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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Honors the Religious Mosaic of the Netherlands

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Utrecht, Netherlands - The small girl watched quietly as green mosaic tiles were laid to form the scarf and dress of a Muslim child. “What’s that?” she asked shyly, pointing to the figure. “It’s a little Muslim girl. You see she is standing together with two other Dutch children,” a participant in the Religious Youth Service (RYS) explained. The girl, herself wearing a scarf, smiled in delighted understanding. “Oh, I see!” she exclaimed; “they are different, but one!” This simple message of the mosaic-covered bench will be proclaimed at the Lucas School in a largely Turkish and Moroccan section of Utrecht, the Netherlands during a Religious Youth Service project July 7-17, 2008

With globalization, our exposure to people and cultures from all over the world is increasing. Yet, relationships of people of different cultures seem unable to go beyond tolerance and perhaps respect; it is rare for the average person to develop a sincere curiosity and appreciation for each others' differences. Society seems to be unable to deal well with diversity. Rather than living together in an intercultural society, we are creating communities of different cultures which exist side by side. Is this really valuing our diversity?

Such issues are very prominent in the Netherlands. As Europe’s most densely populated country with 16 million people, its survival and well-being depend on its peoples’ ability to live side by side in mutual respect. The Netherlands reportedly has the second-largest proportion of Muslims in Europe (6 percent), and in such a country interreligious comprehension and friendships are crucial.

However, religiously-motivated violence, especially in 2004, drew attention to the need for interreligious comprehension, dialogue, and friendships. There are tensions among the Moroccan and Turkish communities in Utrecht in relation to the larger Dutch society. Integrating immigrants into a ‘mosaic culture’ is a topic of discussion in cities such as Den Haag, but young people from different religions and cultures do not have frequent opportunities to meet and mix.

Religious Youth Service, a project of the Universal Peace Federation, creates opportunities for youth of different religions, cultures, and backgrounds to engage in dialogue, learn to know each other, and spend time living together with a common purpose of serving the community. In strengthening the deepest values that are common to most religions, RYS encourages people to practice their faith through contributing to the community and connecting with other faiths and cultures.

This year’s ten-day intercultural youth project brought national and international participants to a Moroccan and Turkish immigrant section of Utrecht to help promote integration of immigrants into the Dutch culture, building on a project in 2007. This year, participants worked closely with the local mosques and community organizations to meet local needs.

There were many opportunities for the youth of the area to interact with our intercultural group. School children visited daily with their teachers and on their own after school. They joined in designing and creating mosaics on benches and a wall. One design integrated the Dutch flag with the crescent moon and star (symbols of Morocco) and the Turkish five-pointed star. At the center of the bench were three figures: a Dutch boy and girl together with a little girl in a long dress and head scarf. A second project, a dialogue bench, involved putting mosaics on three facing benches. The head bench featured a sun with rays streaming from it, a symbol of life and hope, while the two supportive benches depicted many colored hands raised together integrated into the rays of hope. The benches are designed to facilitate communication. Inspirational quotes on creativity are planned as a contemplative centerpiece for the benches. The third project, a large wall mural, sported symbols of joy, laughter, and music.

Participants shared in aspects of the local and immigrant cultures. The Galecop arranged three workshops for participating youth: in rap, Mid-eastern drumming and Bollywood dancing. A cultural evening program allowed everyone to share their newly acquired abilities and also talents reflective of their native culture. A visit to Gouda, the famed cheese market, tempted the adventurous to taste traditional foods of the area including raw herring dipped in onions. A four-hour bike ride, employing the most common means of travel in the Netherlands, was a memorable experience together with a boat ride through the canals.

Perhaps the most interesting part were the many visits to religious sites. We attended the services of Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu, and Universal Sufi faiths to more deeply understand their beliefs and their related worship ceremonies. Members of each of the faith traditions shared their unique way of worshiping the Divine, allowing the visiting youth a chance to take part in their worship if they desired, observe the devotions, ask questions, and discover for themselves what and why each group worshiped as they did.

Each religion expressed warmth and sincerity to the group. A special highlight to these visits was the gracious service of a Sikh priest in wrapping turbans on the heads of the participants. It seems it is the simple acts of joy and friendship which are the true expressions of religious love and faith. They are the embodiment and expressions of true loving relationship, the essence of all faith traditions.

The spirit of RYS was expressed by Aika Watanabe:

“The education we received regarding intercultural and interfaith dialogue as well as the mosaics we did were very effective learning experiences. However, I was most affected by our visits to the various religious sites. Being able to experience each religion first-hand and interact with its community was something I would have never been able to experience through a book or another service organization. With every new place of worship that we visited, my mind became more and more open to the new experiences and concepts. I left with the strong desire to continue to expand my knowledge and experience of other faiths. I am so grateful that RYS is bringing this world and its many peoples closer together in heart and spirit.”

 

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