The Words of the Bessell Family

Turning Hell Into Heaven - The Developing Work Of RYS

Daniel Bessll
September 2007

The following is based on a presentation given by Daniel Bessell, International Director of the Religious Youth Service (RYS), at the UPF leaders capacity-building workshop held in New York in September.

Many of you were involved with RYS before I ever knew it existed. I don't think I need to tell you much about the concepts RYS is built around. But what I do want to tell you is a little about what we are currently doing and how you might utilize the RYS service-learning model in your nations. We specialize in inter-religious relationship building. RYS provides service opportunities for young people from all around the world to work together and learn from and about each other.

Unlike learning from lectures given at the front of a classroom, students learn through an experiential cycle. A plan is presented, we do service work according to the plan, reflect on what we've learned through our common experience, and then apply the learning to a new plan. In that way, every single experience participants have leads toward a positive outcome. They learn through doing and can apply what they've gained in a very practical manner every time.

We've done so many projects this year; it is difficult to name them all. But 1 want to tell you about the project I just came back from in Honduras. Honduras was exciting because we went to a little place called El Infernito, which means "little hell," and it really was. Our project developer was assaulted a week before the project began, and there were people around us carrying guns. It appeared to be a somewhat dangerous area, but the mares, the gangs of the area, actually helped us, once they realized we were there to do something for the community.

Our project was to build a little kitchen for the neighborhood kids. The social dynamic was fascinating. The gang sent two guys, one named Buitre and the other named Condor -- that's "vulture" and "condor." They were practically our bodyguards, and they made sure that nothing happened to us. Even gang members can be helpful. They helped by escorting the girls involved in the project safely back to the homes where they were staying.

One development that came out of the project in Honduras was the idea of having the volunteers stay with families in the local community. Consequently, the families became involved with the project, and then through these families, the wider community became involved. It was just a ten-day project, but in the end everyone was involved from the gang to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church (and I'm sure this will sound familiar for those who live in Latin America) had a mist. 'pare el proyecto". The local church conducted an entire mass just for the project, which demonstrates the enormous power in service. The mass was held in the Basilica of Honduras.

We've done RYS projects this year in Sri Lanka, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Suriname, Australia, Honduras, Indonesia, India, and the Netherlands -- everywhere. It's exciting for young people to learn about one another by working side by side rather than in a boring classroom. I believe RYS has the potential to make a real difference with the young people in your regions.

Currently we are developing a curriculum on how to implement our RYS methodology. Drs. Ron Burr and Sherry Hartman-Burr, who participated in Father Moon's early conferences in the '70s and '80s, have been a serious driving force behind developing the methodology we have been using thus far. They have also served as consultants and trainers for Fortune 500 companies. They have done excellent work in developing programs that give people the opportunity to hone their skills in leadership, in service and in communications.

Our programs provide youth with opportunities to work together and to grapple with problems, going beyond their linguistic, cultural or religious barriers. It's exciting. I want to invite all of you to get involved in some of these programs and to organize them yourselves, depending on what is needed in your region or nation.

Our programs are up to 75 percent funded by in-kind or local donations. The Universal Peace Federation (UPF) grants make up 20 or 25 percent of the budget for a local project, which translates into between $2,500 and $7,000 for each project. The local community, the people living in the immediate area, and businesses donate the rest of the money and materials needed. This is a great way to bring the whole community together in service.

And it can be done continuously. In Honduras, we've been doing programs since 1996. Another interesting aspect of our service work is that many times after a project, the government or different municipal or state agencies come in and further develop the program. In 1998, after Hurricane Mitch ravaged Honduras, destroying 70 percent of her infrastructure, RYS began building a barrier against the water that was coming in. But we could only begin the project. Every single day while we worked on that barrier, newspapers in Honduras wrote things like, "These international volunteers are coming to work in the dirtiest areas -- people here should follow their example." We were all over the news. After RYS left, the government came in and finished the entire project. It was quite impressive. There are always possibilities to start in areas, even those that are somewhat hazardous -- like El Infernito this year. We can inspire and empower people in the community to continue developing projects after we leave.

