Unification News For March 1996


Southern India Hosts 50th RYS Project

by John Gehring-NYC

From February 15-25, 1996 over one hundred RYS participants and staff from fourteen nations joined hundreds of local villagers in rural Karukutty, Kerala, South India to work together in widening the communities roads and modeling religious and community cooperation. This International Youth Meet was jointly sponsored by the International Religious Foundation (IRF) and Gramswaraj.

Gramswaraj, is a grassroots rural development program that is hosted by Mahatma Gandhi University. Based on Gandhian philosophy of village self-development, the program works to motivate a high level of community involvement. This involvement was obvious to all RYS participants from the opening day when they were featured in a peace march of involving thousands of villagers.

The peace march featured RYS participants, local school bands, cultural dancers, anti-alcohol and anti-drug campaigns, students caring peace signs, a 10 foot clown on stilts, and numerous religious organizations with local officials. Along the route, happy observers waved and stared and smiled as the event unfolded.

Following the march, a rally attended by five thousand people was held with the governor of Kerala as the chief speaker. Among the other honored guests and patrons were members of India's parliament, H.E. Cardinal Anthony Padiyara, Kerala's chief minister and the ministers of youth affairs, education, and agriculture. The highlight of the program was the cultural performances which depicted a wide variety of Kerala dance styles, famous for their grace and beauty. The RYS participants seated in the position of honor joined the cultural program through offering songs from many of the fourteen nations that they represent.

As part of the Gramsaraj movement's strategy for mobilizing communities, RYS's stay included being hosted by five villages of various sizes. These village programs included shared cultural performances and inevitably attracted almost the whole population of the community anxious to meet their international guests and witness the cultural and spiritually diverse elements.

This fiftieth RYS project was more rooted in local community then any RYS activity of the past decade. Aside from the numerous village visitations, hundreds of local villagers daily joined RYS at the work site. A special closeness developed from the interactions during work and on breaks sharing coconuts, jackfruit, drinks and simple conversations. Frequently the warm, quiet sunny days were punctuated by the songs of the villagers who would spontaneously burst into choruses of local favorites. Before long, many of the RYS participants joined in the singing and even danced on occasions.

The International Youth Camp was no secret to the 30,000,000 citizens of Kerala as media coverage was heavy and consistently favorable. Television, radio, and frequent newspaper coverage kept the region informed of the RYS's mission of building peace through interreligious cooperation and service. In addition Gramswaraj's ability to mobilize locally gave the opportunity for more then fifteen thousand people to be involved or view RYS related programs.

A varied and rich education program was integral to the RYS. Under the guidance of RYS advisors, Dr. Kazi Narul Islam and Dr. Azizun Islam from Dacca University and Professor Munuswamy retired Dean from Loyola College in Madras and with the help of guest speakers a wide range of subject themes were presented. Session titles included; "Buddhism", "Islam", " Fasting as a Spiritual Practice", "Sankara, India's Greatest Philosopher", " Early Indian Christianity ", " Marriage and Family as a Key to World Peace,

"The Inner Qualities of True Leadership", "The Role of Communications in Creating World Peace" and " A Vision for the New World Order".

The staff and participant orientation was guided by Rev. John Gehring and these programs were designed to help participants clarify norms and their vision of living in an interfaith community. During this time leadership an communication skills were worked on as well responsibilities delegated. Eight teams were formed, providing a more intimate forum to conduct discussions, practice for cultural programs, and build work teams. Following the orientation, the work portion of RYS began with a goal of widening 1.2 km. of road. Many consider after literacy, roads and infrastructure as integral signs of a regions stage in development. Kerala state with its 99 % literacy rate is now set on improving its various modes of transportation.

Widening the local road in Karukutty required a sacrifice from those whose property bordered the road. Land that was held for generations by families who made their livelihood from the soil was donated for the sake of the community. In the process of widening the roads often beautiful walls needed to be removed and reconstructed on the new realigned perimeter. The former property owners could be seen on the work, contributing their effort as well as their tools.

Observing the standard of work that was generated by the villagers, it was clear that they were no strangers to a routine of hard physical work. An example of the village tradition of hard work came when we asked a seventy five year old man who labored with the RYS each day why he was doing this. He stated simply that " I am happy to be a part of this international work team". While the work was going on, children could be found staring at the sight of Sikh workers in turbans, African and Japanese men and women moving soil, or any of the unfamiliar friendly faces that were now part of their community. Women were active in keeping coconut water flowing to thirsty workers whenever the heat seemed to be getting too difficult. A protective environment of community sharing was the shared experience

Following the work programs, RYS was treated to a special dinner hosted by the Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Dr. K. Jayakumar. The university has been a leading trainer of professional social workers giving students skills in promoting village development projects based on the teaching of the Mahatma.

Dr. K. Jayakumar highlighted in his talk how the Gramsaraj's philosophy fit well into the goals of IRF and the RYS. This made the alliance of the two organizations a natural fit.

Although India has a national tradition of youth doing national service these programs often lack the spiritual root and the intercultural dimension that the RYS provides. These additional dimensions make the RYS a valuable resource in the training of leaders that can guide the nation in the ways of religious harmony.

The lessons of life are often best learned through experience. RYS creates an experiential environment of shared love, suffering and commitment. This experience helps bind diverse people together in the spirit of unity and cooperation.

RYS demonstrates the hope that the practice of true religion will led the world to a new and more fruitful era of human relationships, a world where the potential of love will begin to be realized. In the past decade RYS has tried to leave this as its legacy.

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