Unification News for April / May 1999

Religious Youth Service in Guatamala

by Subhan Burton

On Christmas Day last, a number of young people representing eleven different countries and many different cultures and religions met in Guatemala City to conduct a Religious Youth Service Project. The basic goals of the RYS project were to physically construct the second floor of an elementary school in Santiago Atitlan, a Mayan village in northwest Guatemala, and to provide an experiential educational program about mutual respect, spiritual understanding, and conflict resolution at the international level. Historically, Guatemala had just ended a 36 year civil war. Monies for the RYS project were funded partially by the Family Federation for World Peace and the International Religious Federation.

A majority of the funds for the project were raised by members of the Sufi Order of Villa Rica, Georgia. Ultimately, more than twenty corporate and individual donors from the Atlanta area helped to make this RYS project possible. Fund raising is an important part of any RYS project; someone has to provide the money for housing, food, transportation, and construction materials. The typical income in the Guatemalan village where we worked was $1 per day; hence, it would be very difficult for the Central American participants to raise adequate funds. Also, fundraising, asking others to give you money, is always ego challenging and spiritual growth producing.


Typically, RYS projects have a site couple who symbolically represent the spirit of mother and father. Hayya and Subhan Burton were to have been the site couple for this Guatemala RYS Project. However, Hayya’s mother was very ill and Hayya decided to stay in Atlanta to nurture and care for her mother. Hence, Subhan and Muhiya Butler represented the spiritual parents of the project; they also served as the Education Directors and led the training, orientation, and reflection periods. One of the most amazing staff members was Daniel Bessell, a twentyyear old member of the Family Federation for World Peace.

Daniel was truly spiritually advanced beyond his age. He arranged the housing, construction materials, meals, transportation, and the many hundreds of details that are needed to organize the RYS project in Guatemala. While Muhiya and Subhan are both members of the Sufi Order, Subhan is a member of the Episcopal Church and works as a University Professor in the United States. Muhiya is a member of Unity Church and works as an office manager in a legal firm in America.

The two group leaders were Mario Salinas from Honduras, and Shafee Thomas from Atlanta. Shafee is a member of the Sufi Order, an Episcopalian, and works as a real estate appraiser. Mario is a member of the Family Federation for World Peace and works as a school teacher. The additional staff member was Guillermo Bermudez, a very mature leader from Guatemala City. The technical assistance for construction was led by Senor Miguel, a Mayan contractor from Santiago Atitlan.

Rules of RYS

Most of the RYS participants range in age from 21 to 30 years, and are typically recommended for participation based on their religious commitment and national leadership potential by a university professor or religious leader. Group leaders are usually selected based on outstanding participation in prior RYS projects. In order to provide a spiritually pure atmos phere of harmony and growth, there are several basic rules that participants must follow

The RYS Schedule

The RYS project schedule is divided into three major events: staff and participant orientation, the service work, and the reflection period. The first few days are focused on staff orientation and afterwards participant orientation. These orientations include thorough structured get acquainted activities, enhancing real communication skills, increasing one’s respect for different religions and cultures, and conflict resolution at the international level. The second phase of RYS is the actual work project. The work site was nestled in the Mayan village on the shores of beautiful Atitlan Lake, surrounded by three huge volcanic mountains, with heavy white puffs of clouds kissing their peaks each morning. This site is one of the most beautiful on Earth, where it seemed that heaven and earth touched one another. Each day began with wakeup at 6:00 a.m. and morning meditation at 6:30 a.m., which was led by a participant or staff member from a different religious tradition each morning.

Then the physical work of building the school began from 8:00 in the morning. The physical work included the moving of concrete blocks, mortar, building concrete block walls, and digging six foot holes for the foundation. The work continued until about 1:30 in the afternoon. The participants would then have lunch. Typically, following lunch was a mini educational seminar and the sharing of cultures. After dinner, we would have an evening interreligious or cultural program. One evening we invited the former mayor of Santiago Atitlan to visit and talk with us. He was also a Mayan priest, although it was veiled.

Later he agreed to conduct a private Mayan religious ceremony for us. At that point, Subhan agreed to lead a Native American Fire Ceremony the same night. Another evening program was sponsored by two local Mormon missionaries, one from Idaho and one from El Salvador. They spoke with us about their Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints and their missionary work in the local community. More than 75%, maybe even 90%, of the spiritual growth and learning occurs during the reflection period, which occurs during the last two days of the project. The reflection period included a time of silent reflection, when the participants went into the countryside alone and did spiritual practices from their own religions. Then, the participants returned for a meeting where they formed small groups to share their reflections and learnings for this RYS project; afterwards, each small group reported a summary of their learnings and sharings.

Another activity during the reflection period was when the participants wrote letters to themselves about their RYS experiences in Guatemala; the Educational Directors will then mail the letters to them in six months or a year. Another activity that is usually done during this period is a structured experience that enhances real self confidence. The final morning of the RYS project, a Universal Worship service was led by Subhan and Muhiya. A religious alter was created, with candles representing God, the Spirit of Guidance, and each major religion. In that service, the participants presented their own religions in a deeply touching religious service. Eight participants volunteered to lead a chant or song from their religion, a reading from their Holy Book, and a closing prayer; all of which was spoken in their original language. For example, the Chinese Buddhist participant, James Tan, led his part representing Buddhism in Chinese.

