This summer I had the opportunity to travel with two groups of high school students to Chicago, IL for a two separate weeks of service and learning. These amazing students and their incredible adult leaders were exposed to people and organizations doing wonderful things in the community. As fellow travelers and leaders, it was our hope that the experiences had in Chicago would make a difference and would spark the faith and the imaginations of the young people. In addition, we hoped that they would then put these discoveries to work in their own communities upon returning home. You see, we try to design the summer trips to be more than one time transactions of services rendered for those "in need". We try to design these adventures as opportunities to build relationships that transform the way in which we all understand faith, self, the world, and our role in it.
To that end, this year we split our day Thursday with two fantastic organizations that changed us in ways we are still discovering. Our morning was spent with CAIR Chicago (Council on American Islamic Relations). As we entered their offices on State Street we saw this motto inscribed on their conference room window, "Defending civil rights, promoting tolerance, fighting bigotry." We were challenged by the ways in which this organization stands up for the rights of Muslims across the Midwest. Six of their forty interns spoke to our group with passion and excitement about the work they were doing in Chicago, in small communities in the Chicagoland area, and with those often forgotten or neglected. They spoke of the struggles faced by Muslims as a result of prejudice, fear, and ignorance. They spoke of ways they were working with CAIR to make a difference not just among the Muslim community but in society at large. These young interns represented six different religious backgrounds (everything from Jewish to Southern Baptist) and four different ethnic groups. They opened our eyes, challenged our preconceptions, and encouraged us to enter the struggle with them. As Gerald Hankerson, CAIR Outreach Coordinator, said, "Civil rights is civil rights regardless of color, religion, or nationality."
Our Thursday afternoon was spent with Sinai Congregation on Delaware in downtown Chicago. We were greeted by Heidi Kon, Director of Religious Education. She took our group into the sanctuary where we learned about the building, the meaning of the different architectural elements, and had the unique opportunity to examine and touch Torah. Heidi asked us about what we thought was the most important element of Judaism. She then went on to help us understand the congregation's calling to work toward bringing about God's justice and mercy in the world in the here and now. This congregation is actively engaged in the issues of education, hunger, homelessness, and violence, among others. We sat in awe of the "sense of intimacy and grandeur" we experienced in the sanctuary and were challenged by the words of Torah inscribed on the walls near the ceiling, "Justice...justice shall your pursue" and "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."
In the buildings we were inspired; through the words we were challenged; and by the actions we were convicted to act. We are thankful for our lives and our faith will never be the same.