Wednesday November 14, 2007

Crossing Borders
Local initiatives strengthen communities of faith and understanding

Who among us in the course of a chore-filled day has not stopped by the post office and applied for a passport? Absent the seal of the United States and a small photograph of oneself, what would distinguish this otherwise unassuming document? Yet with it one can pass formidable borders and return safely home.

A passport notwithstanding, the notion that this weekend we might attend a house of worship other than our own suggests other kinds of borders, and ones we rarely cross.

After all, if we are sectarian in our professions of faith, and most of us are, what would compel us to attend a house of worship other than our own? A wedding invitation, funeral, or confirmation might occasionally draw us in, though social obligations once fulfilled are typically bound by faith and custom and lead quickly back to familiar devotions.

Secure and friendly
But such ventures may be well worth the effort. By knowing more of the religion and culture of others, might not those we call neighbors, friends, or business associates become more accessible to us? And might not they, in turn, feel more secure and friendly toward us? And what of those with whom we are not so friendly? Would we be diminished in our humanity were we to understand more fully the stranger in our midst?

It is no secret that religion is more of a divider than a unifier, especially when new cultural minorities emerge in places long settled in their customs. Such was the circumstance in the late 1980s when, according to Weston resident Habib Rahman, what would eventually become the Wayland-Weston Interfaith Action Group came together at the urging of local residents, with the backing of clergy.

A matter of curiosity
For some, it was simply a matter of curiosity and a desire to know about new neighbors. Others had heard that newly arriving Jewish families in the two communities were sensing a frost in the air that went beyond seasonal changes in the weather.

By the late 1980s the group had sponsored a local edition of “Facing History and Ourselves,” while appearances by guest clergy from various religions served to enrich the general dialog and bring residents together to explore differences and commonalities.

By the mid 1990s, Wayland and Weston, both of which continued to accrue significant minority populations, had become home to a distinguished Muslim community, which assumed active membership in the interfaith group.

The trust that grew from these relationships was put to the test and confirmed after the tragic event of September 11, 2001. Immediately following that day, members of the Interfaith Action Group found themselves standing watch outside the Islamic Center of Boston, located in Wayland. In those angry times this helped ensure Muslim friends were protected from harassment or worse in their devotions.

“To be honest, we are fortunate to be here,” says Habib Rahman, a Muslim of Bangladeshi origins. “[Weston] is a community that is receptive to differences and is not only tolerant, but also welcoming.”

Rahman, who as a youngster was educated in a Catholic teaching brothers school, was urged to join the Interfaith Action Group by a fellow member of his mosque. “I said, ‘Oh boy!’ but then I began to meet members of the group from other faiths.

“It was not a unique experience, in itself,” he says. “ I had been to college and graduate school, here, but it was new and different because we were getting together to gain an understanding of each other and we began to share a similar spirit...One always thinks of ‘the other’ but soon we realized it was ‘us.’ Now, when I hear someone speaking of a member of a religious group (of any kind) in a derogatory way I speak up. I think it is my duty.”

Exploring traditions
Joe Mayher, minister of the United Church of Christ in Weston, points with pride to Camp IF (Interfaith), which brings teens from Weston and Wellesley, among many other communities, together in New Hampshire for a week every summer to explore each others’ traditions and faith. “The program started out as a memorial to a Weston man as the Robert Weaver Interfaith Youth Learning Program,” he notes.

Mayher goes on to recount a series of interfaith programs and collaborations, including one with Wellesley’s Rabbi Ron Weiss, now retired, from Temple Beth Elohim and his successor, Rabbi Joel Sissenwine, whom he describes as active with Reverend Martin Copenhaver of the Wellesley Congregational Church in a variety of interfaith initiatives.

Rabbi Weiss recalls an earlier time, when an interfaith council of local clergy met regularly in support of each other, but that “over the years people became more parochial and it was harder to gather a group for an interfaith organization.”

