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At What Age Should Interfaith Education Begin?

Learning to Be a Good Neighbor

Graphic: firstdrops.orgIs it ever too early to teach your children interfaith values?

“Absolutely not,” says Farrah Khan emphatically. She should know. Farrah is the founder of First Drops, an interfaith organization in Irvine, California, dedicated to young children and their parents.

A Muslim born in Pakistan, Farrah was brought to the States by her parents when she was three years old. Her parents taught her about interfaith, but it wasn’t called interfaith then. It was called being a good neighbor. “Most of our neighbors were Christian,” Farrah recalled, and we were on good terms with all of them because of the examples my parents set for us. We were taught to be of service, whenever possible.

Things changed, however, when Farrah went to college at UC Davis from 1993-97 to study English and creative writing, with a minor in microbiology. Her college years were confusing, Farrah admits. “People tried to pigeon-hole us into our religious communities, and it wasn’t a friendly environment.”

In particular, she sensed hostility between Muslim and Jewish students, and it concerned her.

“I remember that one day I finally got courage to go to the Hillel House.” Trying to get to the source of the estrangement she was experiencing, Khan recalls, “I asked them, ‘What’s up?’ But then the Muslim Student Union questioned me to find out why I went to see the people at Hillel, and then I learned that the people from Hillel thought I was going there to spy on them.” She was very disheartened, describing it as a lose-lose situation, but didn’t know what to do about it.

She knows now. Farrah and her husband, Imran, also of Pakistani heritage, married for 13 years, are the parents of two boys, Ubi and Umer, 11 and 8. Influenced by the aftermath of 9/11, Farrah began attending interfaith events in Irvine. Then in December of 2011, Farrah created First Drops for young children. She asked for help from her Jewish friend, Naomi Glass, who had children of the same age. They started speaking with a Hindu family, and before long they had a group of seven children signed up – with their parents.

Mayor Sukyee Kang of Irvine, California, with First Drops performers at the Irvine Global Festival Village.Today they serve 48 children, ages 5 to 13, and 78 adults and are continuing to grow. The community meets regularly to socialize and give the children a chance to learn about each other’s religions in an informal, friendly environment. Each time different children are assigned the responsibility of reporting to the group about their own religion and what they have learned about the other religions. This year they were invited to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, with Iranian friends, and this Passover Naomi will host a Seder in her home.

In addition, at the invitation of a friend, Laura Ava-Tesimale, founder of One Global Family Foundation, they now feed the homeless in Irvine every second Sunday of the month.  “It is a great grassroots interfaith activity for the children,” Farrah says with enthusiasm. “The kids love it, and the people being served are very appreciative of the kids who come to help.”

First Drops volunteers arrive at a food program to help.They also participate in the Irvine Global Village Festival every fall. Last year they were asked to sing and chose a Bahá'í song that seemed to have been written expressly for them.

Farrah sings it with gusto:

We are drops, we are drops of one ocean.

We are waves, we are waves of one sea.

Come and join us in our quest for unity.

Farrah doesn’t know of any group quite like theirs, but recently she met with the founder of the Orange County Youth Council, Mike Penn, who teaches interfaith values to high school students. “He was ecstatic to find out what we were doing,” she recounts, “and he is eagerly waiting to take over for us when a batch of our kids graduate. And when they finish his program,” Farrah says expectantly, “hopefully Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core, will take over while they are in college.”

In the meantime, Farrah continues to mentor the children and expand their interfaith horizons. Recently her two boys and some friends from First Drops made a film that won first prize in the children’s competition of the World Harmony Interfaith Film Festival in February.

Modeled on the classic story of A Christmas Carol, they decided to depict Scrooge as a stingy interfaith bigot. He scorns the people who come to his door, selling Girl Scout cookies, collecting blankets for the church, or even inviting him to community festivals. He slams the door in their faces until the Interfaith Ghost of the Past confronts him and Scrooge reveals that he had been bullied as a child. The Interfaith Ghost of the Future then shows him how much more pleasurable his life would be if he changed his attitude and if he would become a good neighbor. At the end of the film, he is a changed man.

So, no, it’s never too early to begin teaching your children about respect and interfaith values, Farrah affirms. “If I had thought about it sooner, I would have taken my kids to interfaith events in utero!”