Interfaith dialogue from youth to life's end

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We can continue to learn from other faiths, even at the end of our lives.  

By guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart

I was very honored to be invited to lunch recently by three Muslim women.

I became involved with interfaith dialog in 2001, after the events of September 11. Locally, the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee began holding adult dialogs, and over punch and donuts, I met a physician who worked with Muslim teenagers. When he found out I worked with Catholic teenagers, we both had the same idea at the same time. We said to each other in unison, "We should do something like this with young people!"

Our first event was called, "Sons and Daughters of Abraham." It was an all-day youth forum for Muslims, Catholics, and Jews; it took almost a year of planning. Our team included 18 young people - six from each faith group. Three teenagers acted as the emcees; three teenagers each gave ten-minute presentations (with power point slides) about his or her faith - Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism; and twelve teenagers were table leaders for the participants.

We adults never approached the microphone. Once trained, the youth ran the whole day, and they did quite well. After a morning conversation in mixed groups, and a delicious lunch, the groups reconvened with their own congregations to plan interfaith projects. What followed was a year of invitations to different events, such as a Shabbat service at a synagogue, a picnic in the park, a potluck at a church, the painting of a mural with interfaith symbols and images, and "Midnight Muslim Bowling."

At the potluck, we each brought foods from our own traditions, and talked about the holiday or holy day when the foods were usually eaten. It was more fun than we thought it would be. I remember a Muslim teenager stood up and said, "We must be doing something right. Here we have Jews, Christians and Muslims, all eating together, telling family stories, and laughing. I know my parents would never have been able to experience this."

Eventually, there was a call to bring in more faith groups. After a retreat, we began our current program - the Interfaith Youth Cafés. Three or four times a year, a different congregation hosts a café, and teenagers gather, discuss certain conversation questions around a theme, reconvene with their own group, and report about what they learned. At the end, the groups each take a turn saying a prayer for everyone from their own tradition. There's something about this experience that's quite transformational. It becomes impossible to hate an entire group of people once you have eaten and laughed and especially prayed with them.

I would dare say it's the best way to prevent religion-based terrorism. At every café, there seems to be at least one young person who comes for the first time, admits to past prejudice, admits he or she had been so wrong about people of another faith, and is so glad to have learned so much.

Our cafés have been attended by Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Quakers, Methodists, Episcopalians, Hindus, Christian Scientists, Unitarian Universalists, Lutherans, Baptists, Serbian Orthodox, Bahá'í, and United Church of Christ.

At my lunch with my Muslim friends, we reminisced about the early events, and we talked about what some of the teenagers had said: how the training meetings and dialog had completely changed their opinions about people of other faith groups. I told them what an honor it had been to become their friends and to be trusted to work so closely with their sons and daughters.

One of the main reasons we met for lunch is because they know I am dying.

I had not been able to attend any of our café events this year, although I wrote the conversation questions and prepared the hand-outs. I have just been too tired to go. So I was very eager to see these women one more time.

They told me about one of their sayings: A life is well lived if one of three things comes about: Children that keep blessing, knowledge that keeps teaching, and charity that keeps giving. They told me they could see all three in my life.

I've told this story several times, and still I cannot repeat it without feeling chills, without spilling tears. What a beautiful concept. And I only learned it in the last year of my life.

It is something we can all pray for - for our families and our friends and for everyone we know and everyone we don't know.

I shall pray it for you:

In your precious life,
May you be surrounded by children that keep blessing,
May you be enlightened with knowledge that keeps teaching, and
May you be inspired by charity that keeps giving.

Amen from all of us who pray to the One God of many names with our many different words.


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better. Her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.