Williamsburg Chapter is striving to lead the way in establishing Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism as the next great people’s movement in America.
World Tribune: What makes Williamsburg Chapter unique?
Alphonzo Terrell (chapter young men’s leader): Williamsburg is made up of five districts in four neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York. Nearly half a million people live in these neighborhoods, representing unique ethnicities and backgrounds. More recently, an influx of youthful artists, entrepreneurs and creative professionals from all over the world have been moving into the area—each seeking to find their own unique mission in life. Based on this, we feel it is the mission of Williamsburg Chapter to lead the way in establishing Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism as the next great people’s movement in America.
WT: What challenges have you faced in the process?
Julianna Schley (chapter young women’s leader): In 2014, we had many members on paper, but meeting attendance was inconsistent and low. New members would receive the Gohonzon and then quickly disappear. Ultimately, we did not feel enthusiastic about uniting as chapter leaders, so we didn’t. We would go weeks without chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo together or speaking on the phone.
WT: What sparked a change?
Julianna: In 2015, after hearing inspiring guidance, we determined to make the effort to chant together weekly. Every time was a struggle between devilish functions and the Buddha, but our unity was born from our determination. This created an undeniable, tangible joy that had never existed before. We were in constant communication, actually missing one another if a day went by without so much as a text message.
WT: How did you all spread this joy throughout the chapter?
Julianna: We decided to create unity with our district leaders through monthly chapter planning boards to share information and create an opportunity for dialogue. We also personally encouraged each member through home visitations. Before each visit, we chanted to connect each member to SGI President Ikeda’s heart, and to encourage them to introduce others to Buddhism and for them to experience great joy and benefit from their practice.
Our prayers and actions resulted in a groundswell of shakubuku in 2015. That year, 74 new Bodhisattvas of the Earth emerged in Williamsburg Chapter.
WT: Congratulations! How has taking on leadership impacted your life?
Julianna: In 2013, I was appointed the chapter young women’s leader. Being a reserved person, I was overwhelmed by the sudden responsibility of supporting many people I’d never met before. For months, I refused to visit any young woman because the idea of entering a stranger’s home terrified me. My depression and anxiety were being aggravated by this mindset, making it difficult for me to leave my home. Determined to get out of my comfort zone, I started visiting the young women. After a few months of this courageous effort to expand my life, my 18-year-long bout with depression vanished.
“Our unity was born from our determination. This created an undeniable, tangible joy.”
My personal breakthrough created a ripple effect throughout the young women’s division. One district leader chanted for six months to arrange a home visit with a young woman who had stopped attending activities. Through personal encouragement, that young woman joined Byakuren (an SGI-USA young women’s training group) in 2016. Shortly after, she also did her first personal shakubuku, introducing her sister to the practice. Due to such acts of member care, many members throughout the chapter joyfully share the practice with their friends and family, and new members are more active than in previous years.
WT: Alphonzo, what was the focus for 2016?
Alphonzo: One major focus was making sure new members were on the meeting agenda. These members felt empowered. One said to me afterward: “Please let me know anything else I can do to help. Anything!” Through these efforts, we are creating a membership like a vast mountain with a strong, solid foundation.
Another major focus was establishing active four-divisional leadership in every district—a cherished goal that we’d had for years, yet struggled to accomplish largely due to the lack of young men. This deadlock was a reflection of my own life, in particular in my career, where I felt I wasn’t getting the opportunities I deserved. I determined to transform the organizational situation as a means to transform my personal life. I sought guidance on how to do this and determined to visit the young men with my men’s division co-leaders and develop a relationship with the young men beyond activities. When I reflected back on how I had been raised in the SGI, it was easy to see that it wasn’t just one person, but the support of numerous individuals who genuinely cared about my life and my dreams that made the difference.
WT: How did things change?
Alphonzo: Williamsburg Chapter now has four-divisional leadership in all five districts. This breakthrough in the organization led to a breakthrough in my life—I recently began working at one of the world’s most well-respected and innovative television networks, where I was given responsibility over-seeing a team of extremely capable young men!
Due to our chapter’s shared determination and with the youth taking the lead to promote and confirm members and guests, we had record-breaking attendance at our November District General Meetings. Youth were included on every district’s agenda, including two discussion meetings that were run entirely by the youth.
Through our united four-divisional efforts, all district leaders are now responsive, attendance at discussion meetings moved from an average of 75 to 95 per month, and we have welcomed 62 new members to our chapter last year.
WT: How inspiring! What are your plans toward the gathering of 50,000 capable youth in 2018?
Alphonzo: There are currently 57 active young women and 38 active young men in the chapter. As youth leaders, we are solidifying our corps of 10–15 young men and 10–15 young women, with the determination that they will be able to raise their own corps.
By 2018, we will develop 175 active young women, 130 active young men. We vow to raise the most joyful members, because we can only accomplish a gathering of 50,000 youth when members feel joy in their mission to fight for kosen-rufu alongside Sensei.