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Learning from Asia: Nigel Heywood took a leap into the unknown when he joined a 10-month training programme in Asia. He didn't regret it. (Action For Life).

When I saw the brochure advertising the Action for Life (AFL) leadership training programme my mind was opened to another world with infinite possibilities. It offered me a magic door out of my current reality assembling picture frames in Melbourne. The programme, organized by Initiatives of Change, offered ten months travelling through 11 countries in Asia, with people of different countries, religions and ages. In the end there were 30 of us, from 15 nations, four religions, aged from 19 to 72.

I imagine that Frankenstein had a similar feeling of excitement just before he injected life into the monster. What was going to happen? AfL seemed to have endless possibilities. Just before I jumped, I used my last breath for a prayer, `Dear God, please make this work.'

Every good team has a motto and ours was `let life be an offering'. We had landed amongst the one billion people of India, but what did we have to offer? We began by singing songs to everyone and everything that crossed our path.

We sang to English learning classes, business leaders, union workers, school children, university students, teachers, families, political parties, princes, hotel staff, tribal chiefs, entire villages, taxi drivers, conferences and once to some people who had gathered by the road side to observe us eating lunch. Music passed through barriers of language, religion, and politics to touch something far more common between us and those we met, the need to reach out and connect.

We began to hear the stories of India as people shared their experiences and faith with us. The rich smell of herbs that developed under the fingernails served as a reminder of the extreme generosity of these people, an offering of friendship that was impossible to avoid.

We received so much that we each began to ask ourselves, `What is it that I have to offer?' Insecurities bloomed as we began to re-assess our lives, looking at our history, our families, our faith, to discover what had brought us to this point.

During our travels we produced a weekly newsletter. In one of the early ones Wadiaa Khoury (Lebanon) wrote:

`I was feeling lots of pressure because of my continuous worry for my beloved ones I left in my country; and I wasn't cooperating with my team as I should, due to lack of team spirit.

`Sunday evening, I was going back to my hosts' house in a crowded bus. I had a strange headache, so I missed my bus stop. I left the bus and found myself in front of the Sacred Heart church. I spent three hours inside the church--the longest "quiet time" in my life! I began asking God about the purpose behind all this pressure--I said that I joined the AfL programme because I wanted to bring joy and peace to people I met, but now I felt helpless. The following hours became moments of revelation: I was remembering the spirit behind my decision to come. Great energy and joy was born again in my heart.

`On my way back to my hosts' house, I saw a beggar child crying because he fell on the street--I just put a chikki (sweet) in his mouth; that satisfied him and doubled my joy. I said, "If I came to India just for that little boy, it would be enough!" On Monday morning I sent a letter to my family in Lebanon saying, "Indians are preaching peace and love to me, instead of me preaching to them".'

Out of our experiences we developed presentations, with personal sharing, songs, skits, short plays and interactive groups. These could be one hour long or three-day workshops. We talked about the idea of listening to yourself and listening to God. We encouraged people to take up this age-old experiment and to look at their lives according to love, purity, unselfishness and honesty. The main problem was that we had to start practising what we spoke.

The evolution of the team was sometimes painfully slow and at times threatened to fill apart as people regressed into hurt and self-pity. Experiences of a deeper level began to bookmark turning points for people. Cheol Min Park (Korea) began to let go of his bitterness at a conference in Japan, as Japanese elders knelt in tears before Mother Park (a leader of Korean Won Buddhism). Afterwards he took a step forward with Yeon-Yuk Jeong (Korea) and made a commitment with some young Japanese to start to bridge the gap between the two countries.

Wadiaa Khoury found that as she travelled through Korea, Japan and Taiwan many people assumed that she was Muslim and treated her with prejudice and criticism. Her attitude to this changed as she realized her responsibility for building friendships with Muslims in her homeland, and that her experiences in Asia would help her to understand how they had been mistreated.

Fauziah Zahari (Malaysia) recalled her unease, when after 11 September she joined the group as its only Muslim. The care and respect she received from Hindu families and the strong friendships she formed strengthened her belief in interfaith harmony. As I learnt more of other faiths I began to see all that I had taken for granted in my own Christian faith, how much I had depended on the faith of those around me instead of testing my own. Observing others' spiritual path made me turn much more seriously to my own traditions.

In Cambodia we began to meet regularly with a small group of students each morning to seek guidance in silence on how we should move forward. Students in Indonesia decided to start their own group on campus. We saw that things could happen. Many of those we met along the way gathered together in Malaysia in July for an Asian Pacific Youth Conference.

For me four types of experience evoke the essence of AfL. The first was the uplifting feeling of exultation--the pure joy of a whole auditorium singing along with us in Indonesia; sword fighting with a young orphan in Cambodia; listening to the haunting music of the Naga warriors as we entered their mountain village in the north east of India.

The second was confusion. I now felt connected to the increasing terror and violence I saw on the news--through the places we had travelled, and through the concerns of close friends as they wondered whether they should return home. I felt guilt as a man with no legs crawled away from my table without food or money and as I observed beggars eating rice and lying down in the street to sleep. I was left feeling spoilt, naive and ineffective.

The third experience was one of clarity. When I met people who fully inhabited their lives and who were clear-minded about their purpose and their spirituality, their humbleness, honesty and simplicity made me reassess my own path. Often these were the friends I travelled with. But there were also the extraordinary people we met on our travels: Jesuit priests, monks, orphanage owners, politicians, farmers, families, villagers, rickshaw drivers.

Finally, there was beauty. I remember walking through the paddy fields of Cambodia and finding a dried fish in the mud; looking at the stars from the roof of a five-storey church in the mountains of Nagaland. Cowbells ringing up through the valley in Panchgani, India, as I stood waist-high in yellow grass on the ridge of the second biggest plateau in Asia; children dancing and singing in the aisle of the train on a 36-hour journey. There is so much beauty in the lands and the people of Asia that it is impossible not to be affected. Beauty in nature, in a way of life, in an idea expressed was what many of the people were trying to hold onto.

As we leave Action for Life we believe in ourselves more and have found a deeper spirituality. The exposure to so many people, places and philosophies is impossible to convey in an article. It still has each of us sitting in different parts of the world wondering what has been born out of the last 10 months. How do we start the commitments that we made to each other? From the e-mails exchanged since our separation this new life can only begin one step at a time.

Action for Life has linked us with the world, with each other and with ourselves and given each of us the first steps to a path that we would not have trodden earlier.

More information about Action for Life is available from Grace Liu, MRA Taiwan, 4F-6, No 1, Lane 38, Ming-Chun 1st St, 711 Kuei-Ren Village, Tainan County, Taiwan.
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Author:Heywood, Nigel
Publication:For A Change
Date:Oct 1, 2002
Words:1444
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