Earlier this month, about 40 young people between the ages of 18 and 35 gathered at the University of British Columbia for a conversation about “the spirit of social change,” an event at which they explored the relationship between spirituality and social action. Rabbi Dr Robert Daum, Director of the Iona Pacific Inter-Religious Centre, and Advisor to the Vice-President of Students at UBC on inter-religious issues related to student development welcomed everyone to the conversation on behalf of UBC, the Vancouver School of Theology.
The event was part of a year-long series of conversations across the country, co-presented by the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs and the Inspirit Foundation, with support from the Baha’i Community of Canada. Its purpose is to promote reflection on how the spiritual, moral and ethical commitments of young people contribute to positive social action that is unifying rather than divisive. The ultimate aim of the initiative is to develop and advance a discourse about the role of youth in society.
The evening began with a pleasant dinner on a beautiful terrace from which the group watched the sun set over Burrard Inlet and the Sunshine Coast ferries passing to and fro. Participants came from diverse cultural and faith backgrounds—Catholics and Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and agnostics. All expressed gratitude for having been invited into a social space where like-minded people could gather and converse.
The group, seated in one large circle, dealt with questions concerning the relationship between belief, spirituality, and social engagement. How does society view young people today? How do young people view their own generation? How are beliefs formed and acted upon? How can people with similar or different beliefs work together to promote the betterment of society? How do religious youth find themselves functioning within a secular society, and how can individuals and communities live increasingly coherent lives?
A variety of responses to similar questions were offered, and the young people present found the evening beneficial and motivational. Many expressed concern for their friends and fellows, who often appear complacent or enmeshed in material concerns. Some felt caught between past generations, who want them to carry on traditions, and future generations, who will need to live in the world these young people are involved in establishing. Personal identity came up in this connection, for the period of youth is exciting but can also be confusing and will ultimately define the path of one’s adult life. Questions of identity and spirituality must be explored by the individual, and while one is often comfortable approaching siblings or parents or close friends, the participants felt that it was difficult to have meaningful conversations in more public settings, as communities, or within institutions.
The group came to many realizations: the importance of accompanying and educating those younger than themselves (mindful of the impact that role models and parents had on the participants’ own moral standards, lifestyles, and choices); the need to seek truth and have hope; and the vital importance of conversations that allow diverse peoples to unite around common interests and advance society together. Ultimately the group realized that while young people are particularly open to new ideas, only a minority strives to actively contribute to social change; however, many participants identified in their communities and in individuals of their own acquaintance a thirst for something more meaningful, which one person called God’s love, and a receptivity to the idea that social transformation is not only possible but inevitable. In order to achieve it, mutual support and encouragement are crucial.
The conversation was generally peaceful and well-paced, and was approached in the spirit of friendliness and respect toward other opinions and perspectives, and the group was able to advance its collective understanding within the hour and a half provided.
One of the closing remarks was offered by Andrea Nemtin, CEO of the Inspirit Foundation, one of the sponsors of the project, who said that she believes that young people are underestimated. She shared the inspiration for the future she receives from the words of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who said that out of the digital age would emerge a holistic spiritual class that will fight for justice, freedom and equality in the global village.
More information about the “Spirit of Social Change” conversation series is available here