New City caught up with Sally McAllister following Gen Verde’s visit to the UK in November 2018.
Gen Verde last came to Britain in 2015. How did the November 2018 tour come about?
The 2018 tour was definitely a continuation of the 2015 tour with the common focus on young people and dialogue. This was particularly evident in Birmingham where young Christians, Muslims and Sikhs from local schools were involved in the ‘Start Now’ workshops, which culminated in an amazing concert in the Elgar Hall at the University of Birmingham. Following the 2015 concert Archbishop Bernard Longley and Bhai Sahib Ji Mohinder Singh (from the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha), spoke of the values that they had seen take root in the hearts and minds of the young people involved in the project. They expressed a desire that Gen Verde should return to Birmingham to build on the really positive experience of working with pupils from Birmingham schools. That was the initial invitation which saw Gen Verde return to England in 2018 and the rest of the tour was built around it.
Gen Verde has just released a new album: Tell us about it.
The album is called: ‘From the Inside Outside’ and it contains fifteen new songs with a leitmotif which is: that despite everything which appears to show the opposite, we are convinced that there is reason to hope. This hope is entrusted to each one of us: we all have treasures deep within, often without realising it. By going deep within ourselves, drawing on our own experiences and those of people who inspire us to become better persons, we find the strength to be builders of fraternity and peace around us.
The themes running through the album are issues which have emerged from our discussions with young people from all over the world and the choice of sounds and musical styles represented in the album are those they listen to – rock, electronic/dance music and K-pop, – and we have added some typical ethnic touches from some of our fourteen countries of origin.
We’re particularly happy with this album and the feedback received so far has been excellent. It’s available as a CD, or as a download from our online shop (www.genverde.it) as well as on Spotify.
You held workshops for pupils in both Plymouth and Birmingham. What is the main aim of these workshops and how did they go?
They went very well indeed! The tour started in Plymouth with a very intense week with around 90 young people who took part in the ‘Start Now’ workshop programme. ‘Start Now’ is a project which has been promoted by Gen Verde since 2014 that offers workshops in singing, dance, drama and percussion, aiming at a discovery of one’s own talents, and promoting peace, dialogue and unity.
When we arrived in Plymouth we were told that ‘coastal poverty’ affects some 40% of young people living in the city and this impacts greatly on them and their possibilities of getting on in life. Since education is extremely important in order to break out of the spiral of negativity, it was inspiring to meet and work with some amazingly dedicated teachers from the two schools which signed up to the project. As the days went by, the change in some of the participants in the programme was quite evident. It was brilliant to see young people, lacking in self-worth, really blossom, while others who were aware of their natural talent, were able to take it to another level. One of the teachers commented that in her 25 years of teaching she had never seen such profound effects on the students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As in 2015, this tour concluded with a week in Birmingham where young Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, as well as young people with no particular faith background, from four Birmingham schools participated in ‘Start Now’. The workshops concluded with a concert in Birmingham University’s Elgar Hall. If the atmosphere in the hall that night among the young people was electric before the concert, you can imagine what it was like at the end of the evening! After the concert several people commented on the really tangible relationship between Gen Verde and the young people: ‘The vibrancy, joy and positivity on stage was contagious and the audience, and in a particular way, the many young people present, were drawn into that experience. Thank you for such a life-enhancing experience.’
You also held a weekend for young people at the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City. How did that go?
The workshop weekend involving young people from all over Scotland, Wales and England was beautiful, dynamic, joyful and deep. The title of the weekend was: ‘Beyond All Borders’, interactive music workshop weekend and it certainly lived up to its promise to be a weekend about music, workshops, life and more! There were deep moments of sharing. On the Saturday evening, the young people took centre-stage, organizing an after-dinner entertainment which showed something of the culture of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – through music and dance. It was quite something to see how much the members of Gen Verde enjoyed learning Ceilidh dancing but more than that, what touched us all, was to see young people who were not looking to be ‘entertained’ themselves but who were sharing the best of their culture as a gift for the others.
The tour also had an interfaith dimension. Tell us about that.
Something very important which emerged from Gen Verde’s 2015 tour was the conviction that dialogue with people of different religions is a proven path to achieve peace among peoples and in society. Midway between our time in Plymouth and in Birmingham we had a week at the Focolare Centre in Welwyn Garden City which was full of events with a distinctly ecumenical and interfaith flavour. There were simple moments when we met with local people to pray for Christian Unity – and then there were more ‘organised’ events like the ‘interfaith shared supper’ with around 100 people including members of the Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Sikh, Jain and Hindu faiths, as well those representing several Christian Churches. Over supper we shared our experiences and the evening concluded with a brief performance by Gen Verde. I have seldom heard our songs, which speak of dialogue, resound as clearly as on that evening. A number of people later told us that they were moved to tears listening to the songs.
A particular highlight of the week was a visit to the Islamic Centre of England as guests of Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali. After sharing a meal, the dialogue among the forty or so people present was profound and thought-provoking. At the conclusion of the evening Dr. Shomali encouraged Gen Verde to go ahead with their work: ‘You are spirituality on the road’, he said, ‘You go where people are in need. Don’t ever feel desperate or tired or think that you are too small to change the world. What you do is great!’
In January Gen Verde are going to Panama. What will you be doing there?
We have a jam-packed programme in Panama! Some months ago we felt very honoured to be invited to take part in the official programme of the World Youth Day (WYD). The letter of invitation stressed that Gen Verde had been chosen from a list of over 400 groups that had applied. So, lots of what we do is bound up with the Pre-WYD, the actual WYD programme and the Post-WYD follow up events. In the cities of Chitré and Colón we will be working with the dioceses, involving local young people in our ‘Start Now’ workshop programme and they will join us on stage for our concert, as part of their welcome to the young pilgrims from all over the world who will be hosted in their cities. Some of the areas we will be working in are particularly vulnerable because of gun and drug-related offences, as well as all sorts of problems caused by violent juvenile gangs, so we are particularly happy to work with these young people.
During the festival week in Panama City we will perform our concert in big open air spaces at three venues in the city, as well as in a women’s prison. And whilst the excitement of performing at massive open air concerts is really energising, I think that going to perform in the prison will be quite an unforgettable experience. It won’t be the first time Gen Verde has performed in a prison but it’s never something that one gets used to. Before leaving Panama City we will also be involved in the post-WYD programme with workshops and an unplugged concert.
From Panama we go to Cuba for a week and from there we will travel to do workshops and concerts in Guatemala and El Salvador invited by the local Focolare communities and diocesan youth services.
We will be away for about six weeks. Apart from working hard to get our concerts ready in Spanish, we have also been fundraising to cover the costs of this tour. We will not be paid for the work we do there, and we will have to cover travel, board and lodging and expenses related to the hire and set up of the concert in various venues. I think one of the strongest and most moving aspects of this work has been the generous support received from so many people. Several local groups who have been involved in Gen Verde projects in recent years, and wanted to do something to allow other young people to have a similar experience, held fundraising suppers. Particularly touching have been the donations from people who have so little but know the value of sharing. One such donation came from a group of young people from a very poor area in Sicily. They had a whip-round in their class because they said: ‘We know what a difference working with Gen Verde made to our lives, so we’ve got to help those poor kids in Panama to have that same chance.’ Those €29 and other gestures of support are what really keep us going.
If you would like to know more about the fundraising efforts for Panama, there is a brief online video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/JEFrDCHBBgY
If you would like to support this or future Gen Verde projects you can do so online by clicking on the following link http://www.produzionidalbasso.com/project/gen-verde-in-panama-1/
Or for further information, please write directly to Gen Verde: firstname.lastname@example.org