During the weekend of Jan. 22-24, while everyone on the east coast experienced the mass hit-and-run snow storm that called Winter Storm Jonas, I had the opportunity to attend the Interfaith Youth Core’s (IFYC) Conference for the Interfaith Leadership Institute in Atlanta, Ga., with my university’s delegation.
The Interfaith Youth Core’s mission is to make interfaith work and tolerance a social norm across campuses, communities and the country. Through initiatives like the Interfaith Leadership Institute, IFYC works to train leaders to carry out that message across the nation.
Upon arriving to Atlanta from New Jersey, and after an extremely eventful morning of travel, turbulence and mishaps, our delegation made our way to conference hall where our learning began. Throughout the weekend, we took part in training exercises and leadership lessons.
We began with introductions and exploring what it meant to be an interfaith leader with one another, then took some time to reflect on our own interfaith stories.
As someone who loves the idea of self-reflecting and never actually has time to do so, this was probably one of my favorite things about the conference — to sit there and think back about all the events, situations and circumstances that brought me to my interest of understanding others on a human level. No race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status needed was such a beautiful and humbling thing to do.
It made me feel so grateful for the experiences that I have had leading up to that moment and it made me remember all the reasons I voice my love for such a huge part of my identity.
My favorite activity however, was called “Speed-faithing,” which was where individuals from the IFYC team of different faiths, non-faiths and spiritualities were placed in different rooms. The attendees of the conference were able to choose from a schedule which faith they wanted a crash-course in.
I was able to attend the sessions for a Sunni Muslim (Hey, we can never learn too much about our own faith, right?), a Humanist, and a Wiccan. All three, including the session on Islam, were so enlightening and I was able to understand each perspective so much more thoroughly than I had before.
It made realize how many core principles Islam shares with almost every single faith — and if you think about it, that’s such an incredible connector for humanity.
Some of the other leadership lessons we learned were in regard to engaging religious differences, talking about “hot topics” and mapping out a plan for interfaith development on our campuses once we returned.
We were also even given free time to explore, which was very welcome, because Atlanta is such a beautiful city. Seriously. Yes, there is the aquarium — which was amazing, and the CNN headquarters (So cool!), and there are beautiful landmarks to gaze upon in admiration (I totally did.), but the people we came across were so accepting and kind.
One of my favorite places we were able to visit was Masjid Al-Farooq — an absolutely beautiful masjid architecturally and socially.
When we walked into the main prayer area — a massive room with a dome ceiling and Islamic calligraphy — we realized we were walking into an event and I was so amazed to see the absolute sense of equality and compassion from a predominantly non-Muslim crowd as the lecturer explained the misconceptions of Islam.
Men, women and children of different faiths and backgrounds sat together on chairs or on the floor and simply listened. The conference encouraged me to continue with my interfaith learning and it convinced me that communication with people who are different from us is necessary for building knowledge and pluralism.
If we talk about our differences, we can only remember how similar we actually are as humans — isn’t that what Islam teaches us?
We as Muslims need to be proactive in how people perceive us and our religion, instead of waiting for the next incident that the media can use to paint us in a bad light.
We need to be having events that invite others to learn, without preaching that they are wrong for their own beliefs and we need to create relations with others so that when the media inevitably paints us as monsters once again, we won’t feel as alienated. People, other than our own, will be there to defend us and Islam.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said that “Actions are but by intentions,” and if our intent to is show we are peaceful and our religion is beautiful, then we need to act upon that by being inviting and gracious.
“Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (Quran 16:125).
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