By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 6, 2008
Representatives of three of the world’s largest religions gathered in February to participate in a gesture of interfaith peace and open dialogue. No, they were not clerics or government officials, but eighth-graders from Georgia.
Students from The Epstein School, an independent Jewish school in Sandy Springs, Sister Clara Muhammad School, a private Islamic school in Atlanta, and the archdiocesan Queen of Angels School met on the Catholic campus in Roswell for the culmination of a unique project entitled “Faith on Wheels.”
The interfaith exchange began last October after Queen of Angels eighth-grade religion teacher Mary Beth Smith wrote to the Jewish and Muslim schools, asking them to take part in the program funded by a grant from the National Catholic Educational Association.
Eighth-grade students at each of the schools were invited to fill a rolling suitcase with items representing their religious faith and history. Students also created a video detailing what a typical day was like for them at school. The suitcases then rotated between each of the different schools so the middle school students had the opportunity to explore the suitcases and learn about the faith of others through the items collected. The hands-on approach offered students from three different religious backgrounds a unique look at the similarities and differences between their faiths.
After study, they created a video of their thoughts and reactions to return with each suitcase, and then the students met face-to-face to continue the dialogue.
“So, who’s nervous?” Aly Fite honestly asked her Queen of Angels classmates as they awaited the arrival of the other schools’ students on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
The students were busy preparing the school’s art room for their guests and learning how to operate a laptop multicultural “Jeopardy!” game they would play.
More than a dozen Epstein School students arrived first and slowly walked into the art room, smiling as they saw their Catholic neighbors. Before long, they were talking about their favorite classes, sports, music, and the pros and cons of wearing uniforms.
Shortly afterward, the eighth-graders from Sister Clara Muhammad School arrived, sat down at the tables and picked up on the conversation without missing a beat. All of the students were interested in how their schools were different, but they quickly found out being an eighth-grader sometimes simply means homework, studying and hard work.
With four to five students at each table, with a laptop positioned in the center, the students played the “Jeopardy!” game put together by Queen of Angels School, comprising information on the three religions in featured categories.
Laughter could be heard across the room as the groups of teenagers played the game and got to know each other a little better. The teachers and parent chaperones watched their students and children mingling, creating a sense of friendship with smiles and laughter.
Epstein School parent Jane Durham, the mother of student Gabe Durham, felt that since “these kids have been brought up in a Jewish environment,” it was important for them to “realize they share a lot in common with other faiths.”
“I think they get a greater sense of what unites everyone,” she said as she watched the students.
Linda Abdul-Azeez, the mother of Sister Clara Muhammad School student Jalal Abdul-Azeez, said an honest, open discussion is important because “we are more alike than unlike.”
Before a tour of the school, the eighth-graders participated in another series of icebreakers. Two groups lined up in the hallways and found a partner from the other group. Guided by Smith, they shared with their partners something about their name, their favorite subjects in school, and thoughts on particular items placed in the suitcases.
“I didn’t know much about the other religions,” said Ariel Shonk, an Epstein School student. “I’m learning a lot.”
As the staff and students of Queen of Angels took the visitors around the school, the Jewish and Muslim students toured the media center, classrooms and gym before returning to the art room for a kosher lunch.
A special moment in the meeting came before lunch when each school said their customary pre-meal blessing. Two young men from Sister Clara Muhammad School stood before the group first to pray. With their hands slightly raised and their palms turned upwards, the students prayed first in Arabic and then translated the prayer into English for the others present. The Jewish students prayed next in Hebrew and English, followed by the Queens of Angels students.
The lunch served as another opportunity for the students to continue to get to know each other and their faiths. After finishing their meals, the eighth-graders said their goodbyes and returned to their schools and communities. But they did not leave without a new experience, new friends and a better understanding of those with whom they share the world.
“I was very pleased with the interaction of the students,” said Smith. “It gives me hope that the future can be a better place.”
She also said she hopes that this type of gathering will teach children more tolerance toward people of different faiths.
“It is another step to peace in the world,” said Samantha Westheimer, an eighth-grade student at The Epstein School, on the importance of respecting other faiths.