by Adah Shair
On an unusually cold winter day in Jacksonville, the UNF Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI) delegation set northbound to Atlanta in an unusually small car. After lunch at an old Pizza Hut, countless restroom stops, roaming in circles in downtown Atlanta looking for the right Peachtree Street (since every street name starts with Peachtree in downtown Atlanta ) and successfully finding our way out of the hotel’s maze of a parking lot, we made to our rooms: tired and excited.
The next morning, we walked our way to The Loudermilk Center, again in circles. Once in, we were greeted by the energetic Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) staff in purple t-shirts. After our inaugural photo session as Interfaith Leaders, we were welcomed to a warm and hearty lunch. That is when I had my first big it’s good-to-be-at-an-interfaith-conference moment. As I staggered in line, the way hungry people do while waiting in a lunch line, I read through the list of items on the menu. And then I saw it, written in English and Arabic, the word Halal. Although it wasn’t completely out of the blue to have Halal food at an interfaith conference, but to see chicken followed by the word Halal in parenthesis was like feeling absolute acceptance. It doesn’t happen very often that eating at a buffet doesn’t entail carefully reading through all the ingredients of each preparation to make sure nothing in there is outside my dietary restrictions as a Muslim. In my happiness, I hopped through the lunch line and put everything on my plate.
After the introductory lunch and a welcome speech by Dr. Patel, the rest of the day was scheduled with our organized cohorts. Before the training with our respective cohorts began, I had my second big it’s-good-to-be-at-an-interfaith-conference moment. Arrangements for jumah were made by the IFYC staff. Again, something like this would be expected at an interfaith conference, but to not have to miss jumah because I couldn’t make it to the local mosque that Friday afternoon was a valid reason to feel blissful. After the small scale jumah, the Interfaith Leadership training was in action. Our cohort also had delegates from a local Atlanta high school and they did not cease to amaze me throughout the training. The day ended with yet another good-to-be-at-an-interfaith-conference moment. I had the chance to attend a Sabbath service. Sabbath Shalom! I tasted the grape juice, it was sweet and great. Ate the bread, was sweet and great. Prayed to Allah through the Hebrew prayers, it felt sweet and great. I did skip desert after dinner that night.
The second day of the conference was a rigorous series of events: sharing our stories training, workshops, snacks, more workshops, lunch, speed faithing, snacks, and workshops. Like Friday was my interfaith-moments-day, Saturday was all-the-amazing-things-you-can-learn-in-one-day day. It may count as one of the most knowledge bound days in my life. I leaned about Jainism, Secular Humanism, learnt how powerful a well-thought story can be, and learnt how to succeed in having a well-thought story and how to use that story to move people for a cause I strongly believe in: cooperation despite our differences, because of our differences.
I also met a lot of people, like me and unlike me, willing to put themselves in a place where their identities are questioned and they were prepared with answers. I met a girl from Afghanistan raised in a traditional Muslim household who came to United States on a scholarship that she said she applied to knowing she would never be selected and wouldn’t have to fight with her parents to let her go. 4 years later she is the president of the Muslim Student’s Association (MSA) at her University and was at this conference to learn how to make MSA an organization everyone can call theirs.
As we successfully presented our cohort cheer and unsuccessfully tried the Better Together cheer at the closing ceremony, a feeling of anxiety began to settle in. The anxiety of going back into the real world, where identities are still questioned, where faith is often still a barrier and halal food is a unicorn. That feeling was a reality check telling me there’s work to be done and you will be needed.