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‘You will never see a Sikh throw a Muslim under the bus’

Interfaith campers share what they’ve learned with Synod School class

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Students attending the Interfaith Youth Leadership Camp held each summer in Des Moines, Iowa, make a site visit. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Interfaith Exchange)

LOUISVILLE — Synod School students taking part in the Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott’s class, A Theology of Interfaith Engagement, heard firsthand experiences Wednesday from six youth and young adults who participated earlier this month or in previous years in an interfaith youth leadership camp in Des Moines, Iowa.

Garriott, coordinator of Interfaith Engagement for the Des Moines Area Religious Council, invited the campers to Wednesday’s class, part of this year’s online Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School:

  • Manar, a Muslim who’s a student at Drake University in Des Moines
  • Cera, a first-year Drake student who attends a small Christian church in Minnesota
  • Samantha, a recent high school graduate who attends an Orthodox Christian church
  • Mariam, a high school senior and member of a Coptic Orthodox Christian congregation
  • Kevin, a freshman at Drake and a Christian
  • Sara, who completed her studies at Drake last year and is a member of a conservative Jewish congregation.

Camp participants discussed their visits to Hindu and Sikh temples, mosques and other houses of worship; how what they learned about other faiths informed their own beliefs; and about some of the challenges they encountered during the week-long camp. Videos completed by students attending camp in previous years can be seen here.

“We visited a Nepali Hindu worship service. People got up and danced as they sang hymns,” Mariam said. “Eventually we all got up to dance,” Garriott added. “It was really fun worship.”

“The thing I really liked were the differences,” Kevin said. “Learning about those helped me to focus on what I like and appreciate about my own religion — and how unique and diverse everyone else was.”

“I learned that religion is a complicated thing,” Manar said. “You have to understand people’s different interests and respect them, and you have to deal with differences within your own religion.”

“What stuck out for me was at a Bosnian mosque,” Cera said. “They shared why there was such a large refugee population. It was perpetuated by the Christian community. I fought not to be defensive. I had to remember there are a lot of different Christian perspectives.”

“’I am my brother’s keeper’ can mean that if Christianity is being used for violence, we don’t get to write that off,” Cera added. “We are responsible for correcting that and correcting our brothers if they are causing harm.”

“For me, the most challenging part was the disagreement that naturally happens among religions,” Samantha said. “If somebody thinks I am incorrect and I think they are incorrect, we have to work through that to make sure it doesn’t affect our relationship negatively. We accept people where they are without accepting their beliefs and their values.

“I don’t think many people surround themselves on purpose with people who disagree with them. When you are thrown into a group that has different religious opinions, it can be different and at the same time rewarding.”

Sara, a counselor at the 2019 and 2020 camps, noticed an important distinction between holding camp in person and online.

“In the physical space, students were sometimes hesitant to ask questions” during site visits, Sara said. “On Zoom, the door was opened for shy students. It was great to see that kind of student engagement.”

“When you are raised in a religion, it is unintentionally a bubble,” Manar said. “I think it’s important to pop that bubble and learn the things people identify with. That way you get to humanize the information you have. You can learn from the news and from textbooks, but if you haven’t met somebody from that religion, you won’t value and respect that religion.”

“I agree with Manar that learning about religions is so helpful,” Samantha said. “It also strengthened my faith in my own religion. After I got home and processed (the impact of the camp experience) I was very much encouraged that my faith is true and that it is so good for me. That can sound awful and I don’t mean it to, but it strengthened my beliefs.”

“You inherently have to ask yourself, why do I do these certain things, communion and communal dinners?” Cera asked. “For a lot of us, we understand our faith better because we understand what connects others with their faith.”

“It’s important to be knowledgeable about your own faith,” Manar said. “I learned not to be offended by what people say. People get their information from somewhere. Unfortunately, it wasn’t from the actual source. I try to explain as best I can what is right and what we actually believe.”

“I can’t say I speak for that religion,” Cera said. But having attended the interfaith camp, “I can say, ‘This is what I have seen in my experience.’”

“No matter what you know or don’t know, you should always stand up for someone,” Manar said. “Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims, but you will never see a Sikh throw a Muslim under the bus. It makes you feel really good to see someone stand up for you.”

Garriott thanked students for attending the hour-long discussion and celebrated their candor.

“I know a lot of young people who are uncomfortable talking about their faith,” she said. “It’s so neat to be around people who feel comfortable.”

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