WHEN I AGREED to help run a leadership training programme called Action for Life, everything in me wanted to get out of doing what I knew in my guts I should do. It was one of the most difficult things I have done and easily one of the best. Action for Life, a nine-month training and outreach programme of Initiatives of Change (IofC), was the inspiration of Ren-Jou Liu from Taiwan. His dream was 'to mobilise a new generation of change-makers equipped with integrity and faith, and committed to bringing transformation, healing and development in Asia and the world'.
Sometimes dreams become reality.... A Vietnamese who did Action for Life helps to facilitate dialogues with neighbouring Cambodia to answer age-old hatreds; a Ghanaian puts his career aside to develop honest young leaders for Africa; a Lebanese dedicates herself to closing the gaps between the religious communities of the Middle East.
Action for Life is for young adults in their 20s and 30s who are serious about the idea that 'change in the world starts with change in me'. The support team, which provides a framework for the programme, is comprised of young and old. Together, they form a community of up to 50 people from 20 or more countries where everyone has something to learn and something to give.
The first Action for Life took place against the backdrop of 9/11. I joined the second in 2003/4 and a third is currently underway. The guiding theme comes from the Father of India, Mahatma Gandhi - 'Be the change you want to see in the world'.
The first five months take place in India. After two months based at the IofC centre in Panchgani, Maharashtra, the group splits up and spends two months in the north, east or south of India. They return to Asia Plateau for an evaluation before re-grouping in East and South East Asia for the remaining four months.
The grand finale is the Asia Pacific Youth Conference (APYC) to which participants invite those they have met during their travels. In July most will join the young Indonesian IofC team who are hosting the APYC (now in its 12th year) for the first time. A smaller group will support the Caux conferences at the IofC centre in Switzerland.
So, what training does Action for Life offer? At the heart of the teaching is the idea that 'God has a plan for the world and you have a part'. Frank Buchman, the founder of IofC (then Moral Re Armament), believed that 'when man listens, God speaks; when man obeys, God acts; and when people change, nations change'.
An Action for Life day begins before breakfast, with a time of silence or 'quiet time'. After spiritual input by one of the group, participants are encouraged to reflect, listen to the 'inner voice' and write down any thoughts they have. These may range from a change of attitude to action points for the coming week. Following this time of meditation, each one is invited to share his/her thoughts either with a friend or the group. This practice of 'sharing' not only builds community, it can be a way of ensuring that thoughts are acted upon.
Christina DeAngelis, an Australian social worker, says: 'Hearing the stories of change and restitution of other participants, the still, small voice within me started to ask disturbing questions. Was I absolutely honest in my work? What about long lunches not accounted for or personal calls on the work phone? In the end I saw the truth about myself and wrote letters of apology to my employers with cheques to repay what I owed.'
Listening to the inner voice is arguably the most important discipline a participant will take with them; those who follow that inner leading will give leadership wherever they are. DeAngelis went on to win a Rotary World Peace Scholarship to study in Paris. Faced with the challenges of student life once again, she finds daily quiet times vital.
Are moral principles merely lifestyle choices or survival values for our age? Such questions launch participants on an inner journey of self-discovery - vital preparation for the outer journey ahead. Keith Last, a British business graduate, had the following realisation: 'Every time I hurt someone or was dishonest, impure, selfish or unloving, I damaged myself and then needed to create masks to hide how bad I felt. I have been able to see where my behaviour has caused others pain and how to put these areas of my life right.'
Liu, the programme's initiator, is a firm believer in the benefit of identifying childhood experiences which shape adult behaviour. Many find his workshops on the family challenging but illuminating. Walter Nuske, a retired Australian metallurgist who joined the last support team, continues to find the process helpful: 'An early survival technique I learnt was to blot out my emotions so that my anger, shame and resentments were not allowed to surface; this meant I couldn't recognise or understand these emotions in others. Trying to reach out to people under these circumstances was, and still is, difficult but with healing I trust this can be turned around.'
Action for Life is one of many programmes at Asia Plateau, so participants have the opportunity to interact with Indians from all sectors: students, farmers, business people, the military. Outside speakers are invited to meet the group and share from their experience - be it in journalism, the environment, industry. A picture emerges - the monumental challenges of corruption and poverty, and countless examples of brave people using their lives to create a cleaner, calmer, fairer India for all.
Participants receive training in public speaking and singing, and are encouraged to express their message through team games, dance, and drama.
This prepares them for when they go out into the community to make presentations to orphanages, schools, universities and other institutions. Forward planning is essential in India where you learn to expect the unexpected; Action for Life teams have been paraded (at no notice) onto stages to find hundreds of eager faces cheerfully staring back at them. One group was even welcomed as 'the most distinguished guests in the universe!'
Fun is a hallmark of the experience - a necessary antidote to the inevitable sweat and tears. It is one thing to learn about 'conflict resolution' and 'reconciliation' at Asia Plateau but the rubber really starts hitting the road when the groups go on outreach. Exhaustion, intense heat, personality clashes, upset stomachs, mosquitoes and an often demanding schedule compound the challenge of community living. And where else would you find Indian Hindus, Western Christians, Cambodian Buddhists, Kashmiri Muslims and genuine seekers all trying to be the change they want to see in the world?
