It’s similarities that stand out.
When Ruth Ann White took students from the United Parish of Lunenburg to visit a mosque and a synagogue, the things the three Abrahamic religions have in common were clear — down to the little children burning up excess energy.
“Just like the kids at our church!” White thought as two little girls ran through the Islamic Society of Worcester during prayers. “No one yelled at them for being disruptive, even though the rule meant these girls should have been upstairs with the women and girls because men and women pray separately.”
And then there was the pizza. After a sharing time between the Christian elementary-age students and their Muslim counterparts, everyone sat down for the universal meal.
But other commonalities struck White on this trip — and others she’s participated in with help from the Brookfield Institute:
- We believe in ONE God, who is always with us.
- We help people who need us.
- It is important to do good deeds.
- It is important to stay close to God.
- We want PEACE for all people.
White and the members of her congregation — adults, middle-school students and, most recently, elementary students and their parents — have visited several mosques and synagogues throughout western Massachusetts. The visits are designed to emphasize what the three religions have in common, White says. “I remind the students to not judge a book by its cover.”
And it’s working.
The kids “accept it all,” she says. They don’t go in with any preconceived ideas, which helps, she admits. The adult chaperones often are more affected by the visits. “I saw more facial expressions, comments, body language from the adults,” White says. “They were just fascinated.”
After visiting the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, parent Matt Snyder, said, “It’s experiences like these that should dominate the news and social media. Enough of the hate!”
The visits are organized through the Brookfield Institute’s Living in a World of Difference program, which also hosts weekend youth experiences. White wove these latest visits into her Sunday School curriculum, which included a six-week study of Abrahamic faiths that culminated in the visits. White says she loves to utilize as many of the students’ senses as possible, so lessons might include computers, cooking and drama.
People from the United Parish congregation researched and set up a Shabbat table for the Judaism lesson and talked about traditions, then taught the students how to dance the Horah.
On the most recent visit to the Worcester mosque, the back-and-forth between the students included questions like, “What does it mean to be a good Muslim?” (the student recited the 5 Pillars of Islam) and “What rules does Christianity have?” (the students answered with the 10 Commandments and the Golden Rule).
The Christian students asked about hijabs (the middle-school girls wore head scarves on their visit) and the Muslim students asked about nuns’ habits. Two sisters — one who visited with the middle-schoolers and one who visited with the elementary-age students — set up a display case in the church’s Parish House with symbols and icons from the different religions. White also created a handout that lists the hallmarks of the three religions, including timelines, texts and practices. White says the students really pay attention and understand the similarities and differences, which is evident during the post-visit reviews (which included a game of “human tic tac toe,” with students divided into “Xs” and “Os,” answering questions, then taking a place on a life-size board).
Among the surprises for White and her students were that Muslims don’t really have a formal service, like her own church has. She’s hoping to invite the Muslim students to attend a service — as well as hear the music, which also didn’t play a large part in the mosque, she says.
Inspired by her interfaith experiences of the last year, White will continue the outreach with future classes. “I want to help break down some of the prejudices,” she says, and education is the best way to do that. The Brookfield Institute offers opportunities and assistance in making these interfaith education, encounter and engagement experiences possible. For more information, contact Karen Nell Smith, Program Director, Interfaith Engagement.