Digging, Growing, and Transforming
March 10, 2022
While the world has not been noticing in this cloud of Coronavirus, young interfaith leadership is emerging. Women’s leadership is inspiring. While the world has been distracted, change has been happening. A 17 year-old Muslim girl, a refugee to the U.S., is preparing to present at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Parallel event for a second time. The first time was really a success. Girls kept home by the pandemic could not be stopped. They remembered the leadership program they had been in, the Girls Global Summit.
How could this happen? A vulnerable young refugee having confidence and knowledge to speak on an international platform? Becoming an interfaith leader?
She is being mentored in a circle of compassionate University of the Incarnate Word graduate students from Nepal, Uganda, Brazil, with Mexican Americans and U.S. students, who are in a larger circle with faculty from Turkey, Nigeria, India, Uganda, and Jordan building the Young Women’s Global Leadership Program. They are in circles with the “Stories of Truth and Transformation” participants, a conference that began our “Institute of Interfaith Excellence” year in August 2021. A favorite session was “Interfaith Peace Building: One Story at a Time” by Rev. Wyndee Holbrook and Dr. Dhawn Martin with Lisa Epstein, Damaris Cavazos Fike, and Fulya Seker.
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The Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Muslim faculty and student presenters from four colleges and universities in our city participated because they were invited by those of us in a circle building a “City of Compassion” centered in the Faith Based Office of the City of San Antonio linked to a thousand congregations. The conference came after the UIW Graduate Education Class on Compassionate Research led by Dr. Sandy Guzman Foster. She called forth the students to present and to participate in “Stories of Truth and Transformation” that they might start to know themselves as part of the interfaith network of San Antonio.
This 17 year-old Muslim has already presented and read Quranic text about caring for God’s creation for the feast of St. Francis of Assisi with Christian students sharing from the Bible. They all unite in their research and their pleas for protecting God’s creation. That “Blessing of the Animals and Prayer for Creation” also remembered that 800 years ago the main Muslim ruler in the world and Francis engaged in dialogue. The gathering included a song about their encounter, “We Come Only Armed with Love.”
She and her group CESA, the Climate Enthusiasts of San Antonio, hosted “CESA Interfaith Tree Planting Event to Help Mitigate Climate Change” with partners from Congregation Agudas Achim Synagogue, and Christians in the area. They gave out copies of a flier that had been developed by students in a previous IFYC grant for Interfaith Leadership. The flier described the global Compassion Tree Project and showed pictures of trees related to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Trees give oxygen that pushes against climate change. Planting a tree is an act of compassion towards your neighbor and furthers the global sustainability movement. The trees were provided by our City Parks and Recreation as part of our commitment to the Compassion Tree movement.
When this emerging leader, a Muslim refugee, meets monthly on zoom with young women from Kenya, Kosovo, Uganda, and the U.S., the conversations are carrying forward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A girl in Uganda or in San Antonio may not have had a conversation with a person of another faith tradition in her local neighborhood. A U.S. girl who has access to a computer on a Saturday may not have talked to a poor person in her neighborhood. These young women, smiling and waving in their Zoom boxes, are building needed bridges of understanding and empowerment. The young women in Kaberamaido District, Eastern Uganda are teaching all of us courage.
The caring doctoral student mentor who has met indigenous women from the Amazon in Peru wants to help market their crafts since the pandemic has stopped the small income they had from tourists. She is opening the eyes of the young women from Europe and from Africa to the disadvantaged in Latin America. They, with their closeness to nature, their indigenous spirituality near the Amazon River, may teach us things about saving the planet or at least about appreciating and trying to preserve the Rain Forest, the “lungs of the planet.” See them in the Selva Pucallpa.
In the pandemic the Muslim Physics teacher who is a main person behind the Young Women’s Global Leadership Program was so good presenting a children’s story book on the panel with our Jewish music professor presenting a Jewish story book. They were side by side with our San Antonio friend Simran Jeet Singh writing for Religious News Service in NYC who zoomed in to read us “Fauja Singh Keeps Going” about the Sikh centenarian Fauja Singh, who in 2011 became the oldest person believed to have run a marathon.
One of our graduates, who got one of the IFYC Starter Grants, which are given right after graduation, shared the Christian story of Our Lady of Guadalupe illustrated by Tomie dePaola. We do not yet have enough data on the emerging five-year-old interfaith leaders hearing these stories to include them in this article, but they may excel beyond the seventeen year old!
A very poignant moment occurred during the first IFYC grant that UIW had, “Developing Interfaith Literacy and Fluency.” As the Hindu and Christian leader of that were leading about 15 faculty in a discussion, the Muslim math teacher and the Jewish music teacher each brought up how they were teaching prayer to their small children. Their depth of tender care was a model for all of us in the mission of the University of the Incarnate Word. We promote human dignity, we promote compassion, we are centered in love. God’s word is love.
The Young Women’s Global Leadership group is focusing on sustainability and water in their presentation on March 16, 2022, for the UN Commission on the Status of Women event. Water and air are beyond the names of our faiths, as is the pandemic. Yet the pandemic, the water, and the air call us to go to the deepest places of our religious traditions, the places where we know that we are loved. There we can become strong and beautiful. We learn to use our voices and our hands.
The founding call of the Incarnate Word Sisters, underlying the founding of UIW whispers in our hearts: “Our Lord Jesus Christ suffering seeks relief at your hands.” That was written while 10% of the population of our city was dying of plagues in the 1800’s. The Divine invites us to use our hands to alleviate suffering now.
Young leaders are listening. They dig the holes to plant the trees.
“To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger … In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life, ” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, in “An Altar in the World”.
Put into prayer: “May I direct my faith not as a way of thinking, but as a way of kneading, digging, and stirring.”