Saturday, April 13, 2013

‘Religious Cooperation and Harmony’ - from a youth perspective
Sophie Ryan

My name is Sophie Ryan and I am currently a Year 11 student at St Ursula’s College, here in Toowoomba. I have been asked here today to speak about ‘Religious Cooperation and Harmony’ - from a youth perspective. When I sat down to write this presentation, I had to ask myself, ‘What IS religious cooperation and harmony? And what on earth do YOU, a 17 year old school student, know about it?’

I decided that the best way to go about finding my opinion on this topic was to pinpoint what I do know about it. I asked myself to think about the role of religion in my life and what I have seen of it in other people’s lives.

I was born in Brisbane and for the first part of my life, I grew up and was raised in Brisbane. As the capital of Queensland, Brisbane is home to people of all different sorts of nationalities, cultures and religions. But for me, I might as well have been raised on Mars for all I knew about the diversity of this city. Because it didn’t have anything to do with me and my Barbie dolls, I thought the girl in my year 1 class who was a vegetarian didn’t eat meat because she thought it tasted funny.... not because she was a Buddhist. I thought the lady who shopped at the same fruit store as us kept her whole body covered except for her eyes because she was really sun sensitive, and I thought that everyone was Catholic just like me.
I guess you could say that I lived a bit of a sheltered life. When I was 7 years old, my family relocated to a cattle property just outside the small country town of Glen Innes, in New South Wales. Now, living on a cattle property didn’t quite expose me to the cultural diversity of Australia! The most culturally diverse aspect of my life there was probably when mum cooked us fried rice or a curry every now and then.

So now, I bet you’re asking yourself, what has this girl got to say about Religious Cooperation? This very sheltered life of mine changed when my family moved back to Queensland and I began high school at St Ursula’s College here in Toowoomba. At St Ursula’s, the College ethos is ‘Serviam’ which means, to serve. And from my very first day at St Ursula’s, I began to learn of a different type of service; one that didn’t involve money or recognition, but justice. I began to learn about the issues in this world - issues that shocked me to the core. I began to understand the harsh reality that this world isn’t fair. While I sleep tucked up in bed at night, there are countless girls and boys who don’t even have a bed, let alone a blanket to keep them snug. When I complain to mum and dad that I’m so hungry that I’m ‘starving’, there are millions of people in the world who actually are. And as I began to grasp this reality, I discovered a part of myself that could not just ‘understand it’, a part of me that completely refused to accept that this is how things are and how they will remain.
And so, I began to question it. I began to question why I stand here, with an education, clothes on my back and the knowledge that I will eat tonight, while so many would not dare to dream of such good fortune. What did I do to be so lucky? As I began to ask more and more questions about why things are the way they are, I grew closer and closer to my great Uncle, who has lived in India since before I was born. Uncle Paul, a Jesuit priest based in Patna, the capital of Bihar, quickly became my ‘go to guy’ - when I had a ‘question’ or a problem, I’d shoot Uncle Paul an email.

However, it still came as a huge surprise when last year my Grandma asked if I’d like to be her travelling companion to visit Uncle Paul in India. And so, it was in late November that I went on my first overseas trip and ventured into a place where English was not the spoken language.
Patna District is home to over 5.5 million people, with an average of 1802 people to each square kilometre. It was here that I stayed with Uncle Paul and his fellow Jesuits for 10 days. It was here that, for the first time in my life, I was stripped of the materialistic Aussie way of life and experienced a new perspective of the world. From living with a group of men whose most valuable possessions were their vows, including one of poverty, to speaking to the Enclosed Carmelite sisters through iron bars because they had freely embraced a life of prayer and work, secluded from the outside world, I was blessed with a handful of experiences that I never expected to have.

Being so wholly immersed in this strict, harsh lifestyle completely deprived of the indulgences I’ve grown up with – it was as though I’d been living with a pair of sunglasses on and now, I was taking them off for the first time. In taking off these glasses of mine, I could see that I’d lived my entire life under a completely false understanding. Despite our best intentions, we DO believe that happiness comes about through having lots of ‘stuff’ - the best electronics, the most money, the most lavish food. But without these glasses on, it dawned on me that rich is not a word that should be associated with money, but with people and with faith.

