Hersheyth Aggarwal traveled to South Korea to attended the URI Korea Youth Peace Camp alongside URI young leaders from around the world. Hersheyth invites us into his experience by sharing his reflects below.
The URI Youth Peace Camp in Korea was an amazing experience. The focus of the camp was to discuss the concept of global citizenship and learn about Korean culture. The first couple of days in the camp we went to the Sea of Japan and saw Naksana Temple, the border, and a Korean War Memorial museum. Then we returned to Seoul where we visited the Korean National Museum, a Won Buddhist Temple, a Mormon Temple, and a Cathedral. Almost every day we also broke up into discussion groups in the evening and each discussion group made a presentation to show on the final day.
Swami Anjani, a member of the Kashi Ashram Cooperation Circle, was invited to speak last month at a high school interfaith event in Vero Beach, Florida. Below is her report.
On April 22nd St. Edward’s School presented “Finding Common Ground: An Interfaith Conversation.” The event was the brainchild of the Breaking Barriers Club, which is comprised of ten high school teenagers. Their President and Founder, Sana Shareef, will be entering her senior year in the fall.
The panel consisted of Swami Anjani, from Kashi Ashram; Rev. Robert Baggott, Community Church; Rabbi Michael Birnholz, Temple Beth Shalom; Fr. Dennis Gonzales, St. Helen Church; Claudia Jimenez, Unitarian Universalist fellowship; Iman Khalid Latif, Chaplain at NYU and the NYC Police Dept; and Dr. John Esposito, Professor of Religion & International Affairs, Georgetown University.
After Sana Shareef set the tone with her opening remarks, each panelist spoke in turn. Imam Latif’s passion for Interfaith dialog and understanding brought the audience to its feet, followed by Dr. Esposito’s equally inspiring keynote address. The speakers then reconvened as a panel to respond to questions from the audience.
I was deeply moved by the emphasis on love and the focus on embracing all the amazing paths to God.I was inspired by the “call to action’ voiced by many of our panelists: it is not a time to take a back seat and allow hatred and suspicion to rule the hearts of our neighbors. We must put ourselves out there, one conversation at a time.
I am grateful to this group of young people for taking a stand and inviting us all along.
What gives me #TangibleHope is the moral courage of the people around the world with whom I have the privilege of working. Moral courage is the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences. The task of interfaith activity and peacebuilding is not easy. It often involves taking great personal risks and sacrifices to address the issues of violence, extremism, racism, and discrimination non-violently.
A very meaningful and eye-opening example of this indomitable courage occurred for me last week. I was on a conference call with our Euphrates Chapter Leaders. (The Euphrates Insitute is a United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circle that has a network model much like URI, but on a much smaller scale. We currently have 25 local satellite groups around the world who further the Euphrates mission in their communities.) Our Chapter Leader from Sudan discussed how aggressively ISIS is recruiting in his area and how he is using it as an opportunity to increase his efforts to educate people about peace, bridge-building with the West, and turning the ‘Other’ into a brother as a counterpoint to the terrorist group’s narrative.
I asked him how he was dealing with being aligned with an American-based organization started by a former U.S. government official. “Isn’t that risky?” I pressed. “What about your personal security? Wouldn’t the government, and/or ISIS folks try to brand you as a spy, unpatriotic, infidel, etc, etc. How do you deal with that?
Everyone on the call got quiet to hear his response.
“Of course it is risky,” he acknowledged. “You took risks in your life, going to war zones. And I take risks in mine. This is a big mission. We must take big risks. It’s because we believe in this and know it will help people. We must give the young people the chance for a different life.”
We were all touched. He repeated the ideas several times and with such sincerity. One lady even had to turn off the video, she told me later, because tears were streaming down her face.
His remarks served as a powerful reminder for me of the risks and sacrifices all of us are taking in this work, and to not take them lightly. The moral courage of folks like him who are working around the world to further peace, respect for other religions, finding common ground, overcoming oppression, is what gives me #TangibleHope on a daily basis.
In my own journey, moral courage has evolved from seeing the people of the Middle East as the “enemy” to seeing them as partners, friends. Through my work as a counterinsurgency analyst in Iraq, I was involved in the “military solution” as the way to deal with conflict, but ultimately found it to be a fruitless effort that did not stem the problem of war at the root. It felt like catching drops of water from a leaky faucet, which doesn’t actually fix the faucet.
I believe the transformation I experienced from seeing Iraqis as the ‘Other’ to seeing them as brothers is possible for each one of us when we open our hearts and minds to whomever the ‘Other’ is to us in our lives. (See my TEDx talk on this topic to hear more.)
I invite you to contemplate the question “Who is my ‘Other’?” Is it a group from a different religion, nation, ethnicity, race, gender, political party? Can you open your thought to having an encounter, a personal experience with your ‘Other’ in a fresh way? You may find the results to be utterly transformative.
Imagine each of us doing this. Talk about #TangibleHope.
Janessa Gans Wilder is a former CIA officer turned peacebuilder, social entrepreneur, and nonprofit executive. She is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Euphrates Institute, an organization that builds peace and understanding about critical Middle East issues. She founded Euphrates after five years at the CIA focused on the Middle East, including serving 21 months in Iraq from 2003-2005. Janessa is a frequent speaker in interfaith, community, government, international, and educational settings. She has written dozens of articles and been interviewed by major news outlets, including CBS, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Democracy Now, and many more.