Articles From the September 1994 Unification News


The RYS Experience: A Turkish Delight

by Mr. Riza Ozkan and Rev. John W. Gehring

From July 14 to August 8 the Religious Youth Service (RYS) project with seventy staff and participants representing twenty eight nations and all major religious traditions was hosted by the Republic of Turkey. With its rich Islamic heritage, its long and varied religious history and its openness to members of all faith traditions, the Republic of Turkey proved to be an ideal venue.

The RYS used this opportunity to discover Turkey and the ancient city of Istanbul (the former Constantinople). Istanbul has served as the center of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires and has been of critical importance to the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Islamic traditions. Turkey also serves as a crossroads linking Europe and Asia and is of strategic importance as a bridge between Christian and Islamic cultures.

While in Turkey the RYS program divided into three segments: orientation, work service and a reflection at the close. The staff and participant orientation was held in Istanbul at the President Hotel and was directed by veteran RYS leaders Dr. Ron Burr and Dr. Sherry Hartmann-Burr. During this segment, participants and staff had an opportunity to clarify their vision, goals and responsibilities, while getting familiar with their new friends and the host country.

Opportunities arose during the orientation for participants to visit historic and religious sites and be introduced to background knowledge about these faiths and traditions. The orientation site was within walking distance to the beautiful "Blue Mosque" and the Hagia Sophia (from the Greek for Saint Sofia, or Holy Wisdom), of rich historic significance to Islam and Christianity respectively.

On a more personal level, the Greek Orthodox Church's headquarters at Ayasophia Church hosted the RYS and invited them to mass. Following the mass, the senior bishop praised the noble efforts which the RYS was striving for. The warmth of this welcome literally brought tears to some of the participants' eyes. Sergei, a young Orthodox participant who is a seminarian in Moldavia, shared that he would carry this experience always within his heart.

Orientation gave free time for walks in Istanbul in the old covered bazaar, and trips to some of the Ottoman palaces which contain treasures from around the world given to powerful sultans during their reign. On a warm, sunny day, the whole RYS family traveled in a charter boat up the beautiful Bosphoros to the Black Sea. Participants were given a chance to visit a small town or climb the hills to the top of an old stone castle. The lush green countryside with its goats and ponies was a welcome addition to the program.

Additional programs during the orientation included some of these themes: "The Role of Interfaith in Contemporary Society," "Mid-East Peace Initiatives: What Can Work," "A Brief Survey of the Ottoman Empire." Each presentation allowed for questions and often served to set the tone for many informed conversations. Leadership training programs were organized and directed by Drs. Ron and Sherry during staff orientation, but staff members took an active role in leading the participant orientation.

Work projects

The second segment of the RYS occurs when the participants divided to go out to separate work locations. Ankara, the nation's capital, was the area in which a group of over forty volunteers worked. Meanwhile, Cannakale, a small, beautiful city by the sea, hosted the remaining participants. In each of these city areas, RYS had two major worksites to contribute to.

A typical day during this time included an early morning meditation, breakfast, travel to work, and work from eight to ten. After a short break, participants would typically work to 1:30, then clean up and take lunch. After returning to their dorms, a late-afternoon education program or group meeting would occur. Dinner was often followed by sports and then an evening education program. Programs often dealt with the religious and cultural traditions which participants were coming from. Discussions in groups was often guided by a central theme and respect was given to all presentors.

In Ankara one of the projects was to repair and paint the very run- down dining room and classrooms of a psychiatric clinic in the town of Golbasi. The RYS staff worked with professors from Gazi University who were running the building's medical programs. Since Turkey is suffering from very high inflation (50-100%), the clinic had no funds for basic building improvements. The RYS work at the clinic provided both a physical and spiritual lift to those working at the institution.

The second Ankara RYS team traveled daily from their dorms at the Middle Eastern Technical University to the city of Sincan to help at a school for learning-disabled children. Through the cooperation with the mayor and municipality, the school director, Mrs. Zenra Atac, and the RYS staff, it was decided that the RYS would construct a brick wall around the school grounds to protect the children. In addition, RYS was to prepare sidewalks, a playground, plant trees and lay sod.

A highlight during the work effort at Sincan was the constant flow of young children and teens who joined the RYS every day in the effort to construct a brick wall. Daily, the level of excitement in the neighborhood increased as did the numbers in the new RYS "Youth Brigade." Mothers also came to bring food and drinks to participants and helped to create an extended "RYS family."