The multifaith, multicultural diversity of Action for Life makes it a microcosm of the world. As British-Australian, Brian Lightowler, said after the first Action for Life, 'We are the message... how we live, think and speak. There is no other message. The idea that people can change in a fundamental way and that can be the catalyst for a wider change affecting society, nations and the world, stands or falls by how we demonstrate it. That is a healthy challenge whether you are 20 or 70 like me!'
It is fashionable for young people to take a year out and go travelling around the world. Sceptics might be wondering whether Action for Life is just a fancy name for the same. One difference is that free time is at a premium. Another is that each participant abstains from smoking, drinking, drugs and romantic relationships throughout the nine months. As well as improving the group dynamic, each one soon discovers that, as the Sufi poet, Rumi, says, sacrifices tend to be returned in gold. A striking example is the way in which deep friendships are formed as participants live into the situation of the others' lives, families, countries. The hope is that these bonds will last long after the programme has ended; that Action for Life will be for life.
And, indeed, for many the experience is life-changing. Remarkably, Altaf Khan from Kashmir, India, found the wherewithal to forgive the security forces who had tortured him and killed his friends, and decided he should no longer look at Kashmir in isolation from the rest of the world. After the London bombings last July he sent condolences to British team-mates. Well placed to commiserate, he added, 'Here in Kashmir every day is a shock. You walk out of your house in the morning and you never know if you will come back alive.' That was before the earthquake.
Ngan Le's father left her mother before she was born. Growing up in Vietnam (including a period as a street child) she felt envious of those with a father. She describes Action for Life as 'the beginning of a new life' which 'calmed the angry waves' in her heart and 'lessened the mountain of jealousy' that had built up over 23 years. Having started the process of healing in herself, she is now working with others for healing between Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia, where historical enmity between the two countries has given rise to mutual feelings of mistrust and fear. At the last of three Cambodian-Vietnamese Dialogues which have so far taken place, a Vietnamese said, 'I was scared because I had heard that Cambodians don't like Vietnamese. However, all the people I have met here have been so friendly and open to me.'
Zoriana Borbulevych, who returned to Ukraine after Action for Life only to find herself in the middle of the political upheaval of the 'Orange Revolution', teamed up with Wambui Nguyo from Kenya to take part in the US version of the programme: ACTION. And Kofi Bassaw Quartey, an engineer from Ghana, has joined forces with the Clean Africa Campaign and recently hosted a leadership training course in Accra.
Others have resumed studies. Wadiaa Khoury, from Lebanon, combines a law degree with facilitating community service work for 372 high school students. She is part of the Lebanese IofC team which meets weekly for a shared quiet time. As part of their outreach to neighbouring countries they recently hosted a dialogue with Palestinian refugees. Reflecting on Action for Life, when she slept in 63 beds and spoke in dozens of schools, factories, NGOs and government offices, she says, 'I often lose hope when news breaks of major crises. But I have discovered that just being stable in my attitudes, no matter what happens, is so important to the people around me. People need a point of reference, a living one.'
Each Action for Life builds on the work of the last. Yeon-Yuk Jeong from South Korea and Nigel Heywood from Australia have taken part in all three. Together with Australians, Chris Lancaster and Clara Cheong, they took responsibility for preparing all aspects of the current one. The leadership has transferred to the under 40s; a promising sign for an organisation such as IofC, which like others the world over, is wondering how to pass the baton on, and to whom?
Lancaster, a music graduate, comments from India, 'After experiencing the momentum which Action for Life 2 generated, I was convinced there should be another one. I hadn't expected to be part of it until faced with the reality that it wouldn't happen without people to take it on! With the programme under way, I am constantly reminded that I also need to be back here for my own growth and learning - about myself, my relationships with God and other people, and my calling in the world.'
Many ask for proof of the programme's effectiveness. It can be hard to quantify. Mayur Shah, an Indian businessman who hosted an outreach group in his hometown Baramati, was travelling to work when he realised that the bus conductor was a woman. Never before had he seen a female bus conductor. Whilst buying his ticket, she shocked him again by saying she recognised him. It turned out she was one of 700 students whom Action for Life had addressed. Her decision to become Pune District's first female bus conductor stemmed from the impact their visit had on her. 'If these girls can come to India from far off countries and train people here,' she thought, 'why can't I be a bus conductor in my own area?'
The enthusiasm of the participants speaks for itself. 'Action for Life has been a lifesaver,' concluded Fredric Griffin from the US. 'It has put me back in touch with reality and a higher purpose for living.'
Why, then, was I so reluctant to take part myself? I was frightened of giving up my time, my privacy, my comfortable Western life. And I was frightened of seeing real poverty. It was far worse than I imagined and I returned home feeling that the alleviation of poverty needs to be higher up everyone's agenda. The conviction also came that to attempt to remake the world in our own strength is sheer folly. The task is too great. For that reason, I am ever more convinced of the need for prayer (however we do it) as a means of guiding and sustaining our actions. In the words of a song we often sang, 'It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.'