BRIGHTON — Seated in a circle on the floor, a group of barefoot high-school students got an overview of Islam from Farzana Islam, a member of the Islamic Center of Rochester.
They had just witnessed the Friday prayers at the mosque and learned how Muslims observe the holy month of Ramadan.
Their instructor, who works with Nazareth College’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, noted several similarities among her religion, Judaism and Christianity, including the fact that all three faiths trace their roots through Abraham.
“The word Islam means peace,” she said. “The people who peacefully submit to the will of God are Muslims.”
Her presentation was part of the final day of “The Next Generation: Living Together in a Multi-Religious Society,” a weeklong interfaith immersion program developed to prepare teenagers to live in a religiously plural world. In addition to learning about each religion, the students toured worship sites, ate together and participated together in community service at Mary’s Place, a ministry for refugees run by the Cathedral Community in Rochester.
The experience was eye-opening, said Joseph Kasinge, a member of the Cathedral Community, who heard about the program from Nora Bradbury-Haehl, youth minister at St. Paul Parish in Webster.
Prior to the program, Kasinge knew nothing about other religions.
“I just knew about Christianity,” he said.
Campus ministers at colleges around the area say such interfaith experiences are relatively uncommon for high-school students. Most new college students arrive on campus with limited experience of interacting with people of other religions.
“Many of them come with their own traditions, and they probably never have rubbed elbows with any others,” said Father Daniel McMullin, director of the Cornell Catholic Community.
That’s why local colleges say they schedule interfaith programs to encourage interaction, reduce conflict and help prepare their students to live in a multicultural society.
Greater attention is being placed on interfaith efforts this year due the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the yearlong President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. The campus challenge, an initiative of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is being supported by many area colleges and 240 campuses nationwide.
Monroe Community College is participating in the challenge with a new program called Food for Thought, in which college students will work with the Rochester City School District to develop healthy eating plans and embrace healthy lifestyles.
The goal is to teach students to have a greater understanding and awareness of others and enhance their ability to work with others, said Betty Stewart, director of the Office of Student Life and Leadership Development at MCC.
“We are a community that focuses on bringing students together and trying to get students to understand the importance of civic engagement,” Stewart said.
There’s a natural connection between interfaith interaction and community service, according to Margot VanEtten, director of campus ministry for the Newman Center at SUNY Brockport.
“It seems like service is one of the great points of contact for people of all faiths because everyone agrees that we want to help people in need,” VanEtten said.
Brockport students will participate in the campus challenge by serving at the ecumenical food shelf in Brockport, learning about hunger and discussing each other’s faiths. In addition to addressing hunger, Brockport’s program is aimed at helping students connect with religious communities, since many students identify themselves as spiritual and not religious, VanEtten said.
She noted that the program’s goal is to help students recognize that even at a state school, religion has an important place.
“Secularism doesn’t mean being anti-faith,” VanEtten said. “It means providing space for everybody.”
Students need to deeply understand their own faiths and how to live out their spirituality in order to feel comfortable respecting others’ differences, VanEtten said.
Just as at Brockport, students at Cornell this year also are planning to address hunger. They will serve at Loaves and Fishes and the Salvation Army soup kitchens in Ithaca, Father McMullin said.
Small groups of students also will share their faith at an interfaith dinner dubbed an “I Believe In” Dinner. Such an informal setting can help promote friendships, Father McMullin said.
“Some of the best conversations happen among people who are friends first,” he said. “If there’s even a hint of proselytizing, it limits the conversation.”
Instead of proselytizing, which is an attempt to recruit or convert a person, Father McMullin said students are encouraged to evangelize by sharing what they believe and why. He noted that the college community has had success with this type of faith sharing, as evidenced by the 10 to 20 college-student catechumens and candidates who join the Catholic Church in this diocese each year.
“We also spend time with students helping them understand what the differences (in religions) are so they can respond more articulately when asked,” Father McMullin said.
SUNY Geneseo, meanwhile, has picked an environmental focus for its yearlong Geneseo Interfaith Service Project. Students will take part in four community service days throughout the year as well as public forums, residence hall programming and environmental work projects.
The project also will include sessions on religious tolerance, including an upcoming production of “Under the Veil: Being Muslim [and non-Muslim] in America since 9/11.” This production, which will take place Sept. 16-17 in the Alice Austin Theatre, uses interactive theater to encourage people to cross barriers of race, class, culture and religion.
More work needed
A recent survey of Muslim Americans shows that such interfaith education efforts may well be needed to help bridge divisions.
The report, which was released in August by the Pew Research Center, showed that 55 percent of Muslim-Americans believe their lives have been more difficult since Sept. 11. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said people have seemed to be suspicious of them, 22 percent reported being called offensive names, 21 percent reported being singled out by airport security and 13 percent reported being singled out by law enforcement officers. Six percent of Muslim-Americans reported having been attacked or threatened. In contrast, 37 percent reported witnessing someone having expressed support for them.
Although Catholics at the University of Rochester have been participating in interfaith efforts for at least four decades, UR has tried since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to bring together people of different faiths to help heal the wounds created by the attacks, said Father Brian Cool, director of the university’s Newman Community and a campus chaplain.
The university’s interfaith community is planning to serve together monthly at the supper program at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Rochester, and will continue the hunger-relief theme with its Alternative Spring Break in Baltimore and the annual PB Jam, in which students of many faiths make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for soup kitchens to mark Jewish Awareness Month.
Father Cool recalled that one of his most memorable interfaith experiences was at a prayer service on campus soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“It was an important visible expression of being able to cross some pretty deep religious barriers to have a rabbi and a priest and an imam all sitting together,” said the priest, who noted that another interfaith prayer service is planned for 9:11 p.m. on Sept. 11 at the college’s Interfaith Chapel.
Even though she was young and didn’t personally know anyone who was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the events of that day left a profound mark on Katherine Wegman, who is now a freshman at the University of Rochester.
Wegman, who was a third-grader at St. Louis School in Pittsford at the time, recalled the shocked look on her teacher’s face and her own confusion of not knowing about terrorism or the World Trade Center when news of the attacks was announced on the school’s loudspeaker.
After the announcement, her class prayed a Hail Mary, and her teacher answered questions. Later, Wegman’s parents came home early to greet her and her brother with a hug. They watched the news together the entire evening, Wegman said and she remembers hearing — but not understanding — the phrase “Muslim extremists.”
Since then, she said she has had to overcome apprehensions about Muslims by making friends with several Muslim-Americans in school and learning about Islam in her history classes.
“It was through those lessons that I learned that Christians and Muslims are not ‘enemies’; rather, the Muslims who attacked the United States were extremists, and many American Muslims, in fact, were impacted by the attacks just as painfully as many American Christians had been,” Wegman said in an e-mail.
Wegman’s experience is not unique among the Class of 2015, said VanEtten, the Brockport campus minister. The United States has been at war for a large portion of these students’ lives, and some students have equated Islam with terrorists, she said.
Yet VanEtten said she tells students that viewing terrorists as representatives of Islam is as false as characterizing Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, as a representative of Christianity.
Wegman put it another way in her e-mail:
“Thinking of 9/11 does not bring up anti-Muslim thoughts; rather, it brings up images of Americans — of all races and religions — struggling to piece their lives back together amidst the rubble at Ground Zero,” she wrote. “When I remember 9/11, I remember my nation being shocked and inspired to take action, not hatred for a particular religion or race.”Tags: Interfaith Relations, Newman Community