More recently, interfaith has gained a substantial following. Laurie Kay, membership director of the Wayland-Weston Interfaith Action Group, describes the organization to which she has belonged for 11 years as robust and growing: “In 2003 we worked on religious holiday issues. We helped mediate for Muslim kids in the schools who needed to be excused from gym when they were fasting during Ramadan. This fall we’re working on a conflict resolution program with Interfaith Community for Action in Wellesley.”

With over 450 members from throughout Greater Boston, the Wayland-Weston group is directed by a leadership council, which meets five times a year to set policy, develop programs and ‘bring resolution to issues of diversity,’ as described in a membership brochure. “It’s about friendship and understanding,” adds Kay. “We’ve become an incredible community of trust.”

Cathy Nicholson, a founding member of the group, echoes that notion. “Indeed, one of our enduring themes is trust in part by becoming knowledgeable about each other. Through that comes an understanding of our similarities and differences that has become the foundation of the friendships that carry us forward.”

Other borders
But what of other borders that lie beyond the relatively minor distinctions in religious practice and personal attitudes? What might it mean, for instance, for a Wellesley woman of Egyptian-Jewish origins after having experienced a personal tragedy, to reach out to an Arab mother living in Israel to understand and share the meaning of deep, irreparable loss?

On a trip to East Jerusalem, local resident Eliane Markoff did just that, the result of which is a compelling written narrative that earlier this year she shared with the Wayland-Weston interfaith group. An edited version of Markoff’s story accompanies this article (see sidebar). It speaks with eloquence and candor to those who seek to understand the challenges of reconciling cultural displacement, religious differences, and personal loss.

There are other hard-to-cross borders as well, including those that define the passage into and out of adolescence, which often remains unknown territory for adults. The often-puzzling character of “youth culture” notwithstanding, surely it is not so impenetrable as to forbid dialog and understanding with our own children.

A Taste of Peace
The following narrative is an excerpt from a presentation Eliane Markoff made to the Wayland-Weston Interfaith Action Group.

The drive to the hotel in the back seat of the taxi was peaceful and calm, unlike the region we were visiting. My husband and I had just arrived in Jerusalem, a place like no other, more a state of being than just a city. I had only visited twice before. As a young child Israel was off limits to my family, although every relative of mine yearned to visit.

Shukri, our taxi driver, was Arab. Looking out the window, I felt nostalgic and thought of Cairo and Alexandria, the places of my youth. My family was expelled after the Six Day War when I was twelve. Now I desperately wanted to remember the goodness in those with whom I had spent my early years. I needed to believe in the possibility of reaching across those years to reconnect with my past.

Breaking the peaceful silence in the taxi ride I asked Shukri whether he knew of a good Egyptian restaurant close by. He was surprised by my question. I told him that I was born in Egypt, and that I wanted to taste a dish called “Mollokhaiya.” He hesitated a moment, collected his thoughts, and with unexpected enthusiasm responded, “I don’t know any Egyptian restaurants in Israel, but my wife makes the best Mollokhaiya. You are welcome at our house for lunch anytime to try it.” We were stunned by his response. He knew we were American and had to know we are Jewish. Accustomed as we were to media reports of conflict, hatred, and violence in the area, we wondered whether he was sincere.

The following Wednesday, my husband and I and a journalist friend of ours piled into Shukri’s immaculate Mercedes and headed for his home in East Jerusalem. During the drive we saw an Arab village, a sight few tourists in Israel see. He pointed out certain homes that were “occupied,” not owned, by Israelis. Shukri’s home was situated only a few hundred feet from the controversial wall separating East Jerusalem from the West Bank. With some sadness in his eyes, he pointed out that many of his family members remained on the other side of the wall, and though he could visit them whenever he wished, they could not reciprocate.

Every member of Shukri’s large family greeted and welcomed us as we arrived at the entrance to his home. I was moved and for some reason I was reminded of the Sadat and Begin embrace. The children smiled, and Shukri’s wife’s face communicated, “thank you for allowing me to prepare a meal for you.”

Lunch was delicious. Shukri’s wife did indeed make excellent Mollokhaiya, as well as many other dishes. After our meal, the conversation with Shukri, his friends, and family members inevitably turned to Israel and politics, and it became emotional. The discussion centered around the notion that every person, Palestinian and Israeli alike, wants to experience peace.

