By Susan Bromley
.- Annaliese Elliott isn’t old enough to vote, but at 13, she is old enough to form an educated opinion, and she is, through a special opportunity.
Last fall, Annaliese, as well as 19 other Brandon Middle School seventh graders, applied for and were accepted into the Religious Diversity Journeys program, now in its third year in the district.
“There was a lot of controversy during the (presidential campaign),” said Annaliese. “I wanted to expand my knowledge about religions and what they were about, not what the media said or Donald Trump said— I just know he wasn’t a fan of some religions.”
The Religious Diversity Journeys program is not part of the curriculum, but is considered a club and extra-curricular activity in Brandon and in districts that participate in Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties. The program is specific to seventh grade students and up to 25 students per middle school may be accepted after applying. Students in the program visit one different house of worship per month from November through March to learn about the history, culture, traditions and holidays of the religion practiced there.
The program wraps up in April with a trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Students are educated on religions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism.
The program was begun by the Michigan Round Table for Diversity and Inclusion in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Four years ago, the InterFaith Leadership Council took over the program, beginning with 100 students from four schools. This year, the program has 35 middle schools from 18 school districts participating, with a total of 625 students in the program.
“It has exploded,” said Meredith Skowronski, director of education for the InterFaith Leadership Council. “I think that people are understanding there is a real need for understanding each other in the community. It doesn’t cross any constitutional lines, there is no proselytizing, we are not trying to convert anyone. It’s learning about what other people believe and why and how we share common values.”
So far this year, the students have visited a synagogue, church, and on Jan. 24, they traveled to the Muslim Unity Center.
Annaliese, as well as 19 of her BMS classmates and students from the other districts, learned how those who practice Islam pray five times per day, in the direction of Mecca, as well as why the hijab is worn by some women (a cultural, not religious, tradition), and about the religion itself. The self-identified Christian notes the church she visited as part of the program, Christ Church Cranbrook, was “really beautiful,” and in the visit to the synagogue, they saw a mock wedding.
“Now I feel like I’m a lot more educated and if I meet others from another religion, I’m informed and don’t have to assume anything. I don’t have to wonder if it’s true, I learned about it.”
Mikayla Ohannesian, who is also in the program, said she is seeing a lot of similarities among the religions.
“I thought they were polar opposites, but they’re not,” said the 12-year-old who wants to be a doctor someday and thought it would be good to learn about other cultures. “They each sing, pray, and have one God, just by different names. I think they are more alike than different. The morals are all the same— don’t disrespect your parents, ultimately, be kind to other people.”
Izzie Edenburn, 13, joined the program to learn about other religions, as well as out of a desire to disspell myths about her own religion— she practices Buddhism and Wicca. She, like her classmates, has found the religions studied have more in common than not.
“They all have a book of worship,” she said. “Each one is picked on. People misunderstand terrorism, too. Muslims aren’t terrorists. The two aren’t related.”
Michelle Tyrrell, BMS coordinator for the Religious Diversity Journeys, said in Brandon’s first year in the program, nine students participated. Last year, that number jumped to 27. This year they are at 20, with plans to continue offering the program, which she finds to be very beneficial.
“These kids have a fresh slate and are not so jaded as adults in how they view the world,” she said. “They are learning the differences in religions, but that in the end, we are not so different. It’s opening their eyes to more than one view.”
Amy Lamiman said she and her husband Marc encouraged their son, Pierce, to apply for Religious Diversity Journeys as soon as they heard about it. The couple have lived in this community for 15 years and were excited about the opportunity for their son to experience diversity.
“He will go to college with students from different backgrounds, cultures and religions and he needs exposure to that,” she said. “That way, he is not intolerant, not scared. This program will help him
to be open-minded and able to engage in intelligent conversation with people from different backgrounds… It has been an excellent experience. I want him to have a deeper understanding of other people and religions and it will be something he can carry with him throughout his life. Based on what is happening in our country, I wish more citizens would have the opportunity given to these middle school students and more parents were able to chaperone. Knowledge eliminates fear and creates understanding.”
There is such an opportunity for adults offered by the InterFaith Leadership Council, a program called “Exploring Our Religious Landscapes,” with a series of educational trips to houses of worship in the evenings. The next session kicks off next month.
Cheryl Gault, a Brandon Township resident, enrolled in Exploring Our Religious Landscapes last year, inspired after accommpanying her granddaughter, a BMS student, on a Religious Diversity Journey.
A few of Gault’s friends joined her in the adult program. They enjoyed learning about Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam in the spring, and then Hinduism, Jainism, Christian Science and LDS in the fall. Each visit was about three hours, with participants served dinner and given a presentation about key tenets of the faith community. Most exciting to her was the question and answer period that followed at each.
“It was interesting to find out how much was the same,” said Gault. “The biggest thing I took away is all these religions are concentrating on living a good life and contributing to their communities… They are worried about how their kids are going to grow up, too. It absolutely changed my views… For the most part, we are all the same and we all have the same goals for our lives and hopes for our kids’ lives. I recommend that people take part in this program. By going and talking to real people it makes a huge difference.”
For more information on Religious Diversity Journeys or Exploring our Religious Landscapes, visit www.detroitinterfaithcouncil.com.