The remarkable Mohsin Ahmad made his way back to Rappahannock County for a brief stop at Trinity Episcopal Church on July 14. This wasn’t just another social gathering, however; it was an afternoon that saw Ahmad once again step out of his comfort zone and engage in a religious dialogue with Trinity’s Rev. Jenks Hobson.
The purpose of that Sunday afternoon talk was, as Hobson said, to explore the innate difference between Islam and Christianity and see if a Christian and a Muslim could engage in an open discussion of faith and eventually reach an understanding.
Ahmad was a foreign exchange student at Rappahannock County High School for the 2006-07 academic year. Originally from Peshawar, Pakistan, Ahmad quickly won over his classmates with his willingness to put himself in new situations — like joining the high school marching band despite never having played an instrument before.
“He’s just remarkably able to connect with people,” said Rosa Crocker, a longtime Flint Hill resident and former school board member who still refers to herself as Mohsin’s “second mother.”
“He came over in a group of students from nations with a Muslim population and stood out even in that group,” Crocker continued. “Here’s a young man who’s never been out of his home country who comes to a rural, white, Christian high school — and thrives.”
Ahmad’s willingness to embrace those aspects of Rappahannock County were in full display during the one-on-one dialogue, as he and Hobson traded points on a number of topics, including their respective sense of God, how they communicate with Him, the cause of suffering in the world and even the abstract concept of hope.
The dialogue also emphasized listening: After one of the speakers had addressed a question, the other would repeat back what he heard and understood before giving his own response. “We’re emphasizing listening here,” said Hobson. “Imagine that.”
Ahmad began by talking briefly about his background, admitting he “sometimes didn’t enjoy mosque trips” as a kid and used to “practice [religion] without passion.” That changed when classmates began asking him questions about his faith, which sparked his own interest in it. “I’m still learning and evolving,” he confessed.
The hour-long dialogue found Ahmad and Hobson compare their respective views on how they hear from and interact with God (nature and the Apostles for Hobson; prophets, messengers and the Koran for Ahmad), as well as how they live with and honor God.
“My most common prayer is ‘Thank you, God,’ ” Hobson said, something Ahmad reinforced. “You have to find time to slow down,” Ahmad agreed.
At the end of the talk, audience members were encouraged to write down questions for the two participants, which were then read by a moderator and answered by the panelists. Many people stuck around after the official dialogue ended to talk individually with both panelists.
The dialogue (and preceding ice cream social) also served as a fundraiser for Ahmad’s continued college experience through Trinity’s International Scholarship Fund, whose stated goal is to raise $25,270 for Ahmad.
This was actually the second talk Ahmad and Hobson had together; the previous one was a similar religious-themed talk last year that ran for almost four hours. That talk, Ahmad said, helped prepare him for this latest one.
“I wasn’t nervous at all for this [talk],” said the still-busy Ahmad during his (brief) lunch break. “After the first time, I received a lot of feedback from people . . . I looked out and there were so many people that I knew and I appreciated that they came.”
Now a rising senior at Goucher College, near Baltimore, Ahmad has continued to put himself out there and try new things. Despite the rigorous academics required to double-major in international business and international relations, he has still found time to serve as a community assistant (essentially a resident advisor in charge of Goucher’s dorms) for a second year and lead Gouchester United, his intramural soccer team, to a team championship.
Ahmad is currently serving as an intern at Ashoka, an Arlington-based organization that supports and nurtures social entrepreneurs. The company provides start-up financing, professional support services and connections to a global network — all of which should serve Ahmad well when Ashoka opens a new office in Pakistan.
“This is the best way to utilize my time right now,” said Ahmad, adding that he wants to help staff and run the new office as soon as it opens. Ahmad said he believes the internship will help him in his goals to better his home country.
“I want to see people’s basic needs met – electricity, water, food, shelter . . . to see them happy again, visiting, celebrating holidays without fear,” Ahmad said at an event last August. “I will not stop until I have become the son my ailing motherland deserves and desperately needs.”
“When asked what [RCHS students] wanted to be when they grew up, Mohsin was the only one who prefaced his response with, ‘If I live,’ ” Crocker said. “Those who hope beyond their experience are remarkable people. And that’s Mohsin.”
Youth For Understanding (YFU), the long-running nonprofit intercultural exchange program that operates around the world, active in Rappahannock County some years ago, is again looking for host families in the area who are willing to open their homes and hearts to high school students from around the world, according to Bill Dant, a YFU volunteer and Boston resident.
“Hosting is a fun and rewarding way for your family to learn first-hand about another country from a student who has grown up there,” says Dant. All YFU students are prepared to follow the family’s rules, arrive with their own insurance and own spending money. “We ask that each host family provide a place for the student to live, three meals a day and arrange transportation to and from school. Rappahannock County High School is available to our students for enrollment this year, and YFU also provides volunteer support in the area for all the families and students.”