June 2011


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Transforming Communities One Person at a Time
Bruce Van Voorhis


Shabeb Khan, a Muslim staff member of a local YMCA in England,
leads the interfaith prayer that is offered each morning

Twenty-four participants from seven countries gathered at the YMCA Training Center in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from July 9 to 24, 2011, for the interfaith workshop Dialogue in Diversity hosted by the National Council of YMCAs of Bangladesh and conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY) in Hong Kong and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The participants included Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Cambodia, India, Laos, Pakistan and Thailand as well as Bangladesh. For the first time, an ICF program also included people from outside of Asia as seven participants from the YMCA in England took part as increasingly people of different faiths are finding themselves living in the same English community, such as in Bradford.

With the world increasingly being divided by one’s religious identity, the impetus of the workshop was to discuss in more depth the perspective of different faiths on justice and peace and the other values that different faiths share that form a common standing point from which people of different faiths can cooperate to work on the pressing issues that affect their communities today, such as issues related to poverty, human rights violations, gender discrimination, environmental degradation and multiple forms of violence. Consequently, the views of Islam, Christianity and the spirituality of indigenous people on justice and peace were presented. It was emphasized though that peace cannot exist without justice first being present.

After returning from a three-day field trip around Dhaka,
participants share their experiences visiting various faith
communities in the capital with others in the workshop who
had visited organizations in Bogra, Jessore and Madaripur.
Based on this rationale and purpose, the participants shared the context and experiences of their country in Asia and Europe and examined the various identities that people have, such as gender, age, race or ethnicity, nationality and religion, and the ways in which people of different identities interact with one another through attitudes of either tolerance, acceptance or engagement and communicate with each other through debate or dialogue. It was noted that stereotypes, prejudices and labels often define people’s perceptions of those who are different from them. The participants learned though that engaging with those who are different through dialogue holds the greatest potential for diverse peoples to live and work together peacefully. It was highlighted, however, that everyone shares one common identity: everyone is a human being.

The workshop further discussed conflict, noting that people often seek to avoid conflict but that conflict is, in fact, a part of everyone’s life. What is important is how a person or community responds to conflict. If the reaction to resolve conflict is violent, then naturally suffering will be the outcome, and the root cause of the conflict will unlikely be addressed. However, if conflict is viewed as an opportunity for change and transformation, then conflict can produce a positive result with the people involved creating a new relationship.

This conclusion then moved the participants to the last theme of the workshop on transformation—transformation of oneself and ultimately the social transformation of their community and society when they return home. Naturally, this process is long and difficult, but not impossible. The promotion and protection of human rights was offered as one tool to achieve the equality and respect for human dignity that is necessary if this goal is to be realized.

The word peace is illuminated with candles
by the participants at the closing ceremony.

In addition to the discussions above, an important part of the workshop was field visits to Dhaka, Jessore, Madaripur and Bogra. About five or six participants visited each part of the country to meet members of different faith communities and to learn about the work of several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Bangladesh, such as Banchte Shekha (Learn How to Survive) in Jessore; Shanti Kendra, or Peace Center, and Gono Unnayan Prochesta (GUP) in Madaripur; and the YMCA in Bogra. These visits gave the participants a deeper understanding of the diversity of Bangladesh’s faith communities and the issues that people face in the country and how some organizations are responding to these concerns.

At the conclusion of the workshop, participants recognized that the journey to transforming their communities begins with their own transformation, that diversity is not an obstacle to social change but rather offers an opportunity to make it happen.