Learning to Open Our Hearts and Minds
Reimagining Interfaith: Taking Our Lead from Kids
by Vicki Garlock
The interfaith movement is all about bringing people together. Most of the time we focus on adults and social justice issues. Don’t get me wrong. I fully support any and all interfaith efforts. But we need to do more, and we need to do it better. That’s why, when I reimagine interfaith, I see the world’s children. I see open minds, friendly hearts, and playful attitudes. I see eyes full of hope and love. I see a future generation of adults that recognizes the value of all faith traditions – a generation that has moved beyond mere tolerance toward deep appreciation. I see a path forward.
There is certainly a role for adults in this scenario. Grown-ups have the means to bring kids of different faiths together. Adults can also facilitate meaningful dialogue and help hold the space for differing worldviews. But adults need to avoid handing down their fears and insecurities to the next generation. The Earth gets smaller by the day, our interconnectedness increasingly apparent. To thrive in this emerging world, kids need to know something about the basic faith practices and beliefs of others, for the health of our planet and the well-being of our species.
Being More Alike than Different
Sharing various religious practices with kids tends to expose a common fear – that kids will end up lukewarm to their “home” faith tradition. It shows up in statements like, “One needs to be firm in one’s own faith before engaging in dialogue with ‘the other.’” The problem with this approach is that it excludes kids from interfaith experiences before they’ve even started. And that means we’re setting ourselves up for yet another generation of wary and potentially intolerant adults.
Interestingly, when adults engage in multifaith dialogue, a near-universal refrain emerges: “I realized we are more alike than different.” In my experience, this sentiment is even more common in kids. Why? Because kids around the world like to do the same things! They like to play, listen to stories, create things, eat special food, celebrate special occasions, be part of a community, and have fun. All of these can and do happen in multi-faith settings, especially when kids are involved. Kids don’t have to do the hard work of breaking down barriers because they don’t have barriers in the first place. And this can actually make them better participants in the interfaith movement than adults.
To be sure, clear differences emerge across religious traditions. Everyone involved in the interfaith movement can attest to that. With enough scrutiny, everything seems different. Religions have different ways of articulating the Great Mystery, different holy days, different sacred texts, and different ritual practices. The list goes on.
But, if we take a step back, we can begin to see fundamental similarities: we’re all attempting to articulate the ineffable, we all celebrate important dates in our history, we all have revered writings or oral narratives that guide us, and we all have special ceremonies that help us to embody our beliefs. There are even commonalities across major themes and teachings: being kind to one another, helping those in need, welcoming the stranger, appreciating the wonders of the world around us, and recognizing the miraculous essence of connecting with the Sacred.
When viewed in this way, the list of similarities soon becomes at least as long as the list of differences. Focusing on the bigger picture opens the door to children’s involvement in the multi-faith movement. In fact, it opens the door to their leading the way.
Keeping it Simple
Most of the world’s major faith traditions are incredibly complex, which underlies many intrafaith differences.Here is a time and place for scholarly debate, both within and between religions, but many interfaith initiatives have failed because they started with doctrine. In my experience, kids don’t care much for tenets and precepts. (Truth told, many adults don’t care either!) So, instead of delving into the intricacies of the Buddhist eight-fold path, you can simply share a Buddhist story. Instead of a deep dive into the differing perspectives on Jesus in the Abrahamic traditions, you can make an easy craft depicting one of the Jesus healing stories.
The same holds for sacred texts. More than one adult has said to me, “I’ve never seen a Qur’an before.” There is no reason for this. It’s a book – an important book for many people – but a book nonetheless. You can buy used copies on the internet, and you can download it as an app on your phone. In fact, nearly all the sacred texts can be bought/downloaded, and older translations can be read for free on the internet. So, there is nothing to prevent basic knowledge about incredible books that have, quite literally, changed the world.
Ritual objects are also fascinating. Why not teach kids about chakpurs, the tool used by Tibetan Buddhist monks to make sand mandalas? Why not teach them about shofars, the ram’s horn blown during the Jewish high holidays? It’s hard to imagine how this level of knowledge and sharing could result in a subsequent lack of faith in one’s own tradition. Instead, such exposure seems to produce a level of familiarity that breeds appreciation rather than contempt.
When I “reimagine interfaith,” I see a room full of children from various faith traditions sitting in a circle. They are playing, laughing, and sharing. Each one holds a meaningful item from their faith tradition – a copy of their sacred text, a ritual object, a food item customarily eaten on a particular holy day, and so on. One by one, the kids share how and why their chosen item is important. The adults, also from various faith traditions, sit behind them as they learn from the kids about maintaining a sense of love and light-heartedness.
Keeping it Active
Anyone who works with kids, regardless of faith tradition, will also tell you that kids like to move around! When I reimagine interfaith, kids are simply enjoying one another’s friendship. There are so many ways to accomplish this.
If you want to teach kids about living in harmony with one another, give them a chance to cooperate on tasks or to play group games. Such an approach will be more effective and have a more lasting effect than any lecture. The internet is full of easy-to-manage team-building games for kids of all ages. Kids, like adults, can also be involved in social justice issues. They can pick up trash, decorate postcards for policy-makers, serve meals to the homeless, and make cards for veterans, regardless of faith tradition. So, instead of confining these activities to your own faith community, invite other groups to join in!
Field trips require a bit more planning and preparation, but kids love to see other sacred spaces. Most adults I know have never stepped foot in a synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, or temple. Again, there is no reason for this. Most religious groups love to share their worship space with others, and it costs little or no money! It’s a great way to discover which religions require removing one’s shoes, see where and how people sit, and learn about the art and iconography of various traditions.
When I reimagine interfaith, I see kids being an integral part of the action. I see kids who take delight in working side-by-side with their peers. I see kids who are equally comfortable attending an iftar, a bat mitzvah, a langar, a Samhain ritual, or a ceremony for Ganesha Chaturthi. And I see kids who view members of other faith groups as true community partners.
One of the best ways to engage adults is to provide opportunities for them to tag along with their kids. We adults are busy, and it’s easy for us to get lost in all our daily tasks. One thing leads to another and another, providing little time to reflect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. I am as guilty as anyone, driving around, somewhat maniacally from one errand or activity to another. But when it comes to interfaith and kids, even a small amount of effort can result in big rewards.
With a little encouragement and a bit of forethought, we can all begin to imagine what a true multifaith world looks like – both for ourselves and for the next generation. And wouldn’t it be divine if they never needed to “reimagine” interfaith because they were simply living it?
Header Photo: pxhere