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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Project Held in Washington DC

Washington DC, USA - A four-day Religious Youth Service program in the US capital opened on July 21, 2014 with orientation at The Washington Times. Mrs. Tomiko Duggan, director, and Mr. John Haydon, coordinator, explained the program to the 15 participants, who ranged in age from14 to 31. Most came from the East Coast, but one flew in from Georgia, a country bordering Russia.

After welcome remarks and a video about UPF activities, Mrs. Duggan explained the three pillars of the program, inter-faith education, developing personal leadership and peacemaking skills, and living for the sake of others. The students then all introduced themselves. From The Washington Times, the students then traveled to Gallaudet University in Washington DC, where they stayed for the four nights of the program. Gallaudet is a private university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The accommodations were very good and it was humbling for the students to be exposed to other students with hearing disabilities.

Interfaith education

The day of interfaith education was held at The Washington Times, with a focus on the mainline faiths of the world. By learning about other faiths, participants came to appreciate the values that religions share and recognized that cooperation among faith groups is the foundation for an ethical and healthy society. The day began with an interfaith candle lighting ceremony held to symbolize the unity of the participants. Fifteen candles were placed on a table on the stage. In an emotional ceremony, all the participants stood on the stage and one-by-one read a well-known peace-oriented quote and lit a candle.

The first session featured speakers from the three Abrahamic faiths. Mr. Gary Fellman, president of the Silver Spring Jewish Center Men’s Club, said “The fundamental principle of Judaism is,’ that which is hateful to yourself do not do to your neighbor.” Pastor Dant’e King of the Greater Mount Zion Church said “Love like Christ, live like him and lead like him.” Ms. Zainab Chaudry, manager of the Maryland Outreach Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said “I got into inter-faith work to counter the view that Islam is a religion of violence. It is a religion of peace.”

The second session featured religions from the East. Mr. Amar Nath Gupta, head priest of the Hindu Capital Temple, said “Each and every human being must have brotherhood. Hinduism philosophy is to lead a peaceful life.” He also gave instruction on certain yoga positions. Ven. Maharagama Dhammasiri, a Buddhist, said “The knowledge of impermanence helps us stay calm…the more attached we are, the more we will suffer in the departure.”

Before lunch, Mr. Thomas McDevitt, chairman of The Washington Times, spoke about the paper’s four founding principles: family, faith, freedom and service, and challenged the participants to live meaningful lives and work in their community for positive change. “Ideas have consequences,” he said. The Washington Times challenges the “Blame America” mentality.

The session on “A Vision of Peace” opened with Pastor Matthew Goldberg, former pastor of the Maryland Unification Church, who said, “Unification Thought asserts that there are absolute values. We are conditioned by cultural norms and our challenge is to cultivate our original mind.” Pastor Ernest Patton, district pastor for the Unification Church in the DC Metro area, described the focus of Unification theology as "creating a family of God.”

Speaking on Native American issues, Ms. Penny Gamble-Williams, from the Ohke Cultural Network, Inc., said “Life is all about knowing and seeing from a spiritual perspective. It’s about knowing yourself and how we are all connected.”

Mrs. Susan Fefferman, program coordinator for the Ambassadors for Peace Initiative in Washington DC, said, “By knowing what a person believes we can respect them and work with them to bring about world peace."

Participants received first-hand education on the faiths by visiting various sacred sites in the city, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the Americas, and the Islamic Center of Washington, where the students received an in-depth briefing by Imam Iqbal Abbasi. The visit was made special because it was during the month of Ramadan, observed by fasting from sunrise to sunset. The day finished with a meal at Upshur House, where the students reflected on their busy day. Many of the students remarked on the visit to the mosque and Mr. Gary Fellman’s talk on Judaism.

Developing personal leadership and peacemaking skills

On day two, the students met with men and women who exemplify dedication and leadership and who are making positive contributions to our society, nation and world; the role of religion in policy making was emphasized.

A briefing on how the government connects with non-profit organizations was given by Dr. Ken Bedell, senior advisor at the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office at the U.S. Department of Education. He spoke about his time as a teacher in Swaziland in the 1970s and encouraged the students to become teachers.

