Unification News for May 1998

RYS - Building Community Through Inter-Racial Harmony and Action

The Religious Youth Service
by David Earle

Last yearís 1997 RYS project in Birmingham, England, followed directly on from the 1996 project, "Building Racial Harmony."

During the late summer of 1996, 45 RYS participants had successfully completed three different environmental projects in the inner-city of Birmingham-creating a recycling center out of a disused bus garage, restoring an abandoned tree nursery and converting a derelict piece of land into a nature trail/picnic area. The last two of these projects were subsequently maintained and developed by local primary schools, working together with one of our partner organizations, Community Service Volunteers (CSV Environment), who do a tremendous amount of good work with school children in the inner-city.

Based on this outcome, in February 1997, David Earle, coordinator for the 1996 Birmingham project, was asked to consider RYS involvement in the undertaking of another environmental project, this time in the inner-city district of Small Heath, which is adjacent to the Saltley area where two of last yearís three sites were located. (Another of our project partners, Urban Renewal, part of Birmingham City Council, is responsible for providing the resources which are used to reclaim derelict land in Saltley and Small Heath. The finance for his came from a fund of money called the Single Regeneration Budget.)

After discussion with Marshall de Souza, national director of RYS in Britain, we decided to go ahead. Although we would again be undertaking an environmental project in Birmingham, it quickly became clear that the main ingredient for success this time would be the extent to which we could engage the local community directly in the various aspects of our work. In particular, this would apply to the young people, some of whom were responsible for the considerable amount of vandalism in the area. This social aspect gave a new and unique dimension to our efforts, and caused us to choose as our project theme "Building Community through Inter-Racial Harmony and Action."

The dates were set for the first two weeks of September, to coincide with children returning to school after their summer holidays. In July, just before the holidays, groups of children from two local primary and one secondary school had visited the site with Guy Dixon of CSV and Jason Harrison, a city architect. They shared their ideas as to how the piece of land might be developed. Jason had then drawn up his plans to transform the land into a park, incorporating as many of their ideas as possible. (A giant roller-coaster had to be rejected.) CSV, and another of our project partners, Focus Housing Association, who owned this particular site, also conducted two activities with local residents and children during the summer: a street clean-up with some garden improvements, and an afternoon about composting, to publicize the work which we planned to carry out together in September.

Finally, Aug. 31 arrived, and our RYS staff gathered together at St. Peterís College in Saltley, which would be our home for the next two weeks. We spent two valuable days of preparation under the experienced guidance of Dr. Ron Burr and Dr. Sherry Hartman-Burr. On Sept. 2, we welcomed all our participants as they arrived. Twelve came from Birmingham and the remainder from a variety of 18 different countries. Our group was just over 40 strong, and most participants were able to stay for the entire duration of the project. We were especially pleased to have representatives from so many religious traditions: Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Unificationist and Zoroastrian.

The richness of this religious dimension was reflected in our early morning meditations, of which there were 11 different kinds during the 12 days. Tanya Jacobs taught us to sing a memorable Jewish melody, Anita Sethna introduced us to a beautiful Zoroastrian prayer, and Richard Burton taught us how to concentrate our minds and bodies in order to break one-inch boards of white pinewood with our bare hands!

The orientation sped quickly by as Ron and Sherry helped us to begin to establish individual friendships, and the strong group spirit necessary to carry us through the various challenges we faced during our RYS experience. It was so good to meet Suresh from Bhutan and Ariun from Birmingham, Kulvinder from Smethwick and Larissa from Slovenia. Shaleen came from Selly Oak and Ravi from Sri Lanka. Each participant brings with them their own unique flavor and casts it into the melting pot.

During the orientation, we were privileged to hear a talk by the provost of Birmingham Cathedral, Rev. Peter Berry, who managed to give us two hours of his most valuable time. He was under great pressure to make all the arrangements for a large, open-air, interfaith service of remembrance for Princess Diana, who had tied so tragically just a few days earlier. Rev. Berry has been one of the true pioneers of interfaith activity in Birmingham, and was able to speak eloquently, and with great passion and sincerity, about the value-and also the problems-of living in such a multi-cultural city. He stressed how we must nurture and protect the God-centered family, regardless of our religious tradition. It is the basic building block of a healthy society, if we are to have any hope of healing our increasingly fragmented and fractured world, and of aspiring towards the ideal of one family of humankind.

