by Abby Alfred, ICCI intern
Face to Face/Faith to Faith, a partnership with the Auburn Theological Seminary, is ICCI’s ongoing interreligious youth dialogue program, training Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth in leadership, conflict transformation, and social change. Spanning a year, youth come together to address issues of identity, learn about other conflicts, and develop social action projects within their communities.
Each summer, participants of Face to Faith/Faith to Faith travel to New York for a 2 week intensive program with youth from South Africa, Ireland, and the U.S. to learn about each other’s histories and strategies used within each to transform conflict. Perhaps the most challenging activity of the entire program year takes place during these two weeks, when each conflict area is asked to develop and present a joint narrative of their conflict to all of the other groups. As the only formally ongoing political conflict represented, our youth from Jerusalem usually struggle with this activity far more than the other groups. This is often the first time these youth perform such an exercise with youth who have studied the same historical events, but from a different side. Youth come into this activity having learned different names from each other for the same events, placing different emphasis and understanding on the same things,
In preparation for this activity, Face to Face/Faith to Faith program leaders/facilitators Sameh and Miki decided to begin this exercise while still in Jerusalem, before embarking on the trip to NY. They set up a long sheet of paper extending the length of the room, aiming to fill the space with names of events that shaped the narrative of everyone in the room. As individuals shared their own stories and recounted their familial and personal history, the three hour session quickly passed and as it concluded, the only mark on this room-length paper were the numbers written in black and blue reading: 1948.
As a group, these youth had to find a way to put each of their personal narratives together into a group history. For everyone in the room, 1948 was a crucial part of their own historical narrative, yet not a single person there was actually alive then. It served as a starting point for the process of building this joint narrative, and from there the group was able to build on the narrative around this year, using different languages and colors to highlight the different perspectives.
When the time came to repeat this exercise and present the final product to their peers in NY, the presentation was filled with intensity and emotion. Everyone wanted to be sure their own stories and voices were heard, in efforts to make sure their own identities were not lost among the voices of the others. Upon the end of all the presentations, the group split up, as Sameh and Miki observed the Jewish Israelis sitting together on one side of the room speaking Hebrew, and the Christian and Muslim Palestinians sat on the other side, speaking Arabic. They had just undergone an extremely challenging experience of defending their identity while listening to “the other side” defend theirs — all combined into a joint narrative. They needed time to be in a comfortable setting, surrounded by those with a familiar narrative, familiar language, and familiar culture.
They sat this way for a little while, but before Sameh and Miki could bring them all together, some of these youth began banging the drums and playing music. Slowly, one by one, everyone got up to dance to the sounds and scream to the music with all of their energy. When the music stopped and they all came together to talk, everyone–Israelis and Palestinians alike–said the task they had just completed was the hardest thing they have done. Everyone was afraid their own story would not be heard. But, they said, it was only after they did this exercise and actually addressed the differences in their narratives, that they realized they had to get through it. As they had to present their own narratives as well as listen to the others’ narratives, the exercise helped each of them gain a lot of respect for the other narratives. When they came back together they realized that, while they don’t share religious or national identities, and they don’t share similar narratives of the same events, they did share this intense, mind-opening experience around a history that belongs to all of them.
These youth engaged, and continue to engage, in a process that too many people are afraid of. Hearing “the other side” of a story is frightening because it might challenge the narrative held so close to our identity. Many people fear that opening themselves up to understanding someone else’s identity is a betrayal to their own. None of these youth has abandoned their own religious or national identity, but in allowing themselves to hear and understand others’ identities, they have developed a mutual respect for and comfort with each other. This respect allows them to work together now to develop projects and engage with their communities- from providing afternoons of entertainment to Israeli and Palestinian children at Alyn Hospital, to facilitating an evening of dialogue for friends, and starting a media project to share their experience with F2F through media and a short film. This group of individuals, with strong attachments to their Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim identities, realizes that with hard work and open minds, as a group, they are greater than the sum of all their respective parts.