At the Embassy of Mexico, Ms. Vanessa Calva Ruiz, from the press office, spoke about trade and immigration issues. She said, “Mexico is going through a very exciting time,” with new reforms; democratic changes and new energy policies.

The briefing at the Embassy of Botswana included a speech by Ambassador Mrs. Tebelelo Seretse. She is the first female ambassador to the United States from her nation. For many of the students, her talk was the highlight of the seminar. “The one good thing that religion does is to make us more tolerant of others,” said Mrs. Seretse. “It should teach us to be embracing of other people and cultures.” After her main talk, the ambassador spoke directly to the female students and warmly gave them wise advice about their career choices.

The students then ate lunch at the embassy and afterwards headed to Capitol Hill for a guided tour. Congressman Rodney Davis from the 13th district in Illinois invited the students into his office where he spoke for 20 minutes about the importance of upholding individual principles and never giving up. Congressman Davis spoke about the importance of faith in his own life. “Our faith plays a role in everything we do in our daily life,” he said. The congressman, who comes from the district where Abraham Lincoln is buried, spoke about how he decided to run for office in 2012 and how it is important to work with others to get policy crafted.

“Our system is based on principled compromise,” he said. “You have to make tough decisions here in Congress but you have to stand for your principles.” Mr. Davies said as a young man growing up in a small country town he was inspired by Ronald Reagan and his vision for America. “I still believe in that vision, that America, ‘is a shining city on a hill’, but we have a lot of problems to face.”

George Tumasyan, from the Republic of Georgia, spoke on the situation in the Ukraine, and John Haydon talked about solving resentments in the world. Focusing on the Biblical story of Joseph, he emphasized the two ingredients for resolving resentments in the world: being able to say sorry, and to forgive.

The students then visited the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, where the program director, Mrs. Rebecca Cataldi, described how conflict resolution is being successfully used to ease tensions in hot spots around the world. She talked about her experiences visiting female madrases (Islamic schools) in Pakistan. She said that her life was at risk at the time but her own personal faith helped her in the situation. “We have a perception that people are hostile to us,” said Mrs. Cataldi, “but through dialogue and contact we can break down these barriers.”

Service

Day four, and perhaps the highlight of the seminar for many students, was the service project at the Washington Buddhist Vihara  (monastery) on 16th Street. After a wonderful lunch prepared by the temple staff, students and staff, under the guidance of Mrs. Susan Fefferman, planted over 30 trees and plants in a beautification project in the front garden of the Buddhist center. While the soil was very hard and rocky, the students accomplished an amazing transformation of the garden in just over three hours.

At the graduation dinner, Ms. Annika Betancourt, a foreign service officer at the U.S. Department of State, spoke about her work at the visa office in a dangerous part of Mexico. She explained to the students how she was inspired to work at the Foreign Service Office.

After Ms. Betancourt’s talk, the students offered reflections and received graduation certificates as Ambassadors for Peace.

Reflections

Participants expressed how the program helped them understand other religions and cultures. Washington D.C. is an ideal location to introduce young people to religious leaders, government leaders, the diplomatic corps, NGOs and sacred sites, and it offers many opportunities for service. Speakers and guests who participated in the program were inspired by the students and the goal of Religious Youth Service. At the National Catholic Shrine, the tour guide said, “I sense this group is very special.”

All the programs were wonderful experiences for me. I had experiences I have never had before, such as meeting congressmen and ambassadors, and almost all of the speakers used the common word “God,” which made me realize people may have different religions but we all believe in one God. We can all unite and work together as one family under God. - Haruko Iwata, NOVA, Virginia

The trip to the Capitol and the White House was interesting since I had never been there before. I was especially encouraged by the presentation of the ambassador of Botswana. The tour of religious sites was also interesting, but what blew my mind was the talk by Native American, Mrs. Penny Gamble-Williams. She inspired me to be myself and to take action for myself. It was nice to meet people from different cultures on the RYS program and work together doing an awesome service project planting flowers. - Marie-Laure Joseph, Penn Foster Career School, Maryland