Then the conversation shifted to the subject of the “shaheed,” a word that means martyr. Americans translate the word to mean suicide or homicide bomber. We spoke about the pain that parents endure with the loss of a child. I shared my own story of losing a child and told them how difficult it was for me to believe that a parent, especially a mother, could feel honored to lose a child as a shaheed. And even if it were true that the parents express gratitude immediately after their child makes the ultimate sacrifice for Allah, I said I wondered how they feel years after that child’s death. Shukri’s mother held my hand and explained that no parent knows in advance the plans of a shaheed. She implied that families are forced to say what their political leaders tell them to say under threat of retribution and loss of the promised compensation. Something inside of me felt comforted hearing this from a Palestinian grandmother.

As I sat in Shukri’s living room conversing in my broken Arabic, I understood my real motivation for visiting an Arab family. Of course there was a sense of excitement, novelty and curiosity in making this trip. But I now understand that what I wanted was to experience the values and beliefs of Arabic families, to know that they hold similar feelings and needs as American, Jewish and other families around the world who experience a tragic personal loss. My journey represented an attempt to connect with the Arab world, to counter the negativity and hatred about that world which I hear and read about daily in the media. I concluded, possibly for selfish reasons, that Palestinian parents, who feel the pain for their own children, must hold empathy for other parents no matter their religious, national, or ethnic background. Perhaps our host saw us as rich, self indulgent Americans, or viewed the invitation to lunch as good business, but I prefer to think that Shukri reached out to us as a genuine expression of his desire for peace - for himself, his family, his people, and most especially his children. In opening his home to us he gave us a rare glimpse of his reality and truth. His mother held my hand and prayed for peace. His wife gave me a tissue as I spoke my late daughter Rachel’s name with a tear in my eyes. Shukri’s mother blessed my daughter’s memory and said a prayer for the health and happiness of my family. Our lunch with Shukri and his family was brief, but it was long enough to whet our appetite for the taste of the peace that might be. Shalom and Salam.

Yet within the last few years half a dozen teenagers in Wellesley and adjoining Needham have crossed a border to a place from which there is no return. In a time of deep sadness and enduring pain, a whole community is left to mourn those losses and wonder why.

Thus it seems only natural that the interfaith community in Wellesley, including local clergy, should rise to the challenge of determining how best to respond to the riptide of emotions that often accompany adolescence.

Reverend Amy Alletzhauser, newly installed pastor of Christ Church in Wellesley, a United Methodist congregation, calls for a comprehensive effort to deal with the problem: “This needs to be addressed quickly and publicly,” she says. “We need to bring together community people parents, teachers and educators to strengthen the understanding and skills of those working with and around youth.”

Dealing with the issue
Clergy, of course, are often called upon in their pastoral duties to counsel troubled families and children. Reverend Richard Fitzgerald of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Wellesley has this to say on the topic: “It’s really about an integrated approach to support for kids, including professional counseling and the family doctor. From our perspective comes the power of spirit and, most importantly, the element of hope. Teenagers tend to lose that sense of hope and begin to believe there’s no tomorrow. From a spiritual perspective there’s always a tomorrow and things do change even for the better. Out of darkness the light can come.”

Reverend Addison Hall, pastor of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Wellesley, observes that a local initiative is already in motion and has interfaith support. “We are directly affected by what the interfaith community is providing to deal with this issue in our community,” he says, cautioning against jumping to conclusions about the causative factors in the recent rash of teen suicides.

But he is clear about how the community should respond. “For almost fifteen years our interfaith group has been working on adolescent issues on an informal basis. Now we need to encourage each other and identify common resources. There’s a certain amount of networking that’s going on.”

Much of the networking that Hall refers to has originated at the Wellesley Hills Congre-gational Church, where the congregation’s men’s group in particular has become a center of action. By an odd, yet beneficial coincidence, a member of the congregation is bringing a nationally recognized program to bear on the problem.

