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Teens from Regions of Conflict Gather to Learn to Use Religion for Peace

By Auburn Theological Seminary

June 28, 2004 — On June 27, more than 50 teens from the Middle East, Northern Ireland, South Africa and the United State — Muslims, Christians, and Jew — will gather in upstate New York for the fourth year of Face to Face/Faith to Faith, an international, multifaith youth leadership program. Face to Face aims to develop a new generation of leaders who have the capacity to negotiate the challenges and opportunities of a multifaith global society. The program is rooted in the belief that young people of diverse backgrounds can find common ground despite the differences of religion and culture.

The students, ages 16-18, are participants in this program co-sponsored by New York's Auburn Theological Seminary, a pioneer in multi-faith programming, in partnership with Seeking Common Ground, a Denver-based peace organization which has sponsored programs for youth in the Middle East and the United States for more than a decade.

While people of all faiths agree that violence and conflict in the name of religion are regrettable, faith groups have often remained quiet or even suppressed those who question the use of violence "in God's name." The events of September 11th and ongoing conflicts in places such as Iraq make the need for this program more urgent than ever. For many of the participants, it will be the first trip outside their home countries, their first experience of New York City, and — most importantly — their first encounter with the "other."

During their July 4th visit to New York City, the teens will put faith into action at a service project addressing homelessness, coordinated by the Quaker nonprofit Youth Services Opportunities Program (YSOP). They will also explore larger contexts for peace work with scholars and activists such as South Africa's Farid Esack; Julio Medina of the Exodus Transitional Community, and Danielle Celermajer of Columbia's Center for the Study of Human Rights. Worship at selected "sacred spaces" — Jumma at the 96th Street Mosque, Shabbat at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, and Sunday services at the Brick Presbyterian Church, for example — will allow them to be "good neighbors" in faith.

Face to Face unfolds in two phases. The intensive two-week summer curriculum upstate combines religious study and exploration of sacred texts, communication skills, leadership, and peace-building workshops. In this safe space, which a Northern Ireland teen called "a little piece of heaven," participants learn to trust themselves and others, building friendships through group sports, arts projects, and the simple tasks of living and working together in community. Visits from artists, storytellers, musicians, and filmmakers encourage further self-discovery and expression. Exposure to religious and public leaders also offers the youth a glimpse into their own roles in shaping a more just future.

Participants are committed to the program for at least one year, and follow a structured course back home. The on-line curriculum keeps the dialogue moving, and email sustains relationships with new friends from around the world. A "home group leader," who accompanied them to the summer program, guides the development of social action projects in education and volunteerism.

And the program's effects ripple outward. Parents of alumni from South Africa and Israel, for example, who have witnessed their children's "voyage in human understanding," have even formed interfaith groups themselves for their own growth and to support their children's efforts.

In the words of one participant, "It's hard to change the world!" Yet more than 200 teens over the past four years have found the courage to try. They are chosen especially from areas of the world where the use of religion as a means of oppression is all too common. Having witnessed faith and belief co-opted for destructive ends, they learn how these can and should instead be used constructively: for making peace. Co-founder and long-time peace activist Melodye Feldman says that through active, intentional listening and honest dialogue, participants learn how to understand the other and see humanity there. "We are teaching them how to tell, and listen to, passionate points of view." Executive Vice President of Auburn Theological Seminary, Presbyterian minister, and fellow founder Katharine Henderson adds, "The mission is to appreciate the other's perspective." A New York alumnus concludes, "It is the most powerful thing I have experienced."

Face to Face/Faith to Faith runs June 27 through July 12 at the Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center in Holmes, New York and in New York City. For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact Nicole de Jesa, Development and Communications Associate, Auburn Theological Seminary: 212.662.4315; cell: 646.244.8028; or ndj@auburnsem.org.

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