. In an open conversation people made acquaintance across the room, strategic plans emerged, and we exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Young adults (who had their own conference caucus) and their older colleagues worked seamlessly to focus issues at the concluding big-room family conversation. A college student from Portland pointed out, “We have congregations full of people who really care about this stuff, but they don’t know what to do. Which is why I’m so appreciative, why the young adults here appreciate seeing all of you at this conference doing what you do.”

Notes were taken for a report. The Bay Area Interfaith Coalition organizing this conference will continue its work. You can join by going to www.imdgc.org and signing in. At the bottom of the website’s MDG page you’ll find links to five of the most important agencies for anyone interested in getting engaged. You can visit the Coalition’s Facebook presence as well as learn about similar MDG hubs being formed in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with more hoped for.

One more critical resource: The United Nations Millennium Campaign’s www.endpoverty2015.org is a good place to keep up-to-date about the big picture. President Obama will be addressing American commitment to the MDGs in New York, September 20-22, and this site keeps you apprised of everything happening in preparation.

Joining the cause has become relatively easy – the issues clarified, background information and stories available, multiple strategies clearly outlined, and your creative energy anticipated. For people of faith and practice an imperative has been set, a wonderful opportunity to live into our deepest intuitions and teachings regarding the whole human family, each one of us.

- Paul Chaffee, Interfaith Center at the Presidio

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February 2010

The Warm Heart of Africa

March 13, 2009—

I recently returned from a trip to Malawi, one that seemed all too short to give justice to the small country in southern Africa. Malawi is just the size of Pennsylvania and is home to roughly 15 million beautiful people. Because of its size and landlocked geography, it is often overlooked and almost unknown to the world outside of Africa. But where Malawi lacks in size, it makes up for in spirit. The country is known as “the warm heart of Africa” as the people are characteristically friendly and peaceful.

My two-week stay in the green, lush country was quite intense. The main purpose for my journey was to assist in the establishment of a new project called Njira Ya Tsogolo. This education based project aims to empower the youth, enabling them to actively transform their country and create a better future. According to the World Bank, Malawi is the fifth poorest country in the world, and the youth suffer greatly from an education system that has been spiraling downward for many years. As I expected from a poor African country, most of the schools could not provide an education even remotely close to modern standards. No books, no materials, few desks, and little hope. Forget about technology or science experiments. All of the young adults I met were well aware that they were stuck in an ineffective and static system. And each one was eager to connect with a world that is passing them by at an ever increasing rate.

The goals of this project are simple—provide a small batch of computers, offer an intensive introductory course, and enable a select group of youth leaders to pass along the knowledge. We hope to model Njira Ys Tsogolo on the concept of “paying it forward.” Youth connect with youth, teach each other, and build community while learning valuable and tangible skills. Over the course of my two weeks in the urban city of Blantyre, I trained roughly 75 youth in the basics of operating a PC. I was overwhelmed with their gratitude for the computers. It showed most obviously in the commitment made by the students to take advantage of their opportunity to learn.

I left feeling very hopeful and optimistic about the future of this project. Not only were the results immediate, they indicated that this type of experience could lead to further innovation and creative thinking. A group of young leaders worked together to calculate the revenue and expenditures of their local food market using a spreadsheet. Many students took to creating flyers for events in their community using MS Power Point. The individuals who go on to teach their peers see the potential for computer lessons to become an income generating activity for themselves and their community groups. I am confident these young leaders will continue to disseminate this badly needed education.

Where does the faith belong in this project? Njira Ya Tsogolo developed out of a conference on interfaith peacebuilding I attended in Mayapur, India last December. It was part of an effort by United Religions Initiative (www.uri.org) to recognize and further motivate young leaders who have taken the initiative to bring about a world that allows for the peaceful coexistence of religious peoples. My three Malawian colleagues involved in the creation of this project were invited to attend this conference as well. They work with diverse populations of youth in their respective villages or townships. They are helping to create cultures of peace amongst devoted Catholics, Christians, Muslims, and those not ascribing to a single religion. Education is one of their primary goals. The illiteracy rate in Malawi is 60%, unemployment is the norm, and the incidence of HIV/AIDS is about 18%. Educating youth is a necessity.

I was fortunate enough to squeeze in a little sightseeing with day trips to Mulanje Mountain and Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi was named “The Lake of Stars” by the English explorer and anti-slavery activist, Dr. David Livingstone. It was quite magical and I will certainly return someday.

My hope is that this trip was simply the start of a new beginning for some of the Malawian youth communities. They need more computers and more education resources. As much as training, they need access to the technology which is now the modus operandi of communication around the world. As one young woman stated, “I must re-learn the absolute basics of a computer every six months because that is how often I get to use one. And without knowledge of computers and access to the Internet, I will not find a job in Malawi and will never experience anything outside of my own country.” The time for change is now!

I found the people as beautiful as the landscape and look forward to returning to this little area called “The warm heart of Africa.”

For donations and submissions of laptop computers, desktops, general education materials, or ideas, please e-mail Zachary Levine at Levine.z@gmail.com.

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