American Civic Life

Young People Leading Interfaith Learning and Conversation in Atlanta

By Chris RayAlexander
IAY members at Interfaith Atlanta's 3rd Annual Interfaith Fest on September 10, 2023. Photo courtesy of RayAlexander.

IAY members at Interfaith Atlanta's 3rd Annual Interfaith Fest on September 10, 2023. Photo courtesy of RayAlexander.

I’ve heard that every journey begins with a single step, but beginning an adventure of interfaith exploration takes much more. In my work with Interfaith Atlanta Youth (IAY), I soon discovered just how rewarding—and challenging—it can be to let young people lead the way toward a better world. With its focus on advocacy and action, communal prayer, education on religion, and interfaith dialogue and cooperation, IAY’s mother organization, Interfaith Atlanta, has been a fixture of interfaith activity in the Atlanta area for more than 20 years.

In 2022, generous financial assistance from Interfaith America’s Building Interfaith America grant, enthusiastic support from Interfaith Atlanta’s board, and indispensable contributions from community partners like Re’Generation Movement, New American Pathways, and Interfaith Children’s Movement combined to open a new chapter for interfaith youth leadership in the Greater Atlanta Area. 

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (center) at the Second Annual Interfaith Luncheon with Interfaith Atlanta Youth and Chris RayAlexander (left). Photo courtesy of RayAlexander

Young people have a real knack for calling out our society’s moral missteps and blind spots. Reflecting Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortation, our youth are often healthily maladjusted to injustice. This means that they are perfectly positioned to receive the invitation to interfaith learning and service that IAY extends to young people, grades 8-12, in the Greater Atlanta Area. It creates a space that celebrates diversity and brings humanity’s many points of unity to light alongside common concerns and shared struggles. IAY’s members come from different socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. They have access to different educational resources and life experiences. They are Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. They present different genders and are labelled with different citizenship statuses. On paper, they might seem to have very little in common, but what holds them together is a shared attitude of curiosity, empathy, honesty, and vulnerability that breathes life into their interfaith community and the cooperation that flourishes therein. 

IAY held its first interfaith service event in May 2022 at the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Decatur, Georgia. With over 40 young people in attendance, and thanks in large part to the invaluable support of the Ismaili community, this event was a marked success. Interfaith dialogues were held, a talk was given on the meaning of pluralism, and care packages were assembled for distribution to recently arrived people from Afghanistan.  

That inaugural event was only a first taste of the great things to come:  by a year after its founding, IAY had either hosted events or joined with community partners for activities including (but not limited to): celebrating Sukkot and preparing food for unhoused people; assisting a local church with a Thanksgiving food distribution; visiting a local mandir to learn more about Hinduism and dismantle religious prejudices; planting trees in honor of interfaith activist Dr. Juzar S. Bandukwala; cleaning a local river for World Rivers Day; hosting a workshop on interfaith storytelling and empathetic listening with Re’Generation Movement and Narrative 4; returning to the Decatur Jamatkhana to pack school supplies for students in need; hosting a youth interfaith leadership retreat; facilitating a youth interfaith dialogue and presenting critical questions for the 13th Annual Atlanta Interfaith Hunger Seder; and participating in a Ramadan moon sighting with Atlanta’s Camp Noor Shi’a Muslim community. IAY’s visibility increased with every event and eventually earned it an invitation to provide an interfaith statement on justice and peace at Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ 2nd Annual Interfaith Luncheon.  

IAY members at Interfaith Atlanta's 3rd Annual Interfaith Fest on September 10, 2023. Photo courtesy of RayAlexander.

This rise to prominence, however, only partially conveys all of IAY’s youth members achievements since its inception. Most essential to their success are the bonds of friendship and solidarity that sustain and fuel their passion for interfaith cooperation. IAY’s members’ desire for a community in which questions of faith and identity can be safely and authentically explored is the heart of the organization. Indeed, interfaith relationship building is just as essential to the community that they have created as it is to the service that they provide to others.

IAY’s biweekly meetings offer a chance to explore themes from different faith traditions, ask probing questions about our prejudices and assumptions, and grow a deep-rooted sense of community that expresses itself through care for our communities. Current IAY president Ella Jeffres summarizes this point well: “I’ve learned that the whole idea of interfaith work is just serving humanity,” and what makes this possible is having “positive religious communities that can make the world a better place.”