Here I was living without a phone, without a computer, without hot water - and it felt like Christmas. I was surrounded by people who ‘had nothing’, yet they were more hospitable than any wealthy ‘upper class’ person. These people did not rush about constantly thinking of something else yet never appreciating where they were. When they spoke to you, they were with you 100%. This realisation hit me in while sitting having a cup of tea with a man who has been battling with the effects of polio which had struck him when he was a boy. He pulled out his prize mug with pride. And guess what. It was a St Ursula’s College Toowoomba mug! In India, on the other side of the world - what are the chances? As we sat and chatted, he told me that Uncle Paul had given it to him after visiting St Ursula’s many years ago, deeming the mug too much of an indulgence for himself. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Ever since starting at St Ursula’s, I’d always thought of those mugs, which we give to guests, as incredibly tacky - a complete waste of money. But seeing the enjoyment this ‘tacky’ St Ursula’s mug brought him made me see that we don’t need the ‘best’ of everything - that less really can be more.

Being in India, I was exposed to religion like I had never seen it before. I saw religion as it is supposed to be, a source of light in places of darkness, a way to bring people together. I could see that, for people who live in extreme poverty, faith IS a possession, a possession that no one can take away and therefore it means more than any material object ever could. For people who know hardship, faith is a way to be happy.

This made me think. Here in Australia people generally place possessions above religion, above spirituality... and ironically, we’re never content! Our nation now looks at the highest rates of suicide that there’s ever been. Yet, in India, where faith seems to generally be placed higher than ‘things’, many people are happy. Have we made a serious mistake in our priorities and not even realised it? Coming back from India, I answered my own question. I think we’ve lost ourselves while we’ve been too busy pursuing the concept of wealth and of being ‘advanced’. We’ve forgotten what’s important. When did we start believing that wants are more important than needs?That looks are more important than what is on the inside? When did we fall into the trap of thinking it is safer to be more concerned about ourselves than others? When was it that we decided material objects are more important than faith?
 I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go on another life changing trip this year, but this time the trip was with a school group, to an ‘Ursuline Student Leadership Camp’ in the beach-front town of Hua Hin in Thailand. But what I was surprised to find was that this camp was not just a ‘how to be a good student representative’ camp. It was a camp in which we raised the questions I’d been asking after visiting India - a leadership camp that focused on encouraging the questions and finding answers that concentrated on leading our society to a better future.

We spoke about a life process, a process which if we can put into action our world will become a better place. First, we spoke about ‘learning to learn’, that in order to truly learn we have to focus, and then we have to THINK. After thinking, we have to research in order to understand. We discussed the idea of being able to see a problem, that seeing past our own views in life is a challenge and that we don’t realise it, but we see with our own experiences and within our own context. In order to see a problem, you have to step into someone else’s shoes and look beyond yourself. Then you MUST accept people within their situation. You MUST accept their views and way of thinking – and accept that they are people too! If you don’t accept a person and their point of view, you risk stopping them from ever giving their point of view again. After accepting a person, you can then agree or disagree. We sometimes forget that judging is completely different to accepting. After agreeing or disagreeing, we must reflect. We must understand why we think this and how can we do something about it. What will actually make a difference? Then, and only then, can we act.
At the camp, we learnt about the idea of interdependence. Essentially, we are all influenced by society, race, religion, media, school, family... but to be someone who can make a difference in this world, we must first be independent. We must be economically independent - have a source of income and be able to support ourselves. We must be politically independent – we must have the power to stand by ourselves, and not just do what the ‘more important’ people in this world say is right. For me and for other youth this means challenging the views of older generations and refusing to accept things just because more experienced people say it is right – you must have your own beliefs and not just believe in what everyone else does. Once we become independent we can work towards interdependence, the quality of a leader, the ability to work WITH others. In order to make a change in this world, you must be interdependent.

One of the highlights of this camp for me was the morning we were woken up and told it was time to put the process to work. We were divided into groups and given a ‘destination.’ For some this destination was the fisherman’s village; for others it was the railway station or the markets; but for me it was the beach. Then, we were given a list of ‘challenges’. Our first task was to see our surroundings and see the people. For me, I saw a beach crawling with wealthy tourists enjoying getting a tan. Meanwhile, the local Thai people were steadily ticking away at their everyday lives. For some, this was convincing tourists that their beach chairs were the best, even if they were rough and rotting. For others, it was trying to sell things to these tourists, who ignored them.

