A colleague shared a story recently of how small things can make a real difference. She grew up in a very White small town and recalls being with her grandma at a mall when a woman came by dressed in a sari. It was very unusual dress in that time and in that place but her grandma turned to her and said, “do you see that woman? Isn’t she beautiful? Isn’t her dress amazing?” My colleague shared how this brief exchange made an impression on her young self about how to respond to difference.

Our Discovery Week is under way right now. It too is about difference. Different beliefs, different practices and customs, and even different stories that can help us orient our lives. I love the learning opportunity this affords attendees and admire participants’ courage and commitment in opening themselves to new ways of thinking and being. But a critical component of the Discovery Week and indeed all of Encounter’s work is the contributions made by leaders in these communities who agree to speak with us. They so regularly do this work which can seem like a small thing but makes, I can attest, a big difference.

“It’s like a pilot light,” says my long time friend, Sheikh Imran Ally who is our Guide for today’s session. An experience like this “will go with them wherever life takes them,” acting to create more understanding and respect towards others. Ally is an imam, a police chaplain, and the father of a severely disabled boy. Ally and his family run an annual fundraiser through the mosque to support the hospital that has helped their family these many years. It touched me when he remarked that one cannot speak of this work without mentioning the pioneering efforts of Encounter’s founder, JW Windland. Windland helped light the pilot light in me and I think in Imran to some degree, and now Imran is passing it along, day by day.

Imran Ally. Imam. Father. Friend.

Our founder, JW Windland, made a big impression on Imran Ally. Ally has paid it forward over and over.

Our Guide this past Monday, Raj Balkaran, is a professor of Hinduism, an author of two books, and a practitioner. When I asked him about why he does this work for Encounter and in other situations, he called it a “vocation.” Education he said is a practice of “broadening our horizons,” a work we do together of “person formation, even global citizen formation.” “Our world is only going in one direction” with its increasing diversity and we need to prepare for it.

Tomorrow, we will speak with Elder Little Brown Bear. This man’s life leaves me a bit speechless. He had a difficult life in a residential school when he was young and yet, how has he responded? By spending thirty five years working in mental health, combining both Western psychology and traditional First Nations practices and teachings. His motto is “people don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.” He states this motto often but more importantly, he lives it. “It’s about teaching the generations to come,” he said, planting seeds for a better tomorrow.

Elder Little Brown Bear: “People don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.”

Creating a more inclusive society cannot be left to those with minority identities however. It’s on all of us. To commit the time and to have the courage to start new conversations and ask new questions.

Xenophobia is going up in most Western nations. Canada has seen a surge in hate crimes since 2017 while 2019 set a record in the United States. But outside of the news, there are people like Imran Ally, Raj Balkaran, and Elder Little Brown Bear setting pilot lights, following a vocation, and showing us all how much they care.

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