The space for interfaith community enabled by IAY’s youth promotes interreligious and intercultural curiosity as well as involvement in their own faith communities. Past IAY President Izan Sandhya confirms as much when he shares that his involvement in IAY responded to “a need to be more involved in my [own religious] community” and reinforced his hope that “there is a way that we can overcome that [interreligious] violence and understand other religions.” IAY Vice president Aleeza Bandukwala echoes that sentiment. Her time in IAY has taught her that,Everybody’s not out to get you because you’re a certain religion. Everyone is a lot more similar than you think.” IAY Treasurer Gay Wah views these new possibilities for understanding each other in the light of her desire for social justice. She knows that the presence of undeniable religious and cultural diversity also reveals basic truths about the value of our fellow humans. For example, “people don’t deserve to be hungry. They deserve to be fed, one way or another.” But Gay Wah’s moral insistence doesn’t stop there. She knows that caring for the hungry is about more than just satisfying the needs of one person in particular. By recognizing that “in the end we’re all in this together,” our response to others can also generate an attitude of care and concern for the whole human community. 

IAY Interfaith Leadership Retreat in September 2022. Photo courtesy of RayAlexander.

In reflecting on their experiences in IAY, its youth members often emphasize how essential empathy is for interfaith work. IAY Outreach Chair Kara MacKay signals how empathy can transform us: “I think that being able to see other people and learn about their perspectives helps you to have that empathy for others and love them. That’s what helps change the world.” IAY Secretary Brandon Buchalter argues that “the entire idea of Interfaith Atlanta Youth is based off of positive fundamental ideas,” namely, “interfaith dialogue, religious literacy, and service to the Atlanta community.” For Brandon, embracing those ideas allows IAY’s work to extend far beyond the organization: “Something like IAY… is extremely positive, not just for oneself, but for the people that you’re going to end up impacting later on in your religious communities, outside your religious communities, and in other interfaith communities, whether it’s in Atlanta or not.” 

Interfaith spaces like this teach our young people that we all need each other to be who we are.

Engaging young people in interfaith work yields inspirational results that may also seem counterintuitive given how identity and difference are often discussed today. For example, IAY Social Media Chair Tseday Ademe expressed how her involvement in IAY’s Sukkot celebration filled her with feelings of both concern and appreciation. She first joined IAY because she thought that “learning about different cultures would allow me to really respect them and could teach me how to respect my own religion more.” This respect for others inspired her to deepen her understanding of her own faith, but it also made her afraid that the continuation of both her own Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition and other faith traditions might be under threat: “You can’t rely on one person to know everything… what if in the future we didn’t have [other religious traditions] anymore?” Tseday’s elevation and valorization of traditions other than her own demonstrate a fundamental insight into interfaith relationship building: it is both possible and necessary to uphold and treasure others’ traditions while also enriching one’s own understanding of faith. As scholar John J. Thatamanil often insists, religious differences are a promise, not a problem. 

The quotations above were all taken from a series of interviews entitled “The Why of IAY.” They reflect the shared experience of IAY members and convey a dynamic that is as instructive as it is inspirational. The youth of IAY prove that interfaith work is a — at least — two-way street. For all of us, the curiosity that encourages us to understand others can also move us toward a deeper understanding of our own traditions. The honesty that enables an assessment of our own shortcomings and prejudices can also foster empathy for others’ imperfections. The vulnerability that makes possible a truly open embrace of others can also illuminate unexplored spaces within oneself. IAY is more than just another youth group. It is a gathering place where our mutual dependency is revealed and honored. Spaces like this teach our young people that we all need each other to be who we are. That is why this kind of interfaith work is as beneficial as it is urgent. 

A year on from its creation, IAY’s youth have found their “why?” in the space for interfaith discovery they have created, the new perspectives they have brought to light, and the friendship and solidarity upon which they continue to build. With the support of their communities and organizations like Interfaith America and Interfaith Atlanta, the members of IAY continue to prove the unlimited potential of young people who are willing to lead, learn, and love with empathy, honesty, curiosity, and vulnerability. 

Dr. Chris RayAlexander is a recent graduate of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. After a career as a Spanish professor, he has embraced a full-time interfaith vocation and will be forwarding the mission of Atlanta’s Interfaith Children’s Movement while seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. He is a co-founder and Chair of the Support Board for Interfaith Atlanta Youth, a project connecting young people across faith, ethnic, and geographic boundaries through interfaith education, service, and advocacy. In his free time, he translates philosophy and navigates the perils and promises of parenthood with his partner, their son, and their orange tabby.