By Vicki Garlock
FAITH SEEKER KIDS
Faith, then, is a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event.
– Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief (1987)
As the mother of two children who were quite young at the time, I could vaguely articulate my hopes surrounding their faith development. I wanted them to possess the tools they would need to find their religious and spiritual home in our complex world. I wanted them to recognize how all religions attempt to address core human conditions and emotions. I wanted them to appreciate the various options for thinking about and connecting with the Divine. I wanted them to combat fear, intolerance, and extremism on a daily basis, simply by how they lived their lives.
Given the opportunity to share this vision with the kids in the Nurture Program at Jubilee! Community Church, I soon discovered that I needed to get much more specific. It was 2008, and I was their newly hired “Curriculum Specialist.” When I ran across Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s definition of faith, it struck me as an optimal end-goal, and therefore a good place to begin. But I would spend days and weeks staring out my office window as I figured out how to develop a multi-year Sunday school curriculum that would meet my objectives.
The Christian Bible is the foundational text for our congregation, and parents regularly tell us they want their kids to have some working knowledge of Judeo-Christian stories. However, it immediately became apparent that this approach – no matter how open-minded – would be inadequate. Preparing our kids for the 21st century world and providing them with the tools they would need to follow their own faith journeys required transcending religious divides, exploring alternative ways of connecting with the Divine, and sharing a range of faith practices. In short, our kids needed interfaith education starting at a young age.
The first step was to select themes that would mesh with the cognitive abilities of our four age groups (Preschool-Kindergarten, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, and Middle-School). We started with Peace, Compassion, Dreamers, Blessings and Gratitude, Creation, Awe and Wonder, and In the Desert. These themes are advantageous in three different ways. First, they allow us to cover most of Genesis and Exodus, some of the David story and Psalms, and large portions of the Gospels. Second, the themes are amendable to exploration across cultures and faith traditions. Third, they provide us with concrete subject matter for our younger kids (e.g., What does it mean to ‘have dreams’?) and more abstract opportunities for our older kids (e.g., Who are our ‘dreamers’ in the modern world?).
The next step was to bring the themes to life by developing weekly Sunday school lesson plans for each classroom. Like many progressive Sunday school programs, we use a non-dogmatic, exploratory approach. We let the kids think about what the stories mean to them, and we reinforce the day’s ideas with crafts, activities, and community-service projects. Unlike other Sunday school programs, however, we regularly incorporate interfaith education. We generally make use of three sources from the various faith traditions: sacred texts, kids’ stories, and visits from faith leaders.
A quick visit to the digital Sacred Text Archive will convince even the most enthusiastic interfaith activist that all sacred texts cannot be included in any one curriculum, let alone a Sunday school curriculum for kids. So far we have focused on primary texts from the world’s major religions, including the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Qur’an, and the Buddhist Sutras. On occasion, we have also incorporated readings from texts like the Mahabarata, a Hindu epic, and the Poetic Edda, a 13th century collection of Old Norse tales, as well as writings from various mystics and from founders of the Baha’i’ faith. Searchable versions of various texts are freely available online and very helpful, sites such as Qur’an/Hadith Search (Muslim) and Access to Insight (Buddhist). The many biblical sites for comparing different translations of particular texts can be supplemented by Tao Translations and Quranic Arabic Corpus.
Despite my personal enthusiasm for the world’s sacred texts, it was clear from the outset that our youngest kids would have difficulty with most of them. The Tao Te Ching is abstract and philosophical. Buddhist teachings can be lengthy and repetitive, and the Qur’an is poetic, with references scattered non-chronologically throughout. In all fairness, young kids don’t even read/hear verbatim Bible passages; instead, they usually hear stories taken from Bible story-books. It turns out that these types of kid-friendly tales are also widely available for most of the world’s major religions.
Some of these narratives have been around for centuries. From the Hindu tradition, we have the Panchatantra – a set of animal fables, originally written in Sanskrit, and possibly composed in the 3rd century BCE. From the Buddhist tradition, we have the Jataka tales – stories about the Buddha’s past lives. The first written Jataka collection dates from about the 4th century BCE, but the tales have been edited, adapted, and enhanced in numerous ways over time and across cultures. Various versions of both sets of narratives have been published in print and on line. Some of them are even depicted as You Tube videos. Less well known (and less widely marketed) are the Qisas al-Anbiya, or Tales of the Prophets, from the Islamic tradition. Comprised in the late Middle Ages (11th-14th centuries CE), it details the lives of the Qur’anic prophets, offering an Islamic view of many major Biblical figures.
We also use the emerging library of kids’ faith and interfaith resources. Books for youngsters of various ages have been published for every major holiday of every major world religion (e.g., Sukkot, Diwali, Ramadan, and so many more). Two series – Holidays Around the World for upper elementary kids and Rookie Read-About Holidays for younger kids – are a great place to start. It’s also easy to find general information books about each faith tradition (e.g., Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism). These books explore basic tenets, widespread practices, and holiday traditions using photos of kids from around the world. Some even include craft and recipe ideas.
Visits from Faith Leaders
One can learn an amazing amount from books, but there’s no replacing the real thing. We are always looking for opportunities to connect with faith leaders from our community. A Buddhist nun taught meditation techniques to our preschoolers, a local musician shared Hebrew songs with our elementary-age kids, a conservative rabbi showed our middle-schoolers how to blow a shofar, and our local witch explained the Neopagan wheel of the year to our teens. These visits are great for the adults, too. Parents and teachers get to ask questions, and we all get to double-check our pronunciation of various words.
The goal of our curriculum is not to produce religious mini-scholars; however, we are fully committed to moving beyond a simple message of tolerance. We want to foster a real appreciation for how religious traditions talk about and connect with the Divine presence, and we want to offer kids the tools they might need for their life-long faith journeys. In this sense, it appears that we are succeeding. When asked what rituals resonate with them, our teens offer a range of responses including goddess ceremonies, Buddhist meditation, moon dances in Costa Rica, and the Jewish holidays. They also claim that our interfaith approach does, indeed, foster a better understanding of other faith practices.
As someone originally trained in neuroscience, I would welcome scholarly, quasi-experimental research into the efficacy of interfaith education for kids. In the meantime, I will offer a sample of the anecdotal evidence we’ve collected from our teens and their parents.
I know lots of Bible stories, but when I hear other stories, it’s easier to relate to other faith traditions, to my own life, and to my own journey... Being exposed to other faith traditions helps me cultivate what I believe. – Maddie, age 17
I like that the children in all classes are exposed to many different religions and cultures from around the world. It lets them know there is a lot to explore and that they can choose which faith best fits them as adults… Even my 17-year-old chooses to come to class instead of sleeping because he enjoys the conversations so much. – Misti, mother of three Nurture Program kids and a teacher in our Preschool- Kindergarten class
To a certain extent, we are “preaching to the choir.” Most of the kids arrive on Sunday mornings full of enthusiasm, and their caregivers have chosen our program because it aligns with their open-minded beliefs about Christianity and faith development. Nevertheless, it feels like a pretty good place to start.
For much more about Vicki Garlock’s interfaith curricular work, visit her website – Faith Seeker Kids.