At the conclusion of the work project, nearly one hundred children and parents joined the school staff, RYS participants and the local mayor for a celebration at the school. Several representatives spoke to the group, songs were shared, laughter was frequent. It was clear that what was created at this community was something that would help shape the future of those children's lives. Prior to RYS's coming, local children avoided the school; now they felt at home, for they had met some of the students and staff. From the smiles on all the faces, it was clear that the young were not only introduced to the world but embraced by the world through the efforts of the RYS participants.

Local and national T.V. and newspaper coverage was given to the efforts of the RYS, because the value of the work was recognized. One national network with a "Youth News" program will give a thirty-minute presentation of the RYS efforts. The mayor of Ankara, Mr. Melin Gukuk, and the former Deputy Prime Minister Kasim Gulek, as well as the ambassador of Bangladesh, made visits to the RYS and its work in the Ankara area.

A key to the success of each worksite is its leadership. Dr. Kazi Islam and Dr. Azzizun Islam of the University of Dhaka, as RYS veterans of Poland and New Delhi projects were able to provide stability and care, and a breadth of knowledge, critical for the success of the education programs. Each of the staff members on both sites had the challenging opportunity to manage both a technical worksite and a highly diverse educational program. It is no simple task to motivate, teach and train a large group of people, many of whom are only marginally proficient in the language. Patience and a deeply caring heart are critical for the success of the project. Yet by taking on this challenge, participants and staff have the opportunity to gain experience, grow in confidence and develop leadership skills.

In each RYS program, people are confronted with situations which are far from their normal routine. Ms. Jalla Ali Jabi of Yemen commented, "Never had I had to learn to build or do hard physical work before, especially as a woman and an Arab." A Bangladeshi doctor, Dr. Soumitra Barua, stated that "I never had the opportunity to meet someone from Israel before, since my country has no formal relationship with that nation. I discovered that they were not so different from myself."

RYS provides a chance to work, sing, dance, and discuss with people in an environment which our preconceived notions are often transformed by the reality which is experienced. Chris Stubbs, a Latter Day Saint from the USA, commented: "Tolerance demands exposure, hands-on experience with other cultures and religions. Through the RYS I am amazed at how quickly so many people can become so close. Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised after all; we share the same desire to lift others and fill all people with hope."

Lively Rachael Olds, a Zambian residing in Great Britain, shared at length about the RYS environment: "Our worksite provided a blossoming experience, for never have I known so many people in so short a time and yet felt that when I leave Turkey, I will take a part of the best of each with me. I had the opportunity to talk politics with a Palestinian, debate with an Israeli, share a room with a Croatian, Yemeni and Singaporean, rub shoulders with a surgeon, a doctor, and a civil engineer, dig cement with a Jordanian and Japanese, construct a wall with an Iranian, while bathing in the blazing sun with a Polish teacher and dance with a Moldavian. The world is not a large place after all for people everywhere are fundamentally the same.

"In RYS, I also learned that religion is not an institution, its a people, a belief that I am part of a whole and that sharing and caring are more than just idle words. Something changes when we sacrifice for others. We fall away from selfishness and begin to feel the ache in the other man's toe-sensitized. We appreciate more fully ourselves."

A process of growth takes place during the RYS as the community draws together through its hard work. In Cannakkale, the site of the second major project, a similar process was under way. The municipality of Canakkale provided room and board for RYS during its stay and located two excellent work projects. The first project was the improving of a park built next to a Jewish cemetery. The park was started by the municipality and Danish students in 1992 and commemorates the Jewish mass migration into Turkey over five hundred years ago (1492). The second worksite was at a girls' orphanage where the large grounds needed to be improved and made better for the children's play.

Work at the orphanage proved to be a deeply enriching experience for the RYS participants, who often worked side by side with the young girls. These young girls found deeply meaningful friendship in the care they received from participants. Jacqueline Olds of Great Britain shared that "I met a girl who was so much like me as a child. I knew she was at a point in her life where if she received support she could truly blossom as a person. Yet I couldn't but help worrying if she would gain that confidence needed to meet head on the challenges that life presents." RYS participants at the orphanage did their best to pass on as much care and concern to these young girls as they could.

In Canakkale, Mrs. Indira Swamiantha of India and Mr. Kerim Tseney of Ghana worked closely with Mr. Mitch Laurie to conclude their stay with an exciting cultural event at the new park. Hundreds of local children and their families were given a chance to catch the international flavor and the spirit of RYS through a variety of performances. Included in the program was a chance for the children to sing along and meet the "international peace ambassadors."