The universal worship service was magically beautiful and the souls of all remembered their true nature. The final ceremony was a closing banquet, where certificates of appreciation were given to the participants and staff members. Also, gifts were exchanged among the participants and staff members. During the closing banquet, four people gave short personal testimonies about their RYS experiences. There were many tears of joy during this time.

Culture Night

Toward the final days of the RYS project, a fun evening program, called Culture Night, is presented by the staff and participants. Each represented culture prepared and presented a skit, a dance, a poem, a song, or other theatrical form to depict their culture. The program was frequently humorous, entertaining, heart opening, and fun! For example, in Guatemala the USA participants performed a political satire skit on the current problems of President Clinton, then each US participant stated an ideal vision for the United States, and finally the group sang a beautiful song: "From You I Receive, To You I Give." The Mayan and Latino participants danced a poignant Mayan folk dance.

The Germans created their own rock and roll band. James Tan performed a beautiful and tragic Chinese opera, and many of the other participants recited poetry and sang traditional songs that represented their respective cultures. RYS is a real practice of selfdenial for the participants from developed countries, i.e., the United States, Europe, and some of the south American countries.

The living conditions in a country like the rural areas of Guatemala have different accommodations, different food, and different real life tests. For example, the whole town was without water for three days during the project. Hence, the toilets would not flush and there were no showers. Also, of course, the food was different, vegetarian, and excellent, but quite different from what one would experience in the United States or Europe. Being selected to participate in an RYS project is a real gift from God! While sermons, studying holy books, spiritual practices, religious conferences, and worship may lead the follower toward God; living the Message of our time with others from different religions provides the opportunity, through Grace, to experience the Heart of God.

Participant Testimonies

While it may be close to impossible to feel the depth of spiritual emotions experienced in an RYS project by reading this article, a few comments from the participants may be helpful. Mario, the Group Leader from Honduras, described a step toward conflict resolution between the Mayans and Latinos: "When the Mayan participants and priest shared their 500 years resentment of oppression and abuse, the Latino participants felt so ashamed and repentant for creating so much suffering and they were sincerely willing to find a way to solve it. The vindication time occurred at the Cultural Night, when all Guatemalan participants, Mayans and Latinos, participated in a sacred Mayan dance with the inclusion of the Latinos wearing the Zutuhil dress. Sharing this dance together would normally never happen.

The Latinos were so proud and humble for being allowed to wear the Mayan dress. And the Mayans could not hide their surprise for Latinos willing to be part of them. Another point was the spiritual connection between North American Indians and the Mayans, thanks to the simultaneity of the Native American Fire (purifi cation) Ceremony and the Mayan Forgiveness Rite, happening one after the other in the same sacred place." And Mario summarized his RYS experience with a message of love: "The educational purposes of the project reached a very high level with the NEW CULTURE OF THE HEART, which RYS is shaping by deeply sharing our religious, cultural, and social traditions. The practice of an OPEN HEART surpasses any language difficulty, and it explodes our selfish personal view of ourselves by learning that we exists for the sake of others."

A German girl wrote; " I just hope that everybody (everyone) of us can meet somehow again. Of course each person has people he got along (with) better or worse, but anyhow it was cool." A Buddhist participant reported: "I really enjoyed the work because we were future. I was tired after the first day of digging and sore, but I thought about the little children watching us work and I just wanted to work even that much harder. Sometimes there was a big communication gap, but in the end we all learned to communicate the universal language of love for one another and for the people of Central America. I learned a lot about myself as a person – mentally, physically, and most of all, spiritually. This trip has changed me to become a more enlightened and complete person."

An American girl from Philadelphia wrote: "The RYS experience is so deep and profound that I think it hasn’t all sunk in yet, what we really created. We created a safe place for understanding between religions and cultures, which we may have had preconceived notions about. The experience made me realize that the differences are few and the similarities are numerous. The experience deepens your belief in God by sharing your love of unity and God with others…. It is like entering God’s heart when you are unified with varied sons and daughters of God. It was inspiring to be with others who held such a high ideal for the future of this world…. It gave me an immense feeling of hope and that other warriors for peace would join us on the path to Love, Harmony and Beauty."

And our Beloved RYS Mother, Muhiya, wrote: "By being open to learn about other religions and other cultures and being open to accept others just as they are and by being willing to serve mankind, one learns not only about other people, but also about one’s own heart. And when the heart is truly open, the language of love can be felt and understood by the heart, no matter what language one actually speaks and understands intellectually, no matter what religion one practices, and no matter where one comes from. The language of Love truly overcomes all barriers and touches the heart in ways that cannot be described by mere words. It is The Experience of a lifetime and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to share in the RYS experience."

Additional RYS projects planned for 1999 include the Philippines, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Israel. If you would like to recommend a young person to be a participant, please contact Dr. Subhan Burton at 770.838.9980 or email jhburton@ mindspring.com. Or you may contact Rev. John Gehring, RYS International in New York City at 212.869.6023 (ext. 429) or email rys@pipeline.com. You may also peruse the RYS web page http://www.rys.net.

Dr. Subhan Burton is a University Professor, a Representative in the Sufi Order, and National Managing Director of RYS for the United States. Subhan has held leadership roles in RYS projects in Poland, Hungary, India, Haiti, Turkey, England, Guatemala, and Atlanta. He has also been a contributing participant in International Religious Convocations in Russia, France, Korea, Uruguay, and San Francisco.

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