Faith fellows find kinship in global fight to erase malaria

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Rachel Finn and Nina Pine appear to be old friends, telling stories in tandem and poking fun at themselves and each other. An outsider would hardly guess that these young women have known each other for less than six months — or that their backgrounds are, quite literally, a world apart.

The camaraderie between Finn, a 22-year-old Jew from suburban Boston, and Pine, a 23-year-old Buddhist raised mostly in Katmandu, is a perfect model for the kind of interfaith alliances the duo is helping to build in the Bay Area.

As two of the 34 young adults chosen for the 2011-2012 Faiths Act Fellowship, a program of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Finn and Pine have been working at the San Francisco Interfaith Council since September 2011, and will continue through June. (Fellows are placed with interfaith organizations in the U.K., the U.S., Canada, India and Sierra Leone.)

Nina Pine (left) and Rachel Finn

“The whole goal is to forge partnerships between groups of all different backgrounds, and you start to see that we’re all really working toward a lot of the same things,” said Finn, soon after giving a presentation at a January SFIC breakfast. “People are, on the whole, really excited for interfaith work but might not have an outlet for it, or they don’t know how to start.”

The foundation website describes the Faiths Act as a multifaith social action program that seeks to “mobilize people of faith to work together on issues of health and global poverty” toward achieving the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals.

Specifically, the focus of the Faiths Act is malaria. As part of the international effort to eliminate deaths from the disease, Finn and Pine are involved in the local campaign Bay Area Against Malaria. They hope to raise $10,000 to raise awareness in developing countries about the disease — which is treatable and preventable in places where medication is easily accessible — by the end of June.

Harnessing the potential of faith-based organizations to help educate residents in remote areas is a major aspect of the program, said the fellows.

“According to the World Health Organization, about 40 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa receive their health messaging from the religious community,” said Pine. In places like Sierra Leone, where 126 known medical practitioners treat a population of 6 million, she said religious leaders often hold positions of incredible responsibility. “Maybe we can’t afford to send doctors or to build a new facility,” Pine said, “but we can talk to the faith community.”

Finn and Pine hope to raise some funds from the April 29 Multifaith CROP Hunger Walk, which will raise money to support international aid programs (funds can be designated for Bay Area Against Malaria by entering the code “TBFF” when signing up) and to assist the city’s homeless residents through the San Francisco Interfaith Council’s winter shelter.

Meanwhile, there’s no such thing as an “average” day as a Faiths Act Fellow, the two women agree. They are visiting high schools to promote an interfaith young adult network and drumming up support for existing volunteer opportunities with SFIC member congregations.

In March, they’ll volunteer with S.F. Congregation Beth Sholom’s Chicken Soupers, which prepares and delivers kosher meals to people with AIDS, chronic illness or disabilities. In April, they’ll join S.F. Congregation Emanu-El for a day of gardening at the Free Farm, which provides produce to needy S.F. residents.

Both women said the work is an extension of social justice pursuits that shaped their youth. Pine was educated at an international school in Nepal, then moved to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College. Applying to the Faiths Act Fellowship, she said, was a natural way to combine her Buddhist spirituality with a lifelong desire to work for improved health, education, housing conditions and civil rights in developing nations — such as the one in which she grew up.

For Finn, who studied international relations and served as president of the Hillel at Tufts University, community service has been intrinsically connected to her Judaism for as long as she can remember. “The intersection of social justice and religion has always been a passion for me,” she said. “Growing up, all the volunteering that my family and friends would do was through the synagogue.

“And now, to help connect the Jewish community with other ethnic and spiritual groups, and with the world at large, to the point where you can actually have an impact on conflict resolution and international politics … it’s been an incredibly rewarding, powerful experience.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.