This year’s Genfest was inspirational for many young people who travelled to Budapest in September
By Donata Ling
“There’s an answer” was repeated over and over again at the 10th Genfest, which had the theme, “Let’s Bridge.” It was the message conveyed to and by 12,500 young people from every corner of the world, united at Budapest, despite differences in religion, culture, ethnic backgrounds and social classes. There were 120 from the U.S., 40 from Canada, 40 from Ireland, and 15 from Australia. The English speakers there could tell you how “pleasing to the ear” it really sounded.
“Being at Genfest was like being at a family reunion, but bigger!” says B. A. Ongtengco from Chicago. “It was a great joy reconnecting with many friends from across the world or meeting new youth for the first time.”
Genfest 2012, an international youth festival organized by the Youth for a United World of the Focolare, took place in Budapest, Hungary, known for being the “Paris of the North.” Europe’s second longest river, the Danube, runs majestically through the city, and the two areas of Buda and Pest (pronounced “pesht”) are united by numerous bridges.
Perhaps now you can understand the reasoning behind the message “Let’s Bridge,” written on t-shirts, stamped on people’s arms and seen on backpacks. More significantly, the message was displayed within real life experiences.
An experience from Egypt, a country which faces fear of the future regime, ignited a burning hope within all who heard it. Bassem Jean Amin from Egypt shared, “We, Christians and Muslims, worked together for a small project yet a symbol of unity: Project Belong. With 40 young people and adults, we worked for two days painting the wall of a school in a poor working-class neighborhood. The theme was: ‘We have the right to dream!’ We were given permission, but the next morning we received an unexplained request from the town council to remove the paintings. A small flame of hope was being extinguished. Shortly after, however, the head of another neighborhood called us to do a mural precisely during new unrest in Tahrir Square. The wall wasn’t as important as the witness of being able to work on it together.”
Building a bridge between Muslims and Christians is not an eye-grabbing headline in the media, but it is exactly how these young people want to face society’s challenges. Not only did the experience from Egypt present what they do, but more importantly it expressed why, along with thousands of others from 182 countries, they call themselves “Youth for a United World.” In essence, they want their actions to speak out. Each life experience, initiative and project they shared at Genfest demonstrated life’s daily challenges, but with an answer. The world often offers young people temporary satisfactions and easy ways out, but these youth choose to live differently.
“Genfest was an amazing experience,” says Cilian O’Sullivan, from Ireland, “and I felt like this is how it could be to live in a united world. Therefore, I will try to make this a reality wherever I go.”
This conviction of a united world became tangible as young people danced to the rhythm of the electrifying hip-hop beats or proudly waved their nation’s flag before the camera. They believe in building a new world, a world where Mother Teresa had pointed to indifference as the greatest evil.
Plinio Luna de Albuquerque, from Brazil, understood clearly the antidote to indifference: love. After seeing a man on the sidewalk suffering from an epileptic seizure, he hesitated before going out of his way. He thought, here is a person abandoned by everyone, in front of me asking for help. Confronted with the man’s suffering, he chose to love rather than to stand indifferently as he reached into his pockets for money to buy the medicine the man needed.
“For a moment I saw what social inequality meant,” Plinio said. “[The man] could not believe it; he was visibly astonished to see someone actually helping him concretely. You cannot imagine how happy I was. It did not matter anymore that I had lost a half day’s work. The joy of having helped a person gave a completely new meaning to my day: it was really well worth it!”
What gives meaning to life can be summed up in what is probably the most misunderstood and overused word: love. Love for every neighbor wherever we are — at work, at school, on the street, at home — has ignited these young people to search for life’s deepest meaning.
“Budapest brought us back to the basics, to making small acts of love,” said Anna Malapira from Australia, “We realized that it was all about the simple smiles or simple thank yous which opened up hearts.”
Opening up to your neighbor is easier said than done, especially in the circumstances of the Arab-Israeli conflict, where hatred and fear lead to easier choices. On the other hand, Eassa Nassar, a Christian from Nazareth, strove to break that tension as he accepted the invitation to celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, even though he had never before dared to enter a Jewish home.
Having lived in the midst of the 2008 attacks by the Israeli forces on the Gaza strip, Noura Jaber, a Muslim girl from Jerusalem, recalled her life-changing experience when she attended a prayer service with other Muslims, Christians and Jews to remember the victims of the heartbreaking conflict.
“I understood that in God I could find the strength to overcome pain, injustice and division,” she said. “That moment changed my life. Since then I began to deepen my knowledge of my own faith and I discovered how the message of peace is at the heart of Islam: the word Islam itself is linked to the word salaam (peace). For me it was wonderful to find that in the teachings of the prophet Mohammed there is also the rule: do to others what you would have them do to you.”
The Golden Rule presents itself in every major religion, whether Sikhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Islam, and this was specifically why these young people of all faiths were answering the deepest longing of humanity: universal brotherhood.
“Seeing the joy on all the faces, the singing, the dancing, the cheering, the laughing, the light that the youth brought to the streets of Budapest was a real witness that the goal of a united world is not just a dream. It’s a reality,” said B. A. from Chicago.This new generation (Gen), as many young people call themselves, is finding answers by staying on solid ground despite living through sufferings like everyone else.
This generation includes a young and ambitious man, Magued Michel from Egypt, who dreamed of forming a family but recently was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Despite losing his mother to the disease and his sister less than a year ago to cancer, he courageously shared his story.
“In recent months, every now and then I had a relapse,” he said. “I was not able to hold a pen, or I lost the feeling in an arm, and for a while I could not see properly, which made the situation at work difficult. When these things happen I remember my mother and my sister who, despite their pain, had eyes filled with joy and peace. It is as if they were saying to me, ‘Don’t be afraid; continue believing in God’s love and bear witness to it with your life.’”
This experience left everyone in the arena speechless, and goosebumps shivered down arms before they could start applauding in gratitude. He, along with thousands if not millions of young people, is finding answers.
“The problems of the world that surrounds us are needs to be met,” said Focolare President Maria Voce. “Look for all the answers in the ideals that you have shared today and in the strength that you have experienced … No need to start with big actions, rather small acts of love that make life great. They have the power to change the world and impact society.”
Answers to these big questions cannot be found in today’s culture, but should be built into fortified pillars that hold the “bridges” together. The bridges that these young people have put up during Genfest between cultures, social classes, ethnic backgrounds and religions are only a starting point for the world to come.
“Being a part of Genfest as one of the actors was extremely special,” said Amy Wallin of New York. “For me, getting to see the arena full of young people and feeling the energy being radiated back at me on stage was a true legacy of the ‘bridges’ being built through the program, through dance, music and sharing.”
“I feel passionate and reinvigorated to try to love each person I meet because we are not alone; we can go on fortified by this unity and aware that we’re in this together!” said Sarah Carter from Great Britain.
With love, there’s no question without an answer.
Donata Ling lives in Toronto, Canada.