Reflections on International Youth Day: Faith, COVID-19, and Future Generations

By: Katherine Marshall Ruth Gopin

August 12, 2021

Many often-stereotyped understandings of characteristics of young people, especially those in the 16- to 30-year-old age group, ring true and help demonstrate the value of active youth participation in many fields: energetic, open to new ideas, at home with new technologies, and better educated than previous generations, for example. Above all, young people have a stake in decisions made, as well as a shared desire and right to be part of decision-making processes. Those are important opening challenges as we reflect on the theme of International Youth Day 2021: “Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health.” It is to avoid the tragic effects of the COVID-19 emergencies today, as they force many millions of people including youth into hunger and poverty. We need urgently to focus on how future generations can sustain the shocks of COVID-19 today and prepare well for a brighter future.

An important challenge is to explore why and how youth have responded to the pandemic through religious efforts, and how, how far, and why religious initiatives involve and prioritize youth. Broad trends whether and to what extent religious communities and connections are important to young people need robust exploration. A common assumption is that young people are less religiously engaged. Indeed, in 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that younger adults are less likely to identify with any religious group than are older adults in a total of 41 countries, largely in the global West and South America. However, in much of Asia and Africa (where youth populations are growing at a much faster pace than elsewhere), data and experience suggest that there are no significant differences between youth and adults in religious affiliation. For example, in two countries covered by the 2018 Pew study—Chad and Ghana—adults over 40 were less likely to affiliate with any religious group, meaning that their youth appear to be more actively religious now than earlier generations. The large concern often expressed among religious institutions about youth “leaving the fold” thus has important associated demographic trends, and it ought to be examined in global as well as national and local contexts. As always, context matters. 

Some evidence also suggests that many people have turned to religion to cope with the stress of the pandemic. This aligns with existing research about how many rely on their faith and faith communities as a coping mechanism during traumatic events. Countless faith leaders, actors, and NGOs have mobilized actively during the pandemic, providing essential spiritual and humanitarian support across the globe and advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable. However, few studies to date have examined whether and how young people have specifically utilized their beliefs and religious affiliations as a coping mechanism, nor whether it has motivated them to become more involved in their communities or in national/global advocacy and direct action. There is no denying that they have not only participated in, but often driven, much civic engagement of the past two years, often utilizing social media and other online tools to redefine the meaning of engagement. This appears to accelerate trends that already existed before the pandemic, where many members of younger generations utilized the internet to form connections in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global crisis that shines light, from many different angles, on underlying social tensions and challenges. The involvement of youth and their religious engagement is a complex and important part of both impact and response. As world and public health leaders focus on COVID-19 vaccinations and post-pandemic recovery, children and young people are often left out of the discussion. Their distinctive needs are not considered and given the priority they deserve. Young people are also deeply involved in and affected by climate disasters, racial inequalities, poverty, polarization, and the myriad of additional challenges that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. This puts a large swath of the next generation in a terribly vulnerable situation. At the same time, it may well mean that we will see a generation that is more independent and resilient than ever before. 

 Various initiatives give explicit priority to engaging youth from religious communities in designing social media campaigns and other responses to the pandemic. The Awareness with Human Action (AHA) project, supported by the European Union, includes youth leadership as central to the design. The Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) has mobilized young people to promote vaccination against COVID-19. A prominent example of a systematic effort to promote active engagement is the global multireligious faith-in-action COVID-19 initiative launched by Religions for Peace (RfP) and UNICEF during the pandemic, with support from interfaith youth and women’s networks and in collaboration with the Joint Learning Initiative of Local Faith Communities (JLI). RfP’s global Interfaith Youth Network is another positive example that involves direct youth leadership in a multireligious, global context. This builds on RfP’s long history of deliberate work to involve youth. 

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affair’s position at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, provides a distinctive insight into what can be viewed as a Venn diagram of three often-overlapping dimensions of today’s challenges: youth, religion, and responses to COVID-19. Students have been interested and engaged in work on the Religious Responses to COVID-19 project, participating in several webinars, including “Young Women of Faith and Transformative Leadership in COVID-19 Response,” “Looking Through Gender Lenses at COVID-19’s Impact: Religious and Ethical Perspectives,” and writing up summaries of others, such as “Vaccinate Thy Neighbor: Governments Engage with Faith Groups on Global COVID-19 Rollout.” They have also written reflection pieces for an online public scholarship platform, the Berkley Forum, and engaged in coursework to better understand religious and ethical intersections with pandemics past and present. 

Georgetown University has chronicled various ways that students have made a direct difference during the pandemic, from paying local restaurants to deliver meals to emergency departments and intensive care units of hospitals to organizing global donations of personal protective equipment (PPE). And once vaccines became widely available in Washington, DC, in March 2021 the university formed partnerships with the DC government to coordinate a high-capacity vaccination site supported by dozens of student volunteers. This demonstrates the special drive of young people, and particularly young people of faith, and their distinctive ability to respond to global challenges.

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