“Youth are at the heart of a more tolerant society.” Matt Carriker’s words are affirmed in both spirit and in practice by all who are engaged with the Interfaith Youth Initiative, a program of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. Each summer CMM welcomes thirty to forty high school and undergraduate students to the Interfaith Youth Initiative (IFYI), an immersion experience that seeks to empower youth to become leaders for social change. During one week in June or July, the campus of Brandeis University and the streets of Greater Boston become places where young people can learn to put interfaith into practice,
IFYI was originally launched in 2001 as the Faith Youth Initiative, a program specifically designed for Christian youth. In 2007, the program was expanded and students from all religious backgrounds were invited to take part. Today, IFYI attendees participate in group discussion, visit different houses of worship, engage in workshops on spirituality, peacemaking, and leadership, and translate belief into action through service and justice events.
In its focus on social justice IFYI mirrors the goals of its parent organization, Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. Each seeks to bring to life Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community.” As Greater Boston’s “oldest interfaith social justice network,” CMM has worked to unite religiously and economically diverse communities in peace and justice work since 1966. Today, that network consists of nearly 100 congregations, nonprofit agencies and educational institutions in Boston and surrounding cities, with representation from Bahá’í, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, and Protestant communities, in addition to secular allies inspired by conscience. Programming focuses on interfaith education and dialogue, legislative advocacy and social action on issues of shared concern as well as youth leadership and peacemaker training.
CMM has identified five “core values” that guide IFYI in its mission to bring about the “beloved community”: Building Bridges, Engaging Faith, Training Leaders, Making Peace, and Serving Others. Leaders and participants create together an environment that emphasizes “respect and love even with our differences, even with our challenges in common life,” says Carriker, CMM’s Program Director. IFYI aims to empower young people to engage in open and deep conversation about their spiritual beliefs, giving them the space and the tools to develop their own interfaith community.
IFYI’s programming is designed to foster and support deep connections between participants. Each day begins and ends with student participants and mentors (adult staff) circling together to reflect and share practices from their faith traditions such as meditation, prayer or music. Small group time is also built into IFYI. Affinity groups of six to ten participants and two mentors allow for smaller group conversation. Participants also select interest groups, such as drama, music, art, writing, dance or film, which enable them to express their passion and motivation for working towards peace and justice. Each interest group’s work is showcased at a “Closing Celebration of Transformation” on the final night of IFYI. Faith groups also provide participants a space to worship within their own tradition.
IFYI opts for the experiential over the didactic when it comes to educating participants about different faith traditions. Each year the program includes at least three site visits to religious communities in Greater Boston. In 2013, these visits included attending jum’ah with the Muslim community at Northeastern University’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service; a jazz service at Old South Church in Boston’s Copley Square, and Shabbat services hosted by Genesis, a program for Jewish teenagers also held at Brandeis University. One high school participant noted that these visits are “important because youth should know about other religions, not just rely on the stereotypes they see on TV.”
Workshops and seminars allow participants to tackle and discuss issues related to spirituality, leadership, and social justice. Some seminars are led by IFYI staff while others are presented by guest speakers who challenge participants to think about the environment, economic inequality, religious diversity, or personal growth. In 2013, participants were joined by Jamele Adams, a spoken word poet and Dean of Students at Brandeis University; a representative from the Massachusetts chapter of Interfaith Power and Light; Isaura Mendes, founder of the Bobby Mendes Peace Legacy; and Whittney Barth, a senior staff member of the Pluralism Project who led the group in a case study discussion.
Participants are encouraged to take their passion for social change to the streets of Greater Boston as a part of their IFYI experience. During the Interfaith Walk for Peace, Justice and the Environment, students and mentors “bear witness” through signs, music, chanting and speeches, visiting landmarks throughout the city that are connected to social issues. In 2013, the group discussed the environment at the Rose Garden at Emerald Necklace Park, indigenous rights and genocide in front of a Museum of Fine Arts statue honoring Native American traditions, racial justice at the home of Martin Luther King Jr., and interfaith dialogue at the Christian Science Mother Church. Participants and staff also dedicate a day to community service, often harvesting vegetables at a local urban farm or serving lunch at a shelter or soup kitchen.
On the last day of IFYI, participants and staff discuss how the skills learned during the program could be brought back to their respective communities in tangible ways, whether through the founding of an interfaith group, organizing service or advocacy initiatives, or simply educating friends or peers about religious diversity and social justice issues. Mentor Yaniv Havusha acknowledges what many participants feel: “So often youth are shut down or looked down upon in society or they are afraid that they won’t be taken seriously.” It is likely that many would share his favorite part, too: “watching the participants realize that they do have a voice and they do have the power to go out and change the world.”