New York University has just hosted a conference for college students interested in interfaith community service work called an Interfaith Leadership Institute. These conferences are sponsored by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to making inter-religious cooperation a social norm on college campuses.
Having attended multiple Leadership Institutes since the inaugural conference in 2010, becoming a Better Together Coach -- a student leader who teaches interfaith skills to others at these conferences -- has been one of my goals. As a Muslim upset by religious intolerance, I have sought to join the growing chorus of religious and non-religious voices in the United States who advocate for greater interfaith engagement. Indeed, learning about the amazing story of my good friend (and former Better Together Coach) Balpreet Kaur showed me that young students really can positively influence the public dialogue around religion. It has taken almost three years to realize my goal, but in June 2013 I officially joined the newest class of Better Together Coaches after the completion of a 5-day training module directed by IFYC staff.
Although I believe I have gained many of the skills expected of the position -- such as the ability to articulate my personal story in the context of the larger interfaith movement -- my most treasured experiences involved interacting with the other Coaches outside of our training. In the process, I gained a new respect for various other religious traditions and reflected on my own commitment to service.
After one particularly long day of training, all of the Coaches went to eat Chicago's signature deep-dish pizza. The dinner was a great bonding experience, and we traded contact information while discussing mundane topics like the name of Kim Kardashian's new baby. Having underestimated the portion sizes, we were content to leave an especially large tip for the waiter and leave. But then, a few of us had a unique idea: why not take the extra pizza and distribute it to some of the needy in a nearby neighborhood? It seemed such an obvious and simple good deed, but none of us had even considered this just a few days before. Personally, I had nonchalantly wasted a significant portion of my lunch that same day without thinking twice; however, the experience of storytelling about our personal motivations for service that we had done in that day's training caused me to think about doing good in everyday situations.
As we walked to the neighborhood in the dark, I began to get worried. Years of living in Washington, D.C. had conditioned me to be wary of unlit areas; I casually mentioned that the neighborhood was unsafe, and that it would be a bad idea for a few college students to go there alone. However, many of my fellow coaches felt none of these concerns and continued to push on towards a group of men experiencing homelessness. As we got closer, they looked at us strangely, as if to ask why a group of privileged college students were in their neighborhood. But as one coach quietly said, "We had some extra pizza. Do you want some?" their expressions completely changed. One said, "I was having a terrible day, but now I know that tonight will be better. Thank you!" Another asked us, "What motivated you all to do this?" Suddenly, I was reminded of the Quran verse, "Whoever does an atom's weight of good will see[its effects]" (99:7). The gratitude on their faces was worth (many times over) the trek. We even had a chance for impromptu interfaith dialogue as a man wearing a crucifix asked about the Hebrew letters written on one Coach's shirt, and then discovered that he had the same name as the Coach despite their religious differences.
As we walked home, I realized the true potential of interfaith relationships. I am a devout Muslim, and personally believe in the truth of my religion; however, as the most skeptical Coach about our idea to distribute the food, I was ashamed to see that other non-Muslim student leaders were more committed to the Islamic principle of service than I was.
By participating in Better Together Coach week, I gained much more than I could have hoped for. In addition to interfaith leadership skills, I gained a newfound appreciation for other religions and re-evaluated my own commitment to service. While safety is obviously important, I believe that I should have been more willing to at least try to make a positive difference rather than looking for cop-outs. Distributing that pizza may have been a small, atom-size act of good, but I can already feel its effects: As I move forward in coaching interfaith service campaigns around the country, I will strive to find more outlets for service in everyday situations. I keep trying to recreate that experience of Coach Week and the interfaith dialogue that it prompted. In the process, I hope to live up to the example of my fellow Better Together Coaches and attempt to "be the change that I would like to see in the world."
A version of this article was originally published by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.