We have developed a global network of people from different religions who are interested in this work. There's a common thread that runs through religion. That is to say, in any religion, at some point, the religious follower has to go beyond doctrine. You can't sustain belief in a religion if you confine yourself to its doctrine. Religious leaders will tell you that at some point you can't just read the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita and believe only in that doctrine as it is. You have to make a leap of faith; you have to believe in something beyond doctrine.

In RYS projects, participants can harmonize based on that leap of faith that each has had to make. On that basis, they can unite in a very special way. They develop friends in different communities and from different countries, which develops into an amazing network of people who believe that peace is possible. Nowadays many people think, "World peace is never going to be possible. We can't produce it; we can't do it." RYS is time-tested. After going through an RYS project, many young people have come to feel the hope and optimism that world peace and peace in their communities is possible.

In RYS, we don't just talk about world peace. We talk about the local situation; we try to make the peace issue relevant to the local community, so that it's socially and locally relevant. For that reason, we try to work on programs that can be continuous, that can be duplicated or perpetuated by ambassadors for peace, government officials or participants who take the RYS idea home and develop their own projects based on their RYS experience.

Our programs are usually ten to twelve days long. During those ten or twelve days, we have eight or nine days of service work. Most of our volunteers are students. They aren't necessarily the type of people who can work all day with shovels and paint brushes. They may not be the best workers, but if they work together and inspire others to follow their example of service, the programs can develop. The following year, the program may be run again, and a new group of people can be brought together, often friends of those who came the year before. That is how the amazing network of people has developed and continues growing.

What a great opportunity it is to speak to all of you, especially all the regional presidents! We would very much like to work in countries where there is an inter-religious population and where inter-religious tensions are high. In Europe, for example, the Netherlands, England and France have been struggling to relate harmoniously to their Muslim minorities. This difficulty is going to be a serious concern for the next few decades.

It is sometimes challenging to do service programs in Europe; you can't just start building a school. That is considered the government's job. For that reason, under the guidance of Rev. Carol Pobanz, we have developed a program called the Peace Park Project, which brings people from the community together in service through art. These projects are distinct from other RYS programs in that artistic activity constitutes the service. Participants look to the creative process for lessons in harmony and peace building.

These projects also provide an opportunity to look at all of life as a creative process and to study art as a means to express the highest values. The RYS Peace Parks provide a context for inter-religious youth to put aside doctrinal differences, unite in activities of spirit, creativity, worship, and service-learning, and showcase a model of peaceful community. In these projects, participants often create mosaics. We were working on a mosaic at a mosque in England during the London bombings. It's a cooperative process and therefore a great way to promote better relations. It was amazing because in our community we were overcoming barriers, while in the larger society problems escalated. In such situations, the relevance of RYS becomes obvious. It's into situations like these that RYS fits very well.

I think it's important to understand the practical difference between our affiliate, Service for Peace, and the Religious Youth Service program. The Religious Youth Service program is an inter-religious program that uses service as a medium to bring people into contact across divisions. We specialize in inter-religious dialogue and action, while Service for Peace is much larger and tries to serve the broader society. RYS wants to focus on inter-religious relationship building and conflict transformation. Countries that have an inter-religious demographic such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, France, Suriname, India, Jamaica, Guyana and the Netherlands are ones where RYS can be utilized to bring local communities together. If you have countries in your region where inter-religious tension is on the rise or where inter-religious tension has already escalated in some way, RYS should be active there.

We are currently building two types of programs-base projects and roving projects. A base project is one that continually develops in the same location, using the same networks, building upon those networks and expanding its foundations. Roving projects are ones that go from one place to another in search of a good location for new base projects.

If you have countries in your areas that would benefit from RYS, please consider using us as a model program. We can send you experienced international educators who have been applying our methodology for the last twenty years. We can help you put together a very practical program. Your project does not need to be very expensive. With the Honduras home-stay concept, we have eliminated almost 40 percent of the actual cash needed during a project by having our participants live in the community. We are confident we can do many projects with a very small budget. This program can provide practical education, in an exciting format for young people from all different religions. 

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