We began work in earnest on the morning of Friday, Sept. 5, having divided into four teams, and under the expert supervision of site manager Guy Dixon, who kept the whole work schedule on track. Our main task would be to excavate and lay a footpath, 10cm deep and 1.6m wide, around the perimeter of the site, and then across the middle of the site in both directions, dividing the site into four areas. This was no small task, given that the area was roughly the size of a soccer pitch. The four areas defined by the footpath will later be developed into a vegetable garden, a small playground, and two planted areas with logs, boulders and benches to sit on. School children will again be involved in much of the subsequent planting work.

We were joined in our task by a group of 12 children from nearby Waverley Secondary School, who came and worked with us every morning. They were a very good example for their peers, and impressed Mrs. Collett, their head-teacher, when she came to visit the project.

As we removed the many tons of excavated soil, a small group of professional workmen joined us to put in the timber edging for the footpath. Fifty tons of footpath material were delivered by lorry, and had to be distributed up and around the sloping site by wheelbarrow, raked flat and finally packed down by a hand-held machine with a vibrating plate on the bottom. The extensive use of wheelbarrows to remove the soil and replace it with the harder material was a sight to behold! The site was alive with activity and, as the material was relayed up and down the slope, wheelbarrows passed from Buddhist to Hindu to Muslim to Christian! Asian hands, American hands, African hands and European hands were united in the common purpose of humble service to the local community.

While the work continued each morning, our afternoons and evenings were filled with a series of educational seminars and visits. One seminar focused on "Community" and was conducted by Dr. David Clarke, who is responsible for Birminghamís "Human City Initiative," a program attempting to bring a more compassionate, caring spirit into an often desolate urban landscape. Another seminar discussed "Inter-Racial Interaction," with contributions from Abdul Ghaffar of the Sparkhill Youth Project, and Rev. Carver Anderson, national director of youth education in the New Testament Church of God. Also, Mrs. Lola Khundakar came to give us a short presentation about the value of interfaith work.

Our visits included a talk with Bishop Joe Aldred of the Black and White Partnership in the Selly Oak Colleges. We visited Waterloo Road Sikh Gurudwara in Smethwick and the recently completed and spectacular Dar Ul-Uloom Al-Islamia Mosque in Small Heath. We were welcomed at the Buddhist Vihara where we were addressed by Dr. Rewata Dhamma of international repute. We attended Sunday morning worship at Selly Oak Methodist Church. Finally, we observed the Arti ceremony at Heathfield Road Hindu Temple. This was followed by a delightful meal.

Another helpful feature in working towards this goal was being given permission by Mrs. Collell to hold our Cultural Evening program in the hall of Waverley Secondary School. This made it much easier for local families to attend, and our audience numbered around 150. The varied program included Irish music, Japanese singing and a martial arts sketch among others. Certificates were presented by Mr. Roger Hale of Urban Renewal to all who had made the project successful, and it was especially gratifying to see recognition given to the students from Waverley who had worked so hard on the site every day. We concluded with a sizable part of the audience on stage, joining together in singing "We Are The World."

During our second week, we had been joined by Dr. Subhan Burton and Dr. Beheruz Sethna from the USA, and they gave an invaluable contribution as we began to approach the final stages of our time in Birmingham. We concluded our work on the site, having planted and watered many trees and shrubs, and hundreds of bulbs, on Friday, Sept. 12. The following morning, Subhan led us through a unique, purifying "Fire Ceremony," which comes from the Native American tradition, and which was a preparation for our time of reflection, such an important part of the RYS experience. It is often surprising to look back and see how far we have journeyed in such a relatively short space of time.

Our final day together was a time to enjoy a deeply-moving service of Universal Worship, celebrated with family and friends of our Birmingham participants. Eight different traditions were represented, and Marshall gave a profound message based on the life of Mother Teresa, who had passed away one week before. What an inspiring example and model for us in the RYS!

After the service, we had our closing banquet, with all the food generously donated by Sohal Bhaji, the head chef at the Hindu Temple we visited. Gifts and certificates were presented, after closing remarks by Dr. Sethna. Everyone seemed so happy and proud of their accomplishments as they came forward to receive graduation certificates.

Surely RYS is at the cutting edge of interfaith activity and service-based learning, planting seeds of goodness and hope everywhere it goes. Why not Northern Ireland in the near future? Perhaps that should be our goal for the Millennium in Western Europe, to try to bring RYSí global resources to bear, and make a contribution towards a lasting peace.

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