Our second task was to speak to these people, to understand and to listen to their stories. We quickly learnt that despite having jobs that us ‘tourists’ label as pointless and sad, like in India these people were happy to have what they had, to be where they were. Even if they had to walk miles to get to work they were happy so long as they could feed their children. Next, we were asked to do an act of service. For my group, our act of service stemmed from seeing a lady walking up and down the blistering hot beach trying to sell ice creams to the tourists from her old Esky. After speaking to her, we learnt that this was her livelihood. All day and every day she would walk up and down the beach and hope to sell just a few ice creams from her Esky. On a good day she could hope to sell maybe five ice creams. From this, she could hope to maybe make 100 Bart – just over three dollars.

We saw the fatigue on her face and we wondered what we could possibly do to make her day just a little bit better. We thought of the tourists, who were lying in the shade of beach umbrellas sipping at iced drinks, and we asked this lady if we could sell her ice creams for her. Just for an hour or so, while she sat down and relaxed. The obvious response was no. After all, the half melted ice creams kept safe in her tiny Esky were her livelihood. But, despite this, she said yes. Despite the chance that we would cheat her, she trusted us. I couldn’t believe it.

And so, we took her place. We strolled up and down the scorching hot beach, asking every tourist we could find if they would like an ice cream. Over and over again the answer was a blunt no. Over and over again they walked straight past us, completely ignoring everything we offered. As we ignored our blistering feet and sunburnt faces, all we had to show for it was a crushing silence – a silence that this woman endured every single day! I’d seen the way tourists treat people trying to sell things in India. I’d done it myself – I’d been told to do it. But you know what? It hurts. It hurts to be the person being ignored. But you know what makes the situation worse? This problem can easily be solved by just acknowledging the person, by just a simple, ‘No thank you’ – by cooperating.

Our final task was to somehow make money. Seeing how we had completely failed at making money by selling things, we decided to take a different approach for this task. We brainstormed ideas and we realized what our biggest strength was… our diversity. Within our group, we had girls from Toowoomba, from Sydney – Australians – but we also had girls from all different places in Thailand and from across Indonesia. With this diversity we had a source of talent that beat any ice cream – our cultures. And so, we drew on our cultures and sang to the tourists lounging on the beach. We sang our national anthems, songs of hope and, for us Aussies, Home Among the Gum Trees. Alone, we would have just been Aussies or Thai girls singing, but together, we were a group of passionate women all united in that little Serviam badge worn over their hearts.

And – we made money! While it was probably not our tone-deaf Aussie voices that won over the crowds, our sense of unity and of friendship did. Through drawing on our differences, we were able to create something beautiful. This made me think. Our world is constantly focusing on differences as a bad thing. Difference is belittled in society, even shunned. But at the end of the day, it is this difference that gives us the opportunity to create something beautiful.

Besides, I don’t think there is such a thing as complete difference. Look at us. We are all human, all part of this group we call humanity. Yet we insist on dividing this group into smaller ones; the poor, the lonely, the rich, the popular. Yes, difference brings with it uniqueness and individuality, but we must draw on our similarities before our differences. Like our Serviam badge connecting us all at the camp, there is a thread that connects us all. Without this thread, there is no point in harnessing our differences, because no one can see the differences. With us all here today, our thread is our spirituality, our beliefs, our passions. Within our various religions we all believe in something bigger than ourselves, in some form of transcendence.

Yes, within these beliefs are differences that separate us, but we forget that with these differences we also have the opportunity to create something beautiful. Another way that I like to think of the role religion plays in our lives is that our world is essentially just like a piece of cloth, a piece of fabric that is made up of hundreds of threads. Many of the threads are hidden from the naked eye, but are nevertheless essential to the makeup of the cloth - without them, the fabric would fray and fall apart. For many of us, religion is like one of these threads; a thread always present in our lives and essential to holding the fabric together, but sometimes its role is forgotten and taken for granted because, for some of us, it can’t always be seen.

When you look at a piece of fabric you’ll notice that any damaged areas or frayed edges are due to individual threads that have become weak and let down the threads around them. Religious cooperation acts in the same way. It is essential for peace and harmony. Without it the thread becomes weak and may lead to faults in the fabric. When you think of the strongest fabrics, the most durable, you won’t be surprised to hear that these are the fabrics in which the threads are the closest. Fabrics with a wider weave are weaker and do not last. In order to have a strong, durable fabric the threads must be as close as they possibly can. In order to achieve a world of justice and harmony we must bring the people within it as close together as we possibly can. But how? What is the one mutual characteristic of each and every human being on this planet? It is the fact that we all have our beliefs.

And so, how is it that we can work towards a future of justice and equality? Through religious cooperation, by finding what we have in common and by using our differences to beautify this world – to create harmony.

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