The third segment of the RYS is its reflection and closing periods. The schedule and programs are arranged to allow participants to evaluate their recent experiences, to reflect on what they have learned and examine how it can help them in their life. A period of silence is included within the program with a goal of having participants draw more deeply from their inner self.

During this period, Dr. Vera Mehta (Austria) and Dr. James Burton (USA) led the whole RYS family in meditation, testimonies and spiritual exercises. Dr. Mehta has recently spent much time working in Bosnia and Croatia and helped create a video on the experiences of women in the war zone. This video set a somber tone and was especially touching for one of the women interviewed was a fellow RYS participant from Croatia, Ms. Mirta Spear.

Mirta's recent experience of losing her home and friends in a war that pits people of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic faiths against each other underlined the importance of work such as the RYS'. It stimulated many of the participants to plan with Dr. Mehta to do a project in a refugee camp in April 1995. Mirta's testimony pointed to the immediate need, she explained: "I remember running with my classmates through minefields. Some of my friends didn't make it, some lost their legs. For a while I was dead inside but my faith seemed to be reborn. The reality of God became much more clear. Yet it was not until I came to the RYS that I felt I could love again, and with that love came a new richness in life. My life has changed and I am full of new energy. I am determined that my life will make a difference."

The final two days of the RYS were in Istanbul where the program gave some free time while people stayed at the Merit Hotel. During this time friends teamed up to do their final shopping and sightseeing.

The closing RYS banquet gathered nearly one hundred RYS members and friends for an afternoon of homegrown entertainment and inspiration. Opening with an exciting Indonesian dance by Maria Vahlienty and followed by a group songs, which included an original-composed by staff member Mr. Jun Trinidad. A family atmosphere was created as participants shared with guests their experiences and two testimonies were given. One of Turkey's elder statesmen, Dr. Kasim Gulek, concluded with his observation: "Over ten years ago, Rev. Moon set up interfaith youth activities such as the Youth Seminar for the World's Religions. His vision is based on creating a movement of Unification, a movement that reaches into all areas of life in a quest to build peace. Projects such as the RYS promote the good name of all religions and are critical in paving the way for others to follow. Thank you, RYS, for offering your service in our country."

Following the banquet graduation certificates were awarded to the RYS graduates. All were invited to attend a special performance of the sacred dance of the "whirling dervishes." The dervishes have honored a tradition inspired by Mevlana Celale ddin-i Rumi (1207-1273) which has become a part of Turkish custom, history, beliefs and culture. Their dance symbolizes in seven parts the different meanings of a mystic cycle to perfection and is one of the highlights of Sufi devotion.

Musicians and dancers made their sacred offering and deeply moved all the participants. At the conclusion of the ceremony the Sufi master shared with some of the RYS staff that the RYS was in a substantial way living out the ideals of the Sufi teaching. RYS creates a unique environment by opening participants' minds to their great potential by pointing out the possibility of positive individual and social change. A Roman Catholic seminarian, Mr. Jun Trinidad stated it this way:

"I have always believed in the goodness of the human person despite the fact of our wars, pain and division. We are not evil at heart. But perhaps we have forgotten to love, to care, to share and to serve. We have forgotten to pray. We have to seek these capacities once again because we are capable of such noble acts. We have to relearn them. I thank the RYS for giving us the opportunity to practice the caring we are capable of."

This spirit of the RYS project was summarized by Piotr Bakalarz of Poland. "For me RYS is virtually a realization of the second great commandment of God's law, viz., `You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Mark 12:3)."

RYS Notices:

The RYS has scheduled the following projects which you are invited to apply to by writing: RYS, 4 W. 43 St., NY NY 10036.

Sept. 22-Oct. 3: Madura, South India. Participants will work on building a school for "Harijan" children. This is the name Gandhi gave to those of the so-called "Untouchable Caste." Work will be in cooperation with the Gandhi Museum and Foundation.

Oct. 16-Oct. 29: Bangkok and Chang Mai, Thailand. Participants will be building part of a community center for use by Thai "tribal people."

January 1995: Chittagong, Bangladesh. A five-day project which will be done in cooperation with World Buddhist Youth-Bangladesh. Rural work for development is being modeled in the village which RYS will work in.

RYS-Atlanta: dates to be announced. All interested in working in this four-day project should contact the RYS office in NY as soon as possible.

April 6-18, 1995: Croatia. Participants will work with refugees from the war-ravaged areas. Fee for participants is $200 plus travel.


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