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LEADER RESOURCE 1: Faith Heroes

Provided by the Interfaith Youth Core. Used by permission.

Thich Nhat Hanh

In Southeast Asia, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, used the principles of compassion and nonviolence to campaign against the war in Vietnam. Hanh believed that people of faith, especially youth, couldn't remain silent in the face of social injustice. They must work together to heal the world. He founded the School of Youth for Social Services in Saigon, a grassroots relief organization for people of all faiths that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives.

Hanh coined the phrase "Engaged Buddhism" which refers to Buddhists who want to act on the insights of their meditation practices to addresses situations of social, political, and economic suffering and injustice. After watching the suffering of the Vietnam War, Hanh felt compelled to act and saw this work as a part of his meditation practice, not separate from it.

Hanh asked faith communities to support a worldwide revolution of values based on compassion and nonviolence. According to the Buddhist principle of compassion, human beings should love one another because they are not the source of social injustice; ideas are the source of social injustice.

I believe with all my heart that ... (your) enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination that lie within the heart of man.

Hanh recalled a prayer offered by one of his students:

Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the ignorance of others. Help us avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the will of others to power and to predominance.

Hanh also had a strong relationship with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who spoke out against the Vietnam War after Hanh's urging. King was so moved by Hahn's commitment to peace and understanding that in 1967 he nominated Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize, writing:

He is a holy man, for he is humble and devout ... He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars, and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to a world brotherhood, to humanity.

Hanh addressed an open letter to King on June 1, 1965 urging him to speak out against U.S. involvement in the war. Hanh compared King's life mission to his own work:

I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world's greatest humanists would not remain silent ... You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action too.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu whose concept of satyagraha, or truth-force, helped India gain its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Gandhi was both a political and spiritual leader of India and is recognized as the "Father of the Nation." Although the British authorities repeatedly jailed Gandhi and his followers, his calm commitment to loving his enemies while resisting them nonviolently, never wavered. In developing the idea of satyagraha, Gandhi emphasized the resistance of tyranny though civil disobedience and non-violence. Not only did his ideas lead to independence in India, but also motivated movements for civil rights worldwide.

Nonviolent resistance implies the very opposite of weakness. Defiance combined with non-retaliatory acceptance of repression from one's opponents is active, not passive. It requires strength, and there is nothing automatic or intuitive about the resoluteness required for using nonviolent methods in political struggle and the quest for Truth.

After experiencing racism and prejudice in his mid-20s in South Africa, Gandhi worked to secure the largely Muslim Indian community's civil rights there, in the midst of a Christian country. Upon returning to India, he went on to organize against discrimination there. He led nationwide campaigns for the alleviation of poverty, the liberation of women, cooperation among religions, and Indian economic self-sufficiency and independence. Even in the most extreme situations, Gandhi remained committed to non-violence and truth.

Though Gandhi derived most of his principles from Hinduism, he believed all religions to be equal. He believed that at the core of every religion was truth and love. He read extensively about other religious traditions, but rejected all efforts to convert to a different faith. Gandhi drew strength to stand up to his ideals from his strong religious commitment.

Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being... When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.

I am a Hindu because it is Hinduism which makes the world worth living. I am a Hindu hence I love not only human beings, but all living beings.

Gandhi was an inspiration not to just the movement for equality and civil rights in India, but to movements worldwide, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement in the United States, and Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. While he valued Hinduism, Gandhi worked throughout his career with South Asian Muslims and Christians to achieve independence:

I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith. Work without faith is like an attempt to reach the bottom of a bottomless pit.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was a journalist turned social activist and a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church. She became known for her social justice campaigns in defense of the poor, forsaken, hungry, and homeless. She was arrested for the first time at 20 years old, protesting at the White House for women's right to vote. She founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933, espousing nonviolent action and hospitality for the impoverished and downtrodden. She opened a "house of hospitality" in the slums of New York City. The movement quickly spread to other cities and today well over 100 such communities exist.

What we would like to do is change the world—and, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute... we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, "There is nothing that we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend."

Following an earthquake during Day's childhood that put her father out of a job, her family was forced to move to a tenement flat in Chicago's South Side. This marked a step down from their previous, relatively well-off, lifestyle. While the family was later able to move to a more comfortable home, this experience influenced Day for the rest of her life. She learned the feeling of shame that comes with failure and began to read books that stirred her conscience, feeling a sense of solidarity with the poor.

Day became involved in Catholicism as a young adult, seeing "worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication ... (as) the noblest acts of which we are capable in this life." She understood the Catholic Church to be "the church of the immigrants, the church of the poor" and was fascinated by the Catholic spiritual discipline. Day struggled to find a way to bring together her religious faith and her radical social values. She prayed that a way would open up for her to use her talents to help the poor.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

Her prayers were answered when she met Pater Maurin, a French immigrant, who suggested she start a newspaper to publicize Catholic social teaching and promote steps to bring about the peaceful transformation of society. And so the Catholic Worker began, espousing ideas that were both radical and religious, calling on people to take action. As winter approached and many homeless people began knocking on her door looking for a place to stay, Day acted on the message of hospitality she advocated in the paper and welcomed them in. Day's apartment became the seed from which many houses of hospitality were to spring. In response to criticisms from some who argued that these people were not the "deserving poor," Day responded:

We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us... Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather, they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Badshah Khan

Abdul Ghaffar Khan, later known as Badshah Khan, was a Pashtun (Afghan) political and spiritual leader known for his nonviolent opposition to British rule during the final years of the Empire on the Indian subcontinent. He was a lifelong pacifist and a devout Muslim. Education as a means of social advancement was a central ideal throughout his life.

I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it.

Ghaffar Khan was born into a prosperous family from Charsadda (in present day Pakistan). As a child, he did well in school and began to see the importance of education in service to the community. Unwilling to take a prestigious but second-class position under the British rule of India, Ghaffar Khan instead decided to continue his studies. His mother, however, did not want him to study abroad in London because of the perception that he would lose his culture and religion by doing so. Unable to continue his own studies, Ghaffar Khan instead looked to help other start their own education as a way to counteract British oppression, the repression of the mullahs, and an ancient culture of violence and vendetta. At just 20 years old, Ghaffar Khan opened his first school with great success. He worked tirelessly to raise the consciousness of his fellow Pashtuns.

My religion is truth, love and service to God and humanity. Every religion that has come into the world has brought the message of love and brotherhood. Those who are indifferent to the welfare of their fellowmen, whose hearts are empty of love, they do not know the meaning of religion.

When you go back to your villages, tell your brethren that there is an army of God and its weapon is patience. Ask your brethren to join the army of God. Endure all hardships. If you exercise patience, victory will be yours.

Ghaffar Khan went on to found the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God), also known as the Red Shirts, calling for the formulation of a united, independent, secular India. The Khudai Khidmatgar was founded on a belief in the power of Mahatma Gandhi's notion of satyagraha, a form of active nonviolence, and attracted many members. It opposed the British-controlled police and army through strikes, political organization, and non-violent opposition. This organization directly partnered with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress throughout the 1920s, bringing Muslims and Hindus together around the desire for independence from Britain.

Today's world is traveling in some strange direction. You see that the world is going toward destruction and violence. And the specialty of violence is to create hatred among people and to create fear. I am a believer in nonviolence and I say that no peace or tranquility will descend upon the people of the world until nonviolence is practiced, because nonviolence is love and it stirs courage in people.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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