This program was organized quite well. I enjoyed the number of religious views we were able to listen to as well as visiting both a church (Basilica of the National Shrine) and a mosque. What inspired me was the level of respect that the religious representatives had for all other faiths. I was moved by the stories of Mr. Bedell and the Botswana Ambassador, Tebelelo Seretse, and the hardships they both endured, and was inspired by Mrs. Cataldi’s presentation on how conflict resolution is being used to ease tensions around the world. - John Lee, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The interreligious speakers were great. I realized the value of seeking to understand perspectives that were not my own—of faiths and lifestyles and approaches to worshiping God that differ from mine. It is what world peace depends on, and being humble about your own faith allows you to learn from others about theirs. From this experience I learned that if you work hard and stand up for what is right, with God on your side, anything is possible. - Phebe Ciemny, George Mason University, Virginia

The various religious speakers gave a relatively brief overview of their religious views and practices. I was inspired by the speaker on Judaism (Gary Fellman) and would like to do further research about the Jewish culture and the importance of ethics in that culture. I also enjoyed the gardening service project we worked on at the Buddhist center. - Zoey Ciemny, NOVA, Virginia

The Ambassador of Botswana was very inspiring in her passion for her country. She had a warm, mothering spirit that even embraced us, whom she had just met. The dinners provided during the RYS program were always perfection! - Won-Shim Dadachanji, New Hope Academy, Maryland

The mosque was such a deep, heartfelt experience for me. To see the believers enter throughout the prayer and be able to join in wordlessly in the ritual and offer themselves-- prostrate themselves to Allah—was a great experience. Using pedagogy, we were really able to discuss about issues such as life, the universe and reality. - Kaeng Takahashi, Middlebury College, Vermont

The program was well organized. It was interesting to listen to representatives of different religions and faiths. I knew a lot about Christianity and Islam, but during this program I learned about other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. I appreciate the opportunity to listen to and learn from the various presenters. - George Tumasyan, Free University of Tbilisi, Georgia

It was interesting to see the interplay between Eastern and Western religious traditions as the various speakers presented their talks. I really loved Dr. Cataldi’s talk about working with different religions to foster peace in various places around the world by facilitating conflict resolution initiatives. The Ambassador of Botswana was very embracing of us and did not shy from speaking about God. - Chris Kennedy, George Mason University, Virginia

I found the presentations from the speakers to be interesting. I was especially interested in the information about the state of Islam. I was excited to see congressmen that I recognized when we toured the Capitol and White House. - William Russell, Huguenot High School, Virginia

Great speakers! Each speaker had an inspiring theme and general feel. Hearing about the different faiths and cultures inspired me to adapt more of the pros in other’s traditions. The insight I gained about Judaism was eye-opening and their take on life inspires me to do more good in the world. - Jong-Sun Mayele, Barrie High School, Maryland

There was a lot of information to absorb, but I truly felt that I could apply some of what I learned to my daily life. I enjoyed the experiences of visiting the basilica and the mosque and was inspired by the talk on Judaism. I could relate to the concept that faith is not as important as the actions we take or how we treat others. - David Aihe, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

I felt the speakers were thoughtfully chosen. I was especially inspired by Zainab Chaudry, who represented Islam. She was the perfect example of bringing understanding to a topic that is often misunderstood. Rebecca Cataldi (International Center for Religion and Diplomacy) was a great addition to the program and speakers. I was impressed with all the women speakers in the program. - Zeke Pobanz, University of North Carolina

Pastor Dant’e King (Greater Mount Zion Church) inspired me to do further study of my own religion because of his statement that religion is interpreted in different ways by man. Ms. Cataldi’s talk about visiting many places doing her work in conflict resolution makes me look at America and other countries differently. And the Ambassador of Botswana has inspired me to re-evaluate the plan I had for my life. - Nadia Earle, Newark Early College Prep, New York

Rebecca Cataldi from the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy was amazing! I was very moved by the foresight of this organization, the religious approach they use to make a difference in resolving conflict, and the success they have had. I also found Gary Fellman’s talk on Judaism of great value. He emphasized that actions are more of a priority then faith. - Ian Scott, UMUC, Maryland

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