This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on October 14, 2014.
The leadership of the next generation looks like Malala Yousafzai: a hopeful, determined young person, embracing pluralism and striving to make her community – both locally and globally – more just and equal.
Last week, we saw interfaith in action when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, “a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, [who are a part of the] common struggle for education and against extremism,” in the words of prize committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland. We saw proof that the values that unite us are stronger than the forces that divide us, and we started to see the potential of coming together to contribute to the greater good.
In a world where our media is consumed with stories of violence and conflict, this was a refreshing narrative. However, while not adequately recognized and celebrated, this example of leadership can be found in nearly every community, including our own.
For the past two years, Grand Valley State University has sent several students to Interfaith Youth Core’s Leadership Institute, where students learn about other traditions not through a textbook, but through relationships with their peers. Muslims and Jews, atheists and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists develop friendships based in understanding differences and celebrating common values.
Inherent in this coming together is the desire to serve not only our own communities, but all communities, regardless of belief tradition. Better Together @ GVSU, a new student group formed out of this conference, embodies this conviction: We can do more than get along, we can work alongside one another.
This is the only model of social change that has any hope of making an impact on a significant scale in the complex issues we face today – from racism and all forms of discrimination to promoting peace in conflict regions. Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are the perfect generation to lead us to embrace such radical acceptance. As the newly largest and most diverse generation in the U.S., according to Pew Research, which found that 43 percent of millennials are non-white, we interact with people who are different from ourselves every day. We can either use that as a barrier to divide or we can build bridges of cooperation.
This is why I was so encouraged at our luncheon on Sept. 11, which announced our 2015 Year of Interfaith Service. When a college student and high school student shared their own insights with a crowd of more than 60 community leaders, the sense of hope was palpable. Those in the room saw the leaders that could help our city be a more inclusive and understanding community.
At that luncheon, local political, business and religious leaders agreed: In order for our 2015 Year of Interfaith Service to have the greatest impact — not just for this one year but for years moving forward — it must be an inter-generational effort. We must learn from the young people in our communities, our own Malalas, who are leading the way in creating a respectful dialogue and an inclusive common good.