ROCHESTER — On a warm afternoon at Mary’s Place, the Cathedral Community’s refugee outreach ministry, the sounds of laughter, conversation and a passionate game of "Duck, Duck, Goose" could be heard. Children and teens populated the building’s front lawn, playing soccer and basketball, drawing with sidewalk chalk and gardening.
The cheerful sounds and positive sights were a result of a visit from youths participating in the fourth-annual Nazareth College Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue program, "The Next Generation: Living Together in a Multi-Religious Society." As part of the program, the youths spent a few hours at Mary’s Place on July 22 completing the community-service component of the program.
Community service was only one activity the youths took part in during the weeklong interfaith encounter. From July 19 to 23, the 20 participants spent their afternoons immersed in various religions, including Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. Each day the teens listened to seminars by religious experts, dined at various cultural restaurants, such as Thali of India on South Winton Road, and visited local places of worship.
This interfaith encounter is very important, according to Meghan Robinson, program cocoordinator and youth and music minister at the Our Lady Queen of Peace/St. Thomas More cluster in Brighton.
"It’s essential to be able to talk to those who share different religious beliefs," said Robinson, who also helped lead the program last year. "This can help clear up misunderstanding and fear."
According to the program’s application, this interfaith dialogue is "critical for young people." The week’s activities are designed to provide participants with the opportunity to learn from and discuss faith with youths who possess different beliefs. This year’s diverse group comprised youths who practice Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Methodism and agnosticism.
The youths possessed both expectations and concerns regarding the interfaith experience.
"I expected to meet a bunch of super-religious teens," said Cat Haehl, 13, daughter of Nora Bradbury-Haehl, program cocoordinator and youth minister at Webster’s St. Paul Parish. "It’s actually a group of super-normal teens that I would normally hang out with. Everyone is very interesting."
Taaha Rehmani, 17, who is Muslim, said he was not looking forward to the interfaith encounter. His participation was encouraged by CISD Executive Director Imam Muhammad Shafiq, a friend of Taaha’s parents.
By the time the group had visited Mary’s Place, Taaha felt differently: "This week has actually been really interesting and engaging," he said.
Plenty of positive feedback about the program has been received, according to CISD Assistant Programs Coordinator Stephen Naum.
"They’ve all really enjoyed the speakers, and they like that the guides at the worship sites have been really open and willing to answer questions," Naum said of this year’s participants. The group visited five worship spaces during the week, including the Hindu Temple of Rochester, Sacred Heart Cathedral and Temple Sinai.
"Visiting the places of worship was definitely my favorite (part of the program)," said Hannah Phillips, 13, who is Methodist. "That’s what really taught me the most about all the different religions."
Along with traveling to various local worship sites, this year’s interfaith encounter utilized the community-service element in an effort to encourage a deeper understanding of the importance of diversity and cross-cultural collaboration.
"When meeting a person of a different faith, we need to understand that ‘this is a person,’" Naum said. This attitude will help in successfully getting to know another person, as well as gaining knowledge and truth, he said.
The service completed at Mary’s Place provided youths with real-life experience to reinforce this message.
As a regular volunteer at Mary’s Place since May, Cat remarked that she "loves the kids" there, just as she loved participating in the interfaith encounter.
"I have enjoyed learning about all of this," she said. "Doing this has pushed me to learn even more about my own faith."