Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Practicing Service With Young Leaders in Connecticut

From July 21 - August 2, I had the great pleasure of directing Jerusalem Peacebuilders' Service-Learning Program focused on interfaith understanding, leadership, and service in New Haven, Connecticut. The 11-day, intensive program was held at Christ Church and featured us preparing and serving meals at the Community Soup Kitchen, spending three days volunteering at IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services) a local refugee resettlement agency, visits and teachings about service from faith leaders at area mosques, churches and synagogues, touring Yale University, and lastly hopping aboard a train to New York City to meet with diplomats at the United Nations and explore the Guggenheim Museum, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. To say the least, we had a ton of fun and learned a lot about ourselves, each other, and the fundamental importance of serving humanity.

Program participants at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City
In total, 25 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teens from the Middle East and the United States between the ages of 14 -17 years old participated in the program. Some came from far away, others from the next town over, but all came excited to grow, learn, and be challenged in a safe and supportive environment. In combination with the service opportunities provided at the soup kitchen and IRIS, the program featured experiential workshops, field trips, and dialogues to empower and transform the lives of these promising young leaders and peace-builders.

As the director of this program, I was filled with an immense sense of awe and joy in witnessing each day's activities unfold. When we visited Yale University, I imagined the powerful effect that touring and learning about one of the most prestigious universities in the world would have on these young people. When we served at IRIS, I thought about how these experiences of service would be remembered by the participants for the rest of their lives. Observing a few 14 year-old participants teaching English to Syrian and Iraqi adults much older than them promises to serve as a fundamental and life-changing act of service for these young people. During one of our reflection circles, we explored how helping move furniture and household items into a new apartment for an incoming refugee family from Syria had a compelling effect on the participants around developing a sense of gratitude and empathy for the experience of being a refugee. As one Jerusalem participant remarked "Through service, we gained an unforgettable experience which involved feeding the homeless, working with refugees, listening to their stories, and feeling their pain." Through moments of sharing like these, and a speech-writing project toward the end of the program, I am ever reminded of my own commitment to serving God through this work.

I believe service is one way that I encounter and become closer to God. Through living out Jesus Christ's teachings of "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Mark 12:31) and "...for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me..." (Matthew 25:31-46), I find true peace in my life. I find true joy and happiness in encouraging peace, service, and, by extension, spiritual development in people -especially young people. All of these things are what I envision the leaders of our world should model themselves and encourage among people in their respective societies. And if I devote my life and life's work to pursuing these goals, then I believe I can make a real difference and make the world a more prosperous and peaceful place for all.

Offering Scripture readings during Sunday worship at Christ Church New Haven
Celebrating the beginning of Shabbat at Congregation Mishkan Israel
Visiting the Berlin Mosque for Jummah prayers on Friday

For more information about Jerusalem Peacebuilders please go to www.jerusalempeacebuilders.org and for tons more photos from the Service-Learning Program in New Haven please visit our Facebook page!

In Christ,
Jack Karn