Green Team Leader, Walking the Walk Youth Initiative
“I wasn’t against the program, in fact I was all for the concept, and I certainly wasn’t there alone. My brother was there, a few friends and classmates were there, and my mom was the adult mentor for our congregation. I wasn’t alone it was just that I wasn’t a very expressive person. I was more of a keep to myself, not very sociable, and sometimes awkward person. So why would I want to be thrown into a room with 20 people I didn’t know and forced to converse and share my feelings with them?
“Walking the Walk, affectionately dubbed ‘interfaith,’ is an interfaith program in Philadelphia where high-school students come together to discuss shared values and ask each other questions in a safe environment. My parents very much wanted me to participate in this program. They felt that it was good for me to have exposure to people of other backgrounds. This was something I lacked seeing as I went to a predominantly black private Muslim school most of my life. As aforementioned, I was apprehensive of the idea. However my mom didn’t want her children to be comfortable only around people who were ‘just like them.’ She’d seen a lot of kids who only socialized with Muslims or African-Americans and didn’t like their narrow-mindedness toward people of other races and religions. She wanted her kids to be able to interact with anybody and be respectful to everybody. So even though I was against it, I was made to participate anyway.
“We would meet about 13 times a year. Our sessions were either community service or shared values. During community service sessions we would go to soup kitchens, shelters, environmental centers, and a place called Books through Bars that sent reading material to inmates. During shared values sessions we would discuss values that were principal in all of our religions. The whole point of these sessions was to build a sense of community. I liked the idea behind the shared values sessions but I enjoyed the community service sessions more. In those we had more time to talk and joke around with each other as teenagers, whereas in shared values we had topics assigned to us for discussion.
“I participated in interfaith for three years. In the beginning of my first year I would stay quiet most of the time, not speaking unless spoken to or forced. But after a while I opened up more and was on friendly terms with everybody. By my second year I was enjoying the sessions more. This was largely because it was the same group of kids as the year before, plus or minus a few people. We started to become friends instead of acquaintances and our bonds began to grow. Sending texts and Facebook messages back and forth and meeting up outside of our interfaith sessions became routine. And by my third year I loved the program and the people involved and looked forward to all the sessions. Interfaith helped me in a lot of ways, the most notable being my social development. I didn’t really notice my growth during the program, but I realized it afterwards.
“Toward the end of my time in interfaith I was doing all kinds of things I never would have done before. I was leading the team planning our annual Day of Service. I was always one of the kids speaking at events. I even went with the executive director of the interfaith center once to meet with funders because she felt I was a great example of what interfaith does for kids. My mom thinks it was empowering for me. It showed me what my strengths were and that I could lead people. She says I am now more willing to “share myself” with others. The difference in me is visible to her and to others as well.
“If I had let this program pass me by I wouldn’t be who I am today.
“Throughout my life my parents have always had higher expectations for me than I have had for myself and have wanted the best out of life for me. They’ve always encouraged me and forced me, if necessary, to take advantage of every opportunity presented to me. Maltbie Babcock said, ‘Opportunities do not come with their values stamped upon them.’ I’ve learned that to be true. A simple program became one of my fondest memories. You never know where something will lead so you should never turn your back on something just because. One opportunity can be life-changing for you, and may open doors to many others.”