Bob Anthony is not the kind of person you would ordinarily expect to be immersed in battling teen depression and suicide. A seasoned corporate accountant and the former head of a computer services firm, his career path was disrupted along with thousands of others in the technology sector when the Internet bubble burst after 9/11. After finally admitting to himself that the frustration he felt as a result of his business problems had morphed into depression, he sought help.

Getting that help, he discovered, was not such a clear-cut process. After receiving conflicting opinions from authoritative sources as to how to deal with the larger issues relating to those he had encountered on his own road to recovery, he began to seriously address a pervasive failure in public health: catching kids early would help win much of the battle to overcome depression of all kinds. In many cases, given proper knowledge, depression is entirely preventable.

In 2006, after having worked informally for four years on the problem, Anthony founded a non-profit group called Adolescent Wellness. Independently, through a family foundation, Anthony’s wife, Nancy, helped launch the Swensrud Depression Prevention Initiative in association with Children’s Hospital.

“I had gained a sense,” Nancy Anthony says, “that kids everywhere were struggling with issues relating to depression,” and decided to do something about it. “We’re focused on prevention, early identification and treatment, and the training of professionals to do outreach to help stem the problem.”

Encouraging results
The result of this informal husband and wife partnership has been more than encouraging and includes the publication of two widely-adopted depression prevention resource guides for teachers and parents: An Adolescent Mental Health & Wellness Curriculum and Preventing Depression: A Toolkit for Schools, the latter edited by Nadja N. Reilly PhD, of Children's Hospital and director of the prevention initiative. In the last year Reilly has begun to facilitate depression workshops for educators and parents in public and private schools around Greater Boston.

“My personal experience (with depression) made me aware of how important it is to be proactive,” says Bob Anthony. “Like dealing with cancer, the best treatment is prevention. What I discovered is that half of all people diagnosed with clinical depression show symptoms by age 14. Skip prevention and early intervention and you end up with suicidal tendencies.”

Informal networks
“Our work with teen depression and issues relating to ideational suicide conditions was recognized through an informal network, and informal networks are something I very much believe in,” says Anthony; referring to a coach he had worked with in a Wellesley athletic league who brought him into contact with community leaders. Another source of referral, as mentioned earlier, was his men’s group at the Hills Church, who knew of his work in teen depression.

“We leafleted the town dump before we did a pilot program in May, and it worked,” Anthony says. “In the workshop we talked about building resilience in kids by giving them the means to develop autonomy, social skills, and creative problem solving.” Current plans call for prevention initiative director Reilly to lead a series of prevention workshops for the Wellesley community. “We’ll focus on teachers, parents, community leaders and local mental health providers,” Anthony says. “Then eventually we’ll begin to empower small numbers of kids by giving them all the resources they need. Our hope is that when kids realize they’re becoming depressed they’ll view our peer facilitators as someone that can help, then start to ask questions.”

A feature article in the September 3rd edition of Forbes Magazine about the Anthonys’ work confirms what community leaders all over Wellesley are saying: “Adolescent Wellness is a powerful tool in combating the ‘ideational behaviors’ that can lead to teen suicide.” “I think this hit many of us on a personal level,” says Christine (not her real name), a parent who attended the Hills Church-sponsored pilot program run by Adolescent Wellness in May. Called Choices, Changes and Chocolate, it struck a chord throughout the community. “We all have children at home; we think about seat belts and bike helmets, but how do you get your arms around depression? It’s frightening and people are grappling for information,” she says.

Thanks to Wellesley’s Interfaith Commu-nity For Action, a prime financial sponsor of the Adolescent Wellness program and with the firm support of local clergy, a substantial initiative is getting underway. Surely it will help Wellesley and Needham kids in need begin to work their way back across the border from depression to wellness.

In the best of times life is always a challenge. In two adjacent New England towns physically separated by no more than a few signposts, the borders of faith and feeling separating so many are not always apparent. Yet thanks to interfaith action and unique personal initiatives such divisions are daily less observed. Surely we are the better for it.



© 2006 Elm Bank Media