The formation of an interfaith youth council is one of the results of a day-long conference that brought together young people from a variety of faiths to talk about their shared values, including their concern for social justice.

The interfaith youth conference was presented by the Islamic Social Services Association in conjunction with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) on Feb. 26 at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). The day-long event brought together youths and speakers from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, First Nations and Christian backgrounds for a series of keynote addresses and group discussions.

Sixty-five young people between the ages of 16 and 26 attended, and at the end of the day at least 15 expressed interest in forming an interfaith youth council that will work towards holding more interfaith gatherings to dialogue about the shared values, struggles and hopes of the various groups.

“There was no sense that one of these religions or faiths is superior or better,” said Steve Plenert, peace coordinator for MCC Manitoba, who helped organize the event. “There are reasons that [each] exist and it’s very good and important to listen to each other and understand each other. That was the lesson from everyone, it seemed.”

Keynote addresses from Obby Khan, an offensive lineman for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who is Muslim, and Michael Champagne, an inner-city activist who is aboriginal, were followed by a panel discussion that included six people from different faiths.

They each gave a brief description of the faith tradition they represented and highlighted its most important aspects. The goal of the presentation was to expose the shared values of each faith tradition.

A concern for social justice shone through each presentation.

“We have to understand that the proj-ect of any faith tradition . . . is to make the world a better place,” said Omar Siddiqui, a lawyer who represented the Muslim faith on the panel. The only way to do that is to do it together, he added, noting that in today’s world there is a culture of politics that is divisive. “We have to . . . work to dismantle that,” he said, since it is the antithesis of what the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, First Nations and Christian faiths are trying to do.

The afternoon also included a panel discussion on gender politics and faith. Three women discussed the roles of females in their respective faiths and explored ways that women are empowered in their faith communities.

After each panel, conference attendees broke into discussion groups to reflect on what they had heard. The conference concluded with each group discussing a different question related to what it might look like if young people were to form an interfaith youth council in Manitoba. Each group then reported back to the larger group.

Questions the groups discussed included:

  • How do youths of faith/spirituality build community?
  • Are youths of faith ready for community leadership?
  • What role should the media play in interfaith dialogue?
  • Does religion divide or unite faith communities?
  • What responsibility do youths have in combating discrimination?

The groups needed to come up with three concrete steps or ways to address each issue.

Melanie Kampen, a CMU student who help organize the conference, was encouraged by what she heard in the discussion group she led. “I was really impressed with their creativity and passion,” she said. “[They were] basically already doing the work of an interfaith youth council.”

Kampen believes that interfaith conferences like this one are important because the divisions between religious groups are widening. “One way to address this very specifically is to come together and talk about this with young people, not just adults,” she said. “We wanted to see what kind of challenges youth of faith in Winnipeg are facing and what kind of imagination and visions they had for how they could address some of these problems themselves.”

For MCC’s Plenert, interfaith gatherings are important because Canada is a multicultural society. “Christianity is no longer the only faith group with a voice in Canadian culture,” he said. “MCC certainly affirms the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ in the work that we do, [but] we are also committed to learning to know our neighbours and to show love and respect to them.”