Companions live together, on and off the road
A French organization tours the world in search of solutions to the issues of interreligious relations
Two years ago, Samuel Grybowski and three travel companions arrived in Nagoya, Japan, feeling tired, dirty, and in need of a bit of alone time — a rare luxury during their year together on the road. “We were always one on top of another, there was really no moment when we could be alone other than in the shower,” he said. So it was a shock when they learned they’d be bathing in a traditional public bath with about 200 other men. Grybowski recalled, “It was kind of embarrassing.”
When Grybowski created an organization devoted to helping people of different religions learn to live together, communal bathing was not part of his plan. The young Frenchman founded Coexister (“Living Together”) in 2009 at age 16 after the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians started to heat up again.
Since then, the group has conducted cultural exchange events and community projects. Its biggest undertaking has been its ambitious InterFaith Tour, a journey around the globe to discover how organizations in other countries develop positive relations between different religious communities. The first tour took place in 2013. This July, a new group consisting of a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian and an atheist will start off on the second one.
Religious identity has long been a pressure point of societal tensions. Victor Grezes, another member of the first tour, says that his home country has difficulty confronting these issues. They recently came to a head when terrorists in Paris attacked the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store.
“The problem in France today is that people believe unity can only exist between people who look and act the same,” said Grezes. “But we are dealing with diversity. Either we try to make everyone the same, or we realize the potential of diversity and build unity based upon it.” Following the January attacks, President Hollande asked the group for advice on the wording for a press conference.
The purpose of the tour, Grezes said, is not to spread a message around the world — “that would be presumptuous.” Rather, the aim is to raise awareness about the breadth of interfaith initiatives, as well as to connect organizations, enabling them to share ideas and best practices that promote tolerance and cooperation between religious communities.
The first tour visited 48 countries in ten months, meeting 435 organizations. This was followed by two months in France sharing their findings with schools and other organizations. From those presentations, 10 additional Coexister chapters were born, bringing the total number to 21 and growing.
One of the initiatives that stood out from the debut tour was an annual Berlin-based event called the Long Night of Religions, with around 100 places of worship opening their doors to the public. In India, the travelers learned about a sports tournament called “Cricket for Peace” to strengthen Muslim-Hindu relations. And in Buenos Aires, there was a bicycling route for religious discovery.
Now Samir Akacha, Lea Frydman, Ariane Julien and Lucie Neumann will follow in their predecessor’s footsteps as InterFaith Tour Team 2, with a 100,000 euro ( US$ 108,000) budget collected through fundraising, French government grants and various organizations (including Sparknews, who has been a Coexister partner since the first tour).
Although the second team will travel to only 30 countries, it will spend more time at each stop, visiting new locations such as Azerbaijan and Tunisia. The informa- tion they collect will be archived at the University of Vienna as part of an ongoing research partnership. The team will also produce a multimedia Web documentary, and a mobile app will allow users to follow the tour through live updates from the road.
The sole woman slated for the first tour’s team had to drop out, but this year the gender tables have turned with three women and one man. And while traveling in strict Muslim societies might seem challenging for a mostly female entourage, Akacha said it’s actually an advantage, as they will have access to traditional gathering places for women — such as private kitchens-that were off limits to the all-male group.
For Frydman, a 20- year- old philosophy student from Paris, the tour is as much a social cause as a personal identity quest. “As a Jewish person, I’ve been shocked to see antisemitism is present in France,” she said. “It has reinforced my conviction that what we are doing in Coexister is not only important but necessary.”
Akacha said he expects the tour to make his faith stronger through interactions with other religions. “I would not be the same Muslim if I was just in my community, if I was not meeting Jews and Christians, going to Christian gatherings or synagogue events,” he said. “People ask questions, so I have to answer to defend my religion. I have to question it and learn more, so I become a better Muslim.”
Coexister’s ultimate goal is not only to encourage a spirit of tolerance among religious groups, but also to foster collaboration to build communities that value diversity.
“Instead of saying despite our differences, we say it’s thanks to our differences that we are stronger,” said Grezes.
The first InterFaith Tour team meets their successors, who will embark on the second InterFaith world tour in July 2015. Victor Grezes, Ismael Medjdoub, Lucie Neumann, Samuel Grzybowski, Ariane Julien, Samir Akacha.