Last week, in front of the gluten-free cookies at Trader Joe’s, a crotchety gentleman reminded me how hated my generation is. “You’re in my way,” he said, “Stupid young people only care about themselves.” That guy, and plenty of others, would call me and my peers lazy, privileged, and ceaselessly self-involved. And yes, it’s more than likely that I actually was in his way, riveted by an email I was reading on my iPhone. It is also possible that I had spent the previous ten hours on my idea of a good time, watching Girls and contemplating whether or not I can confidently wear a romper like Lena Dunham.
But they didn’t see the email on my iPhone that had me so riveted. I wasn’t catching up on Amanda Bynes gossip or watching Red Wedding reactions. I was reading a message from a colleague at the nonprofit where I devote 40 hours of my allegedly ineffectual life every week, a nonprofit whose mission I feel deeply connected to — interfaith cooperation. He was telling me about an incredible program he wanted to participate in. This was a message that could conceivably change the world. But sorry, Mr. Crankypants, you’re right, your snack purchases are more important.
I’m not the only young person trying to make a difference. Working for an organization whose programs focus on college and university campuses and students, I hear the stories of young people joining together in social action on a daily basis. Yes, there are plenty of people in their teens and twenties who embody the Me Me Me Generation that Time Magazine’s Joel Stein expounded on last month, but they don’t speak for all of us. There are thousands of Millennials taking up the charge of interfaith cooperation, and working together to make our communities better.
Interfaith cooperation used to mean a bunch of old white guys sitting in a stuffy room talking about what “interfaith cooperation” means. But Millennials are turning that definition on its head, rallying around the idea that the diversity of our generation gives us the tools we need to leave a positive impact, and actually putting those into action.
One of the big ways we’re doing that is simply by engaging with each other in ways that previous generations couldn’t or didn’t. We live in a diverse society, but it’s an incredibly segregated one. Changing that starts with respect for the identities of those around us, and we’re lucky enough to have technology to do it. The unprecedented connectivity of our time gives us the ability to learn and to appreciate. Even if you’ve never had a substantial personal relationship with a self-identified Buddhist, a quick YouTube search of the Dalai Lama’s speeches can give you enough knowledge to have a basic understanding of the peaceful teachings of the tradition and respect for those who practice it.
Being able to appreciate traditions other than your own may seem obvious to you, and if it does, congratulations – you’re one step ahead! This is something Millennials are good at. Today’s young adults have the understanding that while we may not agree on whether or not it’s okay to eat a pork chop, or if there even is a God or higher power, there is value in what other traditions teach.
That’s why we spend our Saturday mornings reciting Hindu mantras at yoga class.
Sure, that can sometimes border on appropriation, but it often leads to appreciation. Although I’m staunchly agnostic, I draw inspiration from the Serenity Prayer. It’s an embodiment of the Christian ideal of having grace for others and yourself. I don’t agree with many other Christian rituals or beliefs, but this one that helps me realize the positivity that Christianity and Christians can add to my life and my community.
But liking an old prayer isn’t interfaith cooperation. Millennials take appreciation a step further with the relationship we hold. The technology of our generation puts us at an advantage for sustaining friendship with people of other traditions. Learning from Wikipedia that the name Islam is derived from a root word meaning “to make peace” would probably intrigue you enough to want to know more. And what better way to appreciate a group of people than to get to know one of them? Even if there aren’t any Muslim folks in your neighborhood, there are probably some amongst your Facebook friends.
With all of the information and relationships at our fingertips, it’s no surprise that we’re able to have positive attitudes about people who are different from us. That’s why Millennials are adept at seeing the bigger picture, realizing that there is something intrinsic that we all believe in – doing good. Whether you’re Sikh or atheist, we can trust that most people are much more into making the world a little better than making it worse.
Traditions from Judaism to Paganism to Secular Humanism all teach the values of kindness and compassion, and that’s something that hits home for Millennials. Community service, while basically required for anyone hoping to go to college, is also something a lot of us engage in of our own volition. The attacks of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina marked my first semesters of high school and college respectively, and they were mile markers for our generation. Events like these spur on reactions that run the gamut from fear to anger, but an increasingly common way to cope is through volunteering for a cause.
I spent several of my college spring breaks building homes in the Gulf Coast area. Every year, Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge program sees thousands of Millennials skipping out on a week of drunken debauchery in Cancun to build homes for families in need. Habitat is a Christian ministry, founded on the basis of teachings of Jesus Christ, but operates on what they call the Theology of the Hammer. As founder Millard Fuller put it “We may disagree on all sorts of other things, but we can agree on the idea of building homes.” And young people do. My college chapter brought together hundreds of students from countless religions and non-religious traditions, raising thousands of dollars so that they could pay to spend 5 days hauling 2x4s in the mud and hammering until their arms felt like they were going to fall off.
I’ve heard the argument that alternative spring break programs can be shrugged off as a holier-than-thou initiative, a novelty that college kids can put on their resumes and shove in other people’s faces. I’m not going to lie, it probably does help in the job market, but for most of the students who do it, that isn’t why. Spending a week installing sheetrock doesn’t make us saints, but it is one way we express what’s important to us.
According to a study done by UCLA, two thirds of college freshman think it’s very important or even essential to help others, and this is the highest this statistic has ever been in the past 25 years. Millennials are engaging in community service more than ever. Full-time service programs aimed at young adults, like Teach for America and AmeriCorps, have seen their applications rise dramatically over the last few years. You can argue that graduating high school and college students are applying because it’s easier than finding a job, but it definitely isn’t and I can tell you first hand that the majority of people engaging in these terms of service are there because they care about working together to improve their communities.
Rather than letting difference stand in the way, Millennials are joining forces to build bridges and multiply our impact. We’ve realized that dialogue isn’t enough. Millennials are quick to criticize politicians for lip service, but we don’t leave it at that. We’re recognizing the disparity in our communities and creating campaigns amongst rival colleges, not only to see which team can win the basketball game, but also which can donate the most canned goods. We’re seeing the lack of decent health care around the world and sending shipping containers full of donated medical supplies to doctors in developing nations. We’re noticing that not everyone has access to education and we’re running literacy programs. And we’re doing it all with people who may not share our beliefs around faith, but do share our commitment to improving the lives around us.
Millennials are actively cultivating relationships across these lines, educating each other and diminishing ignorance, staving off conflict through understanding, and engaging our shared value of service to make our world a little better. So take that, Mr. Crankypants. You can have your cookies. The Millennials are busy saving the world.