One very memorable Community Impact project we did during my WorldSmart tour was in Antwep, Belgium. Called “Life Philosophies”, this project had us exploring different faiths by visiting their houses of worship and talking to them about what they believe in.
We started off with a Holocaust detention center (one step away from a gas chamber), where the guide became an SS agent and randomly yelled abuse at us in German so we could understand what it was like. Pretty harrowing as it is – now consider that one person in our group was German, and understood every word and its implication. I don’t know how she coped. I saw a bouquet of flowers near the shooting grounds and I broke down in tears.
We spent lunch in a Hare Krishna center (which puzzled a lot of people), and then split up – one group went to see a Buddhist temple, another group (mine) went to an Islamic community center. We talked with some young men from Morroco about religion and nationality and personal issues. They were fun; very friendly. Even got a tour of the mosque they were building! Not quite like the Malaysian domes, you won’t even have known it was a mosque if you saw it from the outside, but it’s the intent that matters when it comes to prayer.
The second day, while the first group went to a Catholic church, our group went to a Freethinking Humanists center. The discussion got pretty interesting very quickly: our guide insisted that believing in God was already a form of manipulation, and we couldn’t get a clear answer over how just believing in something means you’ve been manipulated (and who by). We talked about beliefs, our own experiences, and Humanist thought. After that, we all went to a Jewish synagogue and learnt about Judaism; a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, since anything remotely Jewish is forbidden back in Malaysia. And it turns out that the humanist, the priest, and the synagogue lady (argh…can’t remember what her title is) all know each other and meet up regularly, which made it even more fascinating.
That CI project left an impression on me. Rarely do we ever get the chance to honestly explore other faiths just for the sake of knowledge and curiosity. If anyone wants to visit the religious home of another faith, they are accused of being an apostate, of being a traitor (at least that’s the impression I seem to get back home). It amazed me that in Europe anyone can enter a mosque regardless of faith: in Malaysia you won’t be let into the grounds. Back in Malaysia there are tussles over freedom of religion and interfaith commissions – here’s a beautiful example of how it all works, how different faiths may not necessarily agree with each other but live in harmony and make the effort to LEARN about each other’s beliefs without judgement…why can’t we have this?
Many people believe that Up With People is a religious organization. (This may have something to do with them being affiliated with Moral Rearmament for a while during the 60s and 70s.) Up With People is religiously neutral – they never ask for your religion, and they never push any religion on you.
In our crew we had Christians (of all flavours – including one Mormon), Muslims, Jews, UUs, Buddhists, Shintoists, Sikhs, Hindus, Pagans, people with one-of-a-kind philosophies, atheists, and those with “their own beliefs”. We all practiced our faith freely, with no pressure from anyone. We were welcome to share them – indeed, in Murou some of us had a chance to talk about our faiths – and allow others into our religious life if we wanted, but there was no coercion, no force.
Sure, we had quite a number of churches as facilities. That’s because they’re usually free. We even performed in one (pretty interesting – mainly because it was a tiny stage). I’ve lived in host families that shared their faiths with me – I went to two different churches with two different host families in the USA, and I lived in a temple owned by a family in Japan. It’s a great way to explore other religions firsthand; the energy is the same anywhere.
Everytime I visit a religious place (especially in Japan where temples are everywhere) I say a prayer, regardless of what faith it is. The energy is the same. It’s all an expression of hope and faith and mercy and request. Positive vibes. All very powerful.
Up With People, while not being religious in the slightest, became very spiritual; our shared rituals and faiths became nourishment for our souls, symbiotically exchanging personal power.