Opinion | Learning a lesson in civility from Michigan seventh-graders

Gail Katz is a member of the education committee of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit

To be an American today is to live in a world in which people who practice unfamiliar faiths are our next-door neighbors and our fellow classmates. Yet too often, people of different religions are afraid of each other and that fear can lead to prejudice, discrimination and sometimes violence. When we know little or nothing about the religious beliefs of our neighbors and we classify them as the OTHER, they become our enemies.

Our hope is that with Religious Diversity Journeys the OTHER will be replaced by our friend.

In these times of public incivility and intolerance, a Southeast Michigan program is helping seventh-graders learn about their neighbors’ religions by visiting their places of worship.

By learning about what is unfamiliar, our goal is that our seventh-graders will help build bridges among the diverse people of our community and make Metro Detroit a better place. The Religious Diversity Journeys program also helps to prevent the bullying that sometimes occurs in middle schools.

It’s a model that many adults could learn from.

About 700 seventh-graders from public and parochial schools across Metro Detroit study Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism at local houses of worship. The visits provide a base of knowledge about each faith, including their holidays and traditions, to dispel myths and stereotypes about them.

On each journey, students meet with clergy and congregational leaders who provide an overview of that religion’s beliefs and practices, and answer their questions ranging from marriage customs to religious symbols. They have an opportunity to see religious artifacts and try on some traditional garments—such as turbans worn by some Sikhs and head scarves worn by some women who follow Sikh and Muslim traditions. The young people usually work on a service project together and enjoy a lunch with the traditional food of that religion.

For many students, it is the first visit to a house of worship outside their own faith. Recently, one parent urged her daughter not to attend the session at a mosque but her daughter chose to participate and later reassured her mother that there was nothing to fear from Islam. What they learn provides a basis to stand up to religious stereotypes.

The concluding session each academic year is a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts to look at religion and art, as well as a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center to learn what can happen when hate and fear rule. 

During the past 15 years, the program has received very positive reviews from students, parents and teachers. One parent said, “Thank you for guiding our daughter through a remarkable activity with the Religious Diversity Journeys experience. She had been very curious about the different religions and traditions. I’m grateful she had this exposure and will do my best to keep this going for our family.”

When participants were asked how they could use their new knowledge to promote greater tolerance at school, one student answered, “If someone is making fun of a religion or making bad comments, I can correct them and use what I know.” Another seventh-grader spoke of being able to “help those who criticize to better understand differences, rather than making fun of them.”

 As the first coordinator of Religious Diversity Journeys, I was surprised and pleased several years ago when a young woman approached me and said, “I was in your Religious Diversity Journeys program a number of years ago, and it changed my life!!” She is now involved in diversity initiatives and is making a difference in our world. 

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Le Roy G. Barnett
Fri, 07/27/2018 - 8:39am

I applaud this program and encourage it to consider including a non-faith component like Secular Humanism.

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 8:00pm

I agree completely. It is sad when students feel ashamed/worried how they will be treated by adults and peers if they do not practice religion or use the word Atheist to describe their beliefs. Even if an actual journey to a Secular Humanist group is not available, it should still be addressed with the groups that a person who does not practice religion is capable of morality and doing good deeds for others without belief in God.

Barbara Goldsmith
Sun, 07/29/2018 - 9:44am

A good article and a wonderful program. I am proud to be your friend, Gail.

Sharon Krasner
Sun, 07/29/2018 - 2:04pm

My son took part in this program in 7th grade and absolutely loved it. I would like to know how I can bring it to my school.

Bob Bruttell
Mon, 07/30/2018 - 1:43pm

Please contact our RDJ Program Director, Wendy Miller Gamer, <wendy.iflc@gmail.com>. She will be happy to talk about how other middle schools can join the program.

Wendy Miller Gamer
Mon, 07/30/2018 - 2:58pm

Hi Sharon,
Id love to talk with you about bringing RDJ to your school! Best way to contact me is Wendy.IFLC@gmail.com

Wendy Miller Gamer
IFLC Program Director, RDJ Director