Leading with the heart: an interfaith experience

There is so much at stake. Anyone looking around at the world knows that, and anyone who wishes for a peaceful, healthy, just world knows, too, that the changes will have to be immense. Revolutionary.

It is too easy, if you’re working for a pluralist and peaceful planet, to be overwhelmed with the size of the impact we have to make.  I am grateful for the efforts of those working systematically to build huge movements that will topple unjust systems and ingrained prejudices.  But I have realized that there is more to revolution than that.

I know this thanks to the Interfaith Youth Initiative, a peacemaking and leadership retreat operated by Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. IFYI isn’t exactly amassing the hoards necessary to march on Washington, or to the sea. This year, it was just thirty teenagers and young adults living on the campus of Brandeis University for eight very, very humid days.  There were visits to religious services, workshops on leadership and conflict resolution, a walk for peace, justice and the environment, and service trips. There were opportunities for participants to share their own spiritual practices or religious traditions, and to learn about new ones.  But none of that made IFYI what it was. The programming would have meant little if participants and staff hadn’t brought their whole selves and full hearts.

Intensive programs like this are sometimes difficult to explain to outsiders, but what this group of young people did can be put in fairly straightforward terms. They built a community in which members felt (and were) respected, supported and valued, and so could make themselves vulnerable to true exploration and growth. From within this safety they explored their own voices and values, their potential as human beings, and the changes they wanted to make in the world. They opened themselves to exploring these questions together, in interfaith company, and to learn from their differences. Participants had such trust in the community they were able to share deep parts of themselves and do terrifyingly new things with people from completely different walks of life, and they were met, on the whole, with love.

This is all well and good, revolutionaries may say, but how effective is collecting thirty teenagers already committed to compassion and pluralism and letting them talk to each other for a week? What impact can that possibly make?

And to them, I say calmly, the faithful need preachers, too.

Service day at City Growers farm in Dorchester, MA
Service day at City Growers farm in Dorchester, MA

Most of these participants may have believed in the buzzwords, but few had ever had a chance to live them, or live under their protection. Many expressed a deep sense of alienation for their commitment to compassion or faith, or shared that they felt different from materialistic, competitive peers in ways that routinely caused them pain or shame.  Their search for truth was often lonely, and it came at a high price.

In light of this, what these young people did for each other was the most necessary thing in the world. Through IFYI they were able to experience community, to gain a sense of themselves as worthy, powerful individuals, and to practice putting those precious, hard-fought commitments into action.  They found the security to practice true, challenging, terrifying, transformative learning. Most of all, they were able to love the Other, the Stranger, and to make him or her family.

The participants of the IFYI music group chose to perform “If You’re Out There” by John Legend at our “Closing Celebration of Transformation.”  It was one of many, many pieces of music we heard at IFYI, but it has played hauntingly in my head for the past two weeks.

I was looking for a song to sing
Searched for a leader
But the leader was me
We were looking for the world to change
We can be heroes
Just go on and say
If you’re out there
Sing along with me if you’re out there
I’m dying to believe that you’re out there
Stand up and say it loud if you’re out there
Tomorrow’s starting now…now…now 1

The road they are walking doesn’t get any easier. It is one of constant questioning and unending vulnerability. It often brings defeat, or loss. Sometimes it invites abuse. At all times, it demands courage.

The change our world requires will take more than just believers. Gandhi and King didn’t just amass as many marchers as possible to journey to the sea or boycott buses. It took a lot more than conversion for individuals to get back up again and again in the face of the humiliation and brutality they faced at salt factories and on city streets. It took constant, sustained love.  Radical, revolutionary love for their fellow marchers, their enemies, the world, themselves.

During my week at IFYI, I was humbled by the participants I was supposedly mentoring, just under thirty individuals brimming with curiosity and passion to change the world. We were all lifted by community, not only stronger as a united whole but infinitely better as human beings. This experience has given me hope for the world, and if I am honest, new purpose in life. I have never been a revolutionary. My voice has never carried very far. But I can meet these young people where they are, however difficult a place that may be, and I can bring my whole heart with me. IFYI reminded me that I owe my life to a long line of people who, in the face of all the world threw at them, responded not with vengeance or defeat but with greater devotion to the souls under their care.

I stand, in short, on the shoulders of giants, and I intend to let giants stand on mine as they lead us all to the sea.

To hear from our amazing participants directly, check out these moving interviews recorded by the film group.


1. Legend, John. “If You’re Out There.” Evolver. Columbia Records, 2008.

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