My participation in the Annual National (gathering) of the Ahmadiyyah Community last weekend in Harrisburg, PA, has my head still spinning a bit. For me, it was a unique opportunity and one that I’m glad I had. It was an opportunity that I won’t soon forget.
Most of the many things that I want to share will wait until Shabbat morning, the 29th. In the meantime, let me share with you just one particular impressions that I found most important.
The first revolves around the idea of service – a core, fundamental goal of the Ahmadiyyah community. Their understanding is that the meaning and requirement of Islam is realized in a life of service – to one another, to the larger community and to the world around.
I was picked up at the airport by a young man in his twenties and his younger friend, still in high school. Throughout the weekend, they drive back and forth to the airport and various hotels, conveying guest and other participants to the convention center and back. They were lovely, friendly and respectful. I asked why they did this and whether or not they got to participate in the programming at all. They responded that they enjoyed doing it as a service to the convention and to the people, like me, who were guests. When I asked – with a small measure of nod-nod, wink-wink – whether they did it to get out of having to sit through long speeches they did not respond as I expected them to. Rather, they said simply that this was their opportunity for service. Later, another driver I had was listening to podcasts of the speakers while ferrying me and others around.
The entire convention was mounted based on volunteers: from people who came to build the dais and set up the dozens of meal tables (for an attendance of about 7,000) to the doctors who were serving in the parking lot to the little boys who roamed the convention halls during speakers, one carrying a pitcher of water and one carrying a stack of cups. My friend, Ty, and his brother, Qasim, and their friends remembered back to the days when they were kids and did the same thing.
I was impressed with this ethos and its pervasiveness – and the modesty that accompanies it. To serve others, these folks quite easily set aside their own interests and needs. This is not something that I have seen in such a consistent and widespread fashion in our own community.
Likewise, the national community runs significant and successful service projects around the world. The convention celebrated the building of an entire hospital in Guatemala, and one speaker referred to the dozens of wells built in Africa that has provided fresh, clean water for 2,000 people who otherwise did not have it. An entire exhibit was devoted to highlighting these projects and engaging people in them. The projects are executed through the program Humanity First USA, an international charitable organization initially launched by the Ahmadiyyah community but open to all: USA Humanity First.
It is important to realize that this comes against the backdrop of a history of persecution that the Ahmadiyyah have suffered, largely at the hands of other Muslims in India and Pakistan. Still, in a world in which too many Muslim voices preach fanaticism, hatred and violence – particularly against America and the West – the Ahmadiyyah reject all of that and instead live quiet lives of service, faith and bridge-building. I believe that this community will benefit from its integration into Western culture and, equally, that America stands to gain quite a bit from the example of this religious community.
Ty and I, in the meantime, grabbed a few minutes to put our heads together to begin to imagine ways in which we might bring our communities into conversation with one another. More about that later.
Finally, I was given the honor of speaking Saturday night at their VIP dinner. I spoke of my understanding of what religious pluralism should be. I may share a longer version of these remarks during the holidays but if you would like to read them now: http://bchavana.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Address-to-National-Ahmadiyyah-Convention-2017.pdf.
I look forward to sharing more of this with you on the morning of the 29th. Incidentally, Stew Campbell will share his spiritual journey that morning.