“What denomination of Christianity are you?” This was one of the questions Eddie and I were asked by the Father at RUAHA University in Iringa, Tanzania back in the late summer of 2004.
Before I entered freshman year at New York University in 2004, a last minute opportunity to travel to Tanzania with MCW came up. It was the final day of my second Youth Leadership Retreat and I remember clearly having spent the entire day traveling from one religious venue to another. The group had started the Friday off at the 96th Street Mosque where they learned about Islam from a Southeast Asian Imam. The group of around 45 youth from different parts of the world then took the train down to a Synagogue on Lexington Avenue to learn about Judaism from a female Rabbi. By the end of the day, we headed back to NYU to learn about Christianity from a Priest. As the group prepared for dinner, a group of Jewish Israeli participants observed Shabbat by reciting prayers and lighting candles. It’s important to point out here that the entire day had been structured to be diverse – to expose all of the youth to the three Abrahamic religions.
Before heading back to the dorms, Eddie came up to me and my parents asking if I would be interested in traveling to Tanzania along with a group of dentists and other MCW members. At that time, my only international travel was to Israel / Palestine and I could not refuse what I thought at the time was a once-in-life opportunity.
The following week, and after receiving all of the traveling-abroad immunizations, I hopped on an Ethiopian Airlines flight with Eddie and the rest of the MCW team to Tanzania – my first country on the African continent. Eddie, the Co-Founder and at that time the volunteer Executive Director of MCW, mentioned we would be visiting a brand new university located just south of the center of Tanzania. Because the university was starting out, Eddie thought there may be an opportunity to help by filling up the newly established library with books and educational material. Through one of MCW’s connections, the team had the opportunity of receiving brand new textbooks through McGraw Hill’s corporate social responsibility program. With this in mind, we met with the leadership team at RUAHA University a few days before returning home.
RUAHA University is a Catholic University offering certificate programs up to PhD programs. When the group sat down with the Father and leadership team, they learned about the history of the university and their vision for the future. When Eddie checked to see if the university needed assistance sourcing books, the Father and the leadership team’s faces lit up with a smile. Most libraries would appreciate donations of books – especially a start-up library at a university. Within a few moments, Eddie informed the RUAHA team about the opportunity to donate a 40-foot container filled with brand-new textbooks of their choosing from a McGraw Hill master list.
At that moment, the Father thanked MCW for the opportunity and support. There was a huge smile on his face as he looked over at Eddie and me. At that moment, he asked the two of us what denomination of Christianity each practiced. Eddie and I looked at each other with the slightest smirks on our faces. With an even larger smile on his face, Eddie turned to the Father and began to chuckle. A little hesitantly, Eddie replied “Well, actually, Khalid and I are not Christian at all.”
A look of confusion came over the Father’s face as Eddie continued. “Khalid is actually Muslim and with Palestinian background and I am Jewish with a South African / German background.”
The perplexed look on the Father’s face turned into a big smile. Quietly, he began to tell the two what a surprise it was for him to see a Jewish young man working with a Muslim young man to support a Christian University in Tanzania. Together, we laughed at the thought of how “different” we all are but working towards a positive goal. At no point in time did Eddie and I think about or discuss how great of a story it would be to work together on a project like this.
Being part of the MCW team and network parallels the library story in that our team is made up of individuals from different backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities, cultures, etc. The diversity happens organically – there is no strategic plan to create a multi-faith, multi-ethnic team. I was aware of this subconsciously but never really thought about it until recently. Regina, who is a colleague and happens to be Catholic with an Irish/German background helped me think about how unique we are as an organization. On a site visit to Burlington, Vermont, Regina and I sat at a restaurant on Church Street talking about how great it is to work at an organization that just happens to have diversity. Regina pointed out that just within our small staff in New York City, at least three different faiths were represented. As we move to our board and then to our team members in Africa and alumni from our Young Leaders Program, you will find individuals from all walks of life.
When I joined the MCW team and began working on the Young Leaders Program, I started off with a lot of research about other organizations working in the areas of youth, development, leadership and community. It was no surprise that I found that MCW is definitely not the only organization that celebrates diversity. But there is something unique in the way MCW brings together unintentionally diverse groups over unrelated topics. While we bring people together over universal topics such as leadership, community, and healthcare, we use a platform of multiplicity to learn from each other and create a sense of common humanity. By focusing on community rather than conflict, by focusing on creating change rather that religious divides, we learn in a very subtle way the skill of cultural competence and mutual respect.
All of our programs allow for a unique chance to experience this cultural exchange that takes place in a supportive environment. Through this blog, we hope to take this very special platform online, and allow those in the MCW Family to continue to share their story and allows the MCW community to continue to learn from each other year round. With our increasingly international community, we have a unique opportunity to have individuals from all around the world discuss current topics happening in their communities and the lens through which they experience them.
In continuing with the MCW way, we are looking forward to learning more about global issues in MCW communities around the world, and to take this opportunity to focus on our shared humanity.