APYA creates safe environment for interfaith dialogue, questions


APYA Coordinators Safi Haider and Emily Perper, seated, and Michael Harvey and Nikhat Dharani pose for a portrait at Miller Park. Michelle Kanaar | Staff Photographer

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Last summer, during an open community dialogue, a man approached Ali Karjoo-Ravary and asked: “Why is Islam a religion of such hatred and evil?”

Though Karjoo-Ravary, the former Muslim coordinator for the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults, remembers the incident clearly, he carries with him a different moment from his summer at Chautauqua. The moment he holds onto occurred just five days later, when the same man approached again but with a different message.

“He had done a complete one-eighty and said he wished he had several months to study with us,” Karjoo-Ravary said.

Transformations such as that demonstrate APYA’s lasting power and influence.

“It’s that pebble in the pond, where you drop it in and you’ve got small concentric circles that just get bigger and bigger,” said Maureen Rovegno, assistant director of the Department of Religion and director of APYA.

APYA is a Department of Religion initiative. For the past seven years, it has brought four young adults from the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths to the Institution to live together. They will engage the community in interfaith dialogue and conversations about religion, culture, ethics, issues and misconceptions. The 2012 Season’s coordinators are: Michael Harvey, Jewish; Emily Perper, Christian; Safi Haider, Muslim; and Nikhat Dharani, Muslim.

The program serves to educate and enlighten the four participants as well as the Institution’s visiting and residential populations.

During the season, APYA coordinators organize religious discussions with young adults between the ages of 16 and 22. They also participate in informal porch talks with visiting religious lecturers, and Friday afternoons they will attend the newly created Chautauqua Dialogues. The dialogues are discussion groups that will be based around each week’s 2 p.m. lecture theme.

Though much of their time is filled facilitating discussions on issues of faith, Rovegno said, one of APYA’s most important aspects is the presence of the four faith coordinators living and working together on the grounds at Chautauqua.

“I want this to be a learning experience and a growing experience for them, but I want them to model what we’re teaching,” Rovegno said.
By living together, working together, eating together and leading discussions together, the coordinators said, they hope to demonstrate to the public a concrete example of a positive Abrahamic interfaith relationship.

“We’re really a microcosmic example of what we seek to accomplish beyond the grounds,” Perper said.

The four coordinators have been steeped in faith and religion since childhood, and most have experience with interfaith dialogue. Rovegno said coordinators must be open to interfaith discussion but still loyal to their respective religions.

“You have to project appreciation for your own traditions,” Rovegno said she tells coordinators. She requires that they know why their faith is important in their lives and how it impacts their relationships with other Muslims, Jews or Christians.

Harvey, a Reform Jew and Rabbinical student at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has spent the last year volunteering to speak at middle schools and high schools to spread understanding and awareness of Judaism. Harvey said he sees interfaith dialogue as the key to ending prejudice.

“At the very least, when you start to talk to another person of another faith human-to-human,” Harvey said, “you can wash away discrimination, wash away fear or old rhetoric, or things that are passed down.”

It’s so much easier to understand and be interested in the other person’s religion when you’re sitting face to face with them rather than thinking of them as an idea.”
This summer, Harvey said he wants to focus on the youth-education aspect of APYA. His priority is to create a safe environment where difficult questions can be asked with no consequences, he said.

“The question is always more important than the answer. Asking the question shows you want to learn, shows that you’re able to expand your mind,” Harvey said.

Dharani, an Ismaili Muslim and junior at Harvard University, was born in India but moved to the United States at a young age. When she was a child, Dharani’s family lived far from an Ismaili mosque. She said this distance from a house of worship helped her understand that “going to mosque” did not have to mean physically going there. As she grew older, this molded her understanding of God.

“You can find God everywhere,” she said. “That means that it is really important to treat everyone with respect.”

Dharani said her appreciation of pluralism and belief that “people must be seen as people” were reinforced after her deeper immersion into the Muslim community while at Harvard.

“I was like ‘OK, I’m with Muslims now,’ and I had all these expectations about what would be appropriate, what wouldn’t be appropriate. But that’s not really life. That’s not how people work,” she said.

Perper, the Christian coordinator and a recent graduate of Grove City College, developed an interest in interfaith dialogue while visiting and working at Chautauqua. Two summers ago, Perper was first introduced to APYA when she was a member of the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons, a Christian service organization. Now back as a coordinator, she looks forward to working with young adults who are still forming their understanding of world religions.

“This is such a crucial time in their development,” Perper said, “and since these are the people who will one day be making decisions locally, nationally, maybe internationally, it’s good to sort of raise these questions now in a safe space for them to ask whatever they want.”

While at Chautauqua, coordinators will also have the opportunity to interact with members of their faiths who are visiting or living on the grounds. Haider, for example, who is studying to be an Islamic Chaplain at Hartford Seminary, will lead Jum’a Friday afternoons. Jum’a is Muslim worship that consists of sermons called Khutbah and prayer. It will be held 12:45 p.m. Fridays in the Hall of Christ. An introduction will begin at 12:30 p.m.

Haider said he has been planning and delivering sermons from memory since he was 12 years old.

“In the tradition that I belong to, in the Indian-Pakistani subcontinent, it is tradition that we don’t use notes in our lectures.”

This season, as a coordinator, Haider said he hopes to help remove any misconceptions about Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

“I’m here to show really that even though there are differences, there are not that many, and we can build bridges with those differences as well and not just with our similarities,” Haider said. “It’s not that differences divide, differences and similarities together can unite.”

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