The APYA coordinators, in their own words

Michael Harvey, Emily Perper, Nikhat Dharmi, Safi Haider
Photo by Adam Birkan.

Editor’s Note: With the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults concluding its 2012 Season activities this weekend, the Daily asked the four coordinators to write a reflection on their experiences at Chautauqua.

Michael HarveyAPYA Jewish Coordinator

If you were to walk down Chautauqua’s streets on most evenings, you might pass a porch full of young adults. Seeing them sitting around lit candles and open bags of potato chips, you might be inclined to think that they are talking about the latest movie or how they are enjoying their summers. But in fact, what you are witnessing isn’t just a gathering of young adults ages 16 to 22 but an APYA tradition — the porch chat.

Twice a week, participants of the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults gather on a porch to engage in intelligent, open and intimate conversations with many of the incredible speakers visiting the Institution. We, as coordinators, have the privilege to not only join in those conversations, but often to help facilitate them. The porch chats are what I will remember most from my time here. With the Rev. Alan Jones, we spoke about love through the eyes of religion; with Professor Anne Foerst, we spoke of artificial intelligence and its comparison with humanity; with Rabbi Jack Bemporad, we discussed interfaith dialogue and what it takes to make a difference. The porch provides a safe space, far removed from the scrutiny of others, where young adults are able to ask questions — both simple and complex — of intellectual giants representing fields such as religion, philosophy, theology and science. Porch chats go beyond being simply Q-and-A sessions. Difficult and complex questions are raised that demand multifaceted answers. Participants are inspired, angered, saddened. At times, we leave the porch in tears. Other times, we leave laughing. But each time, we leave wiser. The porch chat is emblematic of what the Chautauqua Institution has to offer its participants. It is during the chat, in the soft candle-lit glow of an ever-darkening porch, that we fulfill the true spirit of this place.

Emily Perper | APYA Christian Coordinator

On Monday night, the other coordinators and I determined to have a manifesto-writing workshop, in which loyal Abrahamic Program for Young Adults attendees would have the opportunity to construct and articulate what we stood for, what we wanted to see happen in Chautauqua and in the world at large.

Nikhat, our female Muslim coordinator, proposed an icebreaker introduction, in keeping with our Monday tradition.

“We’ll have cups filled with marbles and go around the circle, telling a story about another person or saying something we appreciate about them, dropping a marble in their cup,” she said.

It seemed touching, if innocuous. Monday came. I drafted a manifesto template. Nikhat brought candy for the cups, instead of marbles.

Instead of 20 minutes, the icebreaker lasted for more than an hour.

We had grown close enough to see a bit of each other’s souls. We hinted at private moments, at public declarations, at the spoken and unspoken. We emptied our cups; they were refilled. We crossed the circle of chairs; we tossed Jolly Ranchers at one another. One by one, we all dropped a piece of candy into the center of the circle: an offering.

“We didn’t even need the manifesto,” said Mike, our Jewish coordinator, turning to me at the top of the stairs. “This — this was our manifesto.”

This is why I came to Chautauqua: to create something out of nothing, friends out of strangers. This is what happened at Chautauqua: someone tentatively proposing we meet up in a year, wedding invitations, nicknames, empathetic encouragement, curious excitement, growth like a summer orchard.

We cannot save the world, in all its vastness and complexity. We can only cultivate our garden, as Voltaire wrote, beginning the work, polishing, striving, reveling in progress, mindful of tradition.

We can live the manifesto. And if it is written on our hearts, we will not forget it.

Nikhat Dharani | APYA Musilm Coordinator

Being at Chautauqua has been intellectually and spiritually empowering. Because there is so much going on, each moment is precious. It is incredible to take in the ballet, pick the brains of distinguished speakers, stroll along lush grass, experience a breathtaking sunset reflected on the lake, and hear the stories of open-minded people I once thought of as strangers. The weeks spent here gave me a chance to take this community for granted and then to realize its majesty all over again.

As a Muslim coordinator for APYA, I had an easier time navigating Chautauqua than most folks. The Interfaith Lectures, social hours, various dinners and religious services changed my perception of individuals, groups and the insider-outsider mentality enhanced my understanding of God — and added dimensions to my spirituality.

One of my most powerful experiences took place at Hurlbut Church. I learned to knit there. I participated in multiple Jewish services for the first time. I co-led a discussion about women and Islam with my fellow Muslim APYA coordinator, which was a powerful, humbling experience. And from time to time, I sat in an empty pew and poured my heart out to God. Hurlbut Church, to me, signifies the exceptional spirit of an interfaith community founded on mutual respect, creativity and generosity that seeks the sacred in the profane.

This summer has been the most instructional, invigorating and uplifting time of my life. Giving something to the warm community at Chautauqua meant that I got a lot more back, from the support and strength I found in my dear APYA coordinators and phenomenal program director Maureen Rovegno to a better understanding of the kind of person I want to be.

I’m not sure what the future holds, but as I’m indebted to Chautauqua, I’ll be looking for ways to spark in others the fire that Chautauqua has ignited in me.

Safi Haider | APYA Muslim Coordinator

My experience at Chautauqua has been one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. It has furthered me in my love and practice of the interfaith experience, and I wish to carry this out in my day-to-day life. Consider the eye-opening lectures and discussions that we have had this year, from Bishop John Spong to Rev. Alan Jones to Rabbi Rami Shapiro to Rami Nashishibi — all have brought something unique to this place and have shown how to implement this interfaith experience to this great institution. One of the truly informative experiences of my life has been sitting down with some of the lecturers and, in an informal porch chat, just talk to them about their day-to-day experiences and how to relate this to our lives. I also enjoyed participating in the Sacred Song Service and helping out as best I could regarding whatever needed to be done.