March 8, 2013

Interfaith panel promotes cultural respect to Oakland sixth-graders

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — When three Christians, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a pagan, a Jew and a Hindu walked into a classroom, it wasn’t a setup for a joke — it was a joint effort to teach a new generation about cultural respect.

click image to enlarge

Pushpa Harding, right, and Janaki Shanmugam, left, explain the finer points of Hinduism to a sixth-grade class during an interfaith program at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland on Friday. The event allowed students to listen to different religious perspectives and included speakers on Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and paganism.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I grew up in a generation of people that were told that we should never discuss in polite company topics such as politics and religion,” teacher and organizer Elizabeth Firnkes told a group of sixth-graders at Messalonskee Middle School Friday morning.

During a group panel presentation, many of the religious representatives stressed the commonalties their faiths share.

“We are all trying to reach the same mountaintop,” Rabbi Hillel Katzir of Auburn’s Temple Shalom said. “It’s just that the paths are on different sides of the mountain. One of the wonderful things about this country is that we are free to find a path that works for us.”

During the program, a rare example of young public schoolchildren being taught about religion, panel members fielded questions on how they observed their faiths in daily life and whether they had been teased or bullied because of their religion.

Carl Eric Robbins, a pagan who grew up in Sidney, said that students who identify themselves as pagans are often misunderstood by their peers.

“They face a lot of teasing because there is a lot of misunderstanding,” he said. However, Roberts said, paganism’s natural irreverence helps to deflect the harm.

“It’s part of our belief that we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” he said.

The program received funding and leadership from the Pearson Foundation, which runs a model classroom program that sponsors exceptional educational programs.

Foundation representative Brian Burnett said the program selects classroom projects that encourage student development in innovative ways.

Instead of a traditional teacher-student relationship, Burnett said, the program emphasizes coaching students through projects.

“You’re not on the field. You’re on the side,” Burnett said. “You’re coaching the kids, but you want them to drive. Give them the keys. Let them grind the gears.”

He said some of the program’s principles involve “being willing to embrace some of the chaos, the mess, the disorder.”

Many students in attendance had roles beyond that of passive listener. Student questioners sat on the panel and a student moderator handled the microphone. Others busily snapped pictures and recorded videos for a documentation project.

After a group discussion, students made individual decisions about which panelists they would like to hear more from in smaller workshop sessions.

Buddhist Peggy Smith had only a handful of students choose her during the first of three sessions, but the students who left gave such glowing reviews that there was standing room only for the second session.

Smith fielded questions on everything from hunting to vegetarianism to abortion, and she also led the children through meditation exercises.

Kat Stevens, 12, said she was never able to meditate in the past, despite encouragement from her mother.

“I thought I couldn’t focus, but I noticed that in her presentation I found a way to meditate that made it much easier for me,” she said.

Stevens found a separate session led by Muslim Ghassan Saleh to be equally helpful.

“I didn’t know about their holidays, and I thought their holidays were really different — not weird, but different, because I think different is really nice,” she said.

Stevens and Seth Main, 11, said that before the program, they mostly associated the Muslim faith with terrorism.

“Because what happened on 9/11, I used to think that Muslims were bad. But my parents kept telling me that they’re not, all Muslims are not bad, just those people who decided to do bad things,” Main said.

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