Their feet were weary and their soccer balls scuffed from the mountain roads when they heard the voice: “Hey, hey,” cried a woman, chasing after the college students as they dribbled through the tiny town of Nebo.
“Do you want a drink?” she asked. After 20 miles of kicks and footwork they certainly did.
Minutes later, the Muslim, Jewish and Christian trio was laying its cause before the black congregation of St. John’s Methodist Church, hundreds of miles from the students’ homes in Cary and New Bern. They were kicking soccer balls across North Carolina, they explained, to defuse religious conflict here and half a world away.
“On the spot, (congregation members) were donating money left and right, asking us details about our lives,” recalled Ahmad Saad, the Cary resident of the trio. “It was a really great experience when we still weren’t sure what to expect.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Saad and two friends, Sasha Seymore and Dylan Simel plan to dribble from Asheville to Morehead City, supported by family members in vehicles. By the time they reached Cary, the University of North Carolina students had traversed 270 miles and raised $4,500 for Middle East peace charities.
Saad, Seymore and Simel are members of a generation that is less religious than any in modern history – a quarter of Millennials are religiously unaffiliated – but their message is resonant, drawing the attention of hundreds of individuals and a half-dozen media outlets, and a sponsorship from Eurosport.
The germ of the pilgrimage came to the three friends at the dining hall this year. They’d talked a few times about how soccer was the basis of their pan-Abrahamic friendship, and thought it could bridge religious divides for others. They concluded brunch with a group chest-bump (naturally) and began months of research and preparation.
Their idea of the soccer field as common ground, they found, was not unique. All three of their nonprofit beneficiaries – The Maccabim Association, The Peres Center for Peace, and Soccer for Peace – bring Middle Eastern religions and ethnicities together on the pitch.
“People always talk about how soccer,” with its simple equipment, “is the world’s game,” Saad said on Wednesday as cars blew by him. And the sight of young men on a journey is an easy hook for conversations, he agreed. “It really gives people something concrete, something they can actually hold on to,” he said.
They bring others in with videos, blog posts and a Twitter account that has quickly found 250 followers. The message is simple and pragmatic: While all three feel spiritual bonds to a different religious text, they believe their tenets can co-exist.
“You see those values again and again,” said Simel, 18, a New Bern native who is working toward his Bar Mitzvah.
Seymore, 19, also of New Bern, returned to Christianity after his mother’s passing. He knows parts of his faith clash with Saad’s Islam, but they find it’s nothing to argue about.
“A lot of hatred is done in the name of religion. We hope we can show religion isn’t that way,” said Seymore. “As I have loved you, love one another,” he quoted before the boys dribbled down the American Tobacco Trail.
While many believe “Islam is spread by the sword,” Saad finds no trace of the idea in the Quran, he said. Instead he turns to a line of the 109th Sura of the Quran: “For you is your faith, and for me, my faith.”