Guest Column: Learning A Lesson In Civility From Michigan Seventh-Graders

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To be an American today is to live in a world in which people who practice unfamiliar faiths are our next-door neighbors and our fellow classmates. Yet, too often, people of different religions are afraid of each other and that fear can lead to prejudice, discrimination and sometimes violence. When we know little or nothing about the religious beliefs of our neighbors and we classify them as the OTHER, they become our enemies.

Our hope is that with Religious Diversity Journeys, the OTHER will be replaced by our friend.

In these times of public incivility and intolerance, a Southeast Michigan program is helping seventh-graders learn about their neighbors’ religions by visiting their places of worship.

By learning about what is unfamiliar, our goal is that our seventh-graders will help build bridges among the diverse people of our community and make Metro Detroit a better place. The Religious Diversity Journeys program also helps to prevent the bullying that sometimes occurs in middle schools.

It’s a model that many adults could learn from.

About 700 seventh-graders from public and parochial schools across Metro Detroit study Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism at local houses of worship. The visits provide a base of knowledge about each faith, including their holidays and traditions, to dispel myths and stereotypes about them.

On each journey, students meet with clergy and congregational leaders who provide an overview of that religion’s beliefs and practices, and answer their questions ranging from marriage customs to religious symbols. They have an opportunity to see religious artifacts and try on some traditional garments — such as turbans worn by some Sikhs and head scarves worn by some women who follow Sikh and Muslim traditions. The young people usually work on a service project together and enjoy a lunch with the traditional food of that religion.

For many students, it is the first visit to a house of worship outside their own faith. Recently, one parent urged her daughter not to attend the session at a mosque, but her daughter chose to participate and later reassured her mother that there was nothing to fear from Islam. What they learn provides a basis to stand up to religious stereotypes.

The concluding session each academic year is a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts to look at religion in art, as well as a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center to learn what can happen when hate and fear rule.

During the past 15 years, the program has received very positive reviews from students, parents and teachers. One parent said, “Thank you for guiding our daughter through a remarkable activity with the Religious Diversity Journeys experience. She had been very curious about the different religions and traditions. I’m grateful she had this exposure and will do my best to keep this going for our family.”

When participants were asked how they could use their new knowledge to promote greater tolerance at school, one student answered, “If someone is making fun of a religion or making bad comments, I can correct them and use what I know.”

As the first coordinator of Religious Diversity Journeys, I was surprised and pleased several years ago when a young woman approached me and said, “I was in your Religious Diversity Journeys program a number of years ago, and it changed my life!” She is now involved in diversity initiatives and is making a difference in our world.

Gail Katz
Gail Katz

Gail Katz is a member of the education committee of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

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