ROCHESTER — Until recently, all 15-year-old Elizabeth Amato knew about religions other than Catholicism was what she learned in her high-school global studies class.
That changed the week of Aug. 17, when she took part in a weeklong interfaith encounter offered through the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College in Pittsford. “The Next Generation — Living Together in a Multi-Religious Society” is one of the workshops the center regularly sponsors in order to enable individuals to interact more effectively in the increasingly diverse religious landscape in America, according to program materials.
Through The Next Generation, Elizabeth and two dozen other teens learned about a variety of religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Participants listened to presentations by members of each faith, engaged in small-group discussion, shared meals and visited several different places of worship, including a Sikh gurudwara, or temple, an Episcopal church, the Islamic Center of Rochester, and Jewish and Hindu temples.
“I didn’t even know there was a Hindu center in Rochester,” remarked Elizabeth, who belongs to Rochester’s Cathedral Community. “I was like, ‘Oh, we actually have a real Hindu temple!'”
Elizabeth was one of four Cathedral Community teens who participated in the program. They were accompanied by their youth minister, Belinda Brasley, and her husband, Deacon John Brasley, who is coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Diocese of Rochester.
“When I saw the information about it, I knew right away I would be taking some kids, and I thought of a few who would really love it,” Brasley said of the program.
She said she liked the program’s emphasis on interaction and the way it facilitated understanding among the teens through listening, discussion and shared worship experiences.
“If we’re talking about interfaith dialogue (moving us) towards peace, it’s all about the interaction,” she said.
Deacon Brasley agreed, and said he was glad the presentations were given by experts who belonged to the particular faiths being discussed. The program’s facilitators were trying to clear up misconceptions about religion in a positive way, he added, and no one was trying to convert anyone else.
“I never had an opportunity like this in high school or college,” Deacon Brasley said. “It was only after I became the interfaith officer (for the diocese) that I was able to meet people from other religions and have true interfaith dialogue. I was very impressed by this.”
The Brasleys registered Elizabeth and their 15-year-old son, Ben Brasley, for the program, as well as Montanna Williams and Cherice Harper, both 16.
“I just thought it would be cool to learn more about other religions,” Ben explained.
Ben said The Next Generation lived up to his expectations, and he enjoyed learning how religion influences people. People of different religions might react differently to the same situation, depending on how their religion views that situation, he observed. He also said he was surprised to meet teens from other religions who were just as passionate about their own faiths as he is about his Catholic beliefs.
He and the other teens said they enjoyed beefing up their knowledge of other religious traditions.
“I think I learned a lot. It gave me a chance to look at things in a different perspective,” added Montanna, who said she felt comfortable discussing her faith in small-group discussions with other participants. “I was able to explain my whole take on religion at this point.”
The majority of the participants seemed to be Christian, Elizabeth said, but there were a lot of agnostic teens who’d come from Catholic or Protestant backgrounds. She said she tried to sit next to different people each day in order to meet and interact with as many people as possible.
All four Cathedral Community teens said they’d encourage their peers to participate in The Next Generation the next time it’s offered. If they go, however, they should be active participants, Elizabeth urged.
“There are a bunch of kids that didn’t ever raise their hands to say anything,” she said. “Don’t be dead. If you’re going to go, participate. Otherwise there’s no point.”
The Brasleys said they were proud of the way the teens from the Cathedral Community and their fellow participants interacted. They were honest and open when talking about their own religious backgrounds and traditions, Deacon Brasley said.
“It’s really been a joy to watch these kids explore this,” he said. “This is a big investment of their time, to go to this every day for a week in the summer. All these kids are really remarkable, that they would take the time to do this and invest themselves so willingly.”
“I think this generation is very interested in peace,” Belinda Brasley added. “I think they see that it’s essential. I see them stepping up and taking a step towards bringing about peace.”