September 5-11, 2002
Faith from new perspectives
Teens tour local houses of worship
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
The summer session of a faith formation class for seventh through tenth-graders held at St. Margaret’s Church only lasted a few days, but the lessons were geared to a lifetime of understanding.
The classes, which replace a mini-course held during the academic year, centered on discussions about other religions. The 24 students from St. Margaret’s Church in Homer, St. Mary’s Church in Cortland, and St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cortland prepared for these discussions by participating in field trips to other places of worship. The students started the week with a trip to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. On Tuesday, they met at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Binghamton, which is of the Byzantine-Ruthenian rite, and then traveled to visit a reformed Synagogue. On Wednesday, the students and teachers toured a mosque as they learned about the Islamic Society of Syracuse. On Thursday, they visited the Homer Baptist Church before meeting in the basement of St. Margaret’s Church to test their knowledge about the religions through a game of Jeopardy.
Connie Armstrong, director of religious education at St. Margaret’s Church in Homer, figured a course involving lessons about the worship practices of other religions would lead the students to a better understanding of their own Catholic faith. “I’m struck by the similarities, even between the Jewish, Muslim and Catholic faiths,” said Armstrong, also a member of the Cortland Council of Churches’ interfaith dialogue. “There’s one God; they all have forms of worship which include symbols; they all have a holy book. They all know Jesus, but there’s a difference in the way they identify Him. Many of the places also have stained glass windows that tell stories.”
Experiences during the tour of other houses of worship made the students reflect on their own Catholic traditions. “The Baptist church has communion once monthly and it’s only a symbol for them. We also went into the crypt at the Cathedral, which is like a chapel where Catholics keep the bishops who have died,” said Mairead Kiernan, 12, an incoming seventh grader taking faith formation classes at St. Margaret’s. “It’s really diverse. Each religion does things their own way, but it seems that all the religions want peace.”
Students recognized that the Synagogue had a perpetual lamp above the wooden cupboard holding the Torah, similar to the sanctuary lamp found near the tabernacle in Catholic Churches. “The kids watched as the rabbi, who was a woman, took the Torah out and read them a section in Hebrew,” Armstrong said. When the differences overwhelm a conversation about religions, it becomes hard to recognize the reason for their form of worship or beliefs, explained Kelsey Ryan, 15, a tenth grader in faith formation classes at St. Anthony’s.
“At school we learned about the different beliefs, but here we experienced how they’re pretty similar,” Kelsey said. She related some of her experiences to the current hotspots and wars occurring around the world. “I don’t see why they’re fighting. People need to accept the differences.”
Armstrong found the students to be very tolerant of the expectations placed on them at various places of worship. “The kids were great. Before the trip to the mosque we had asked them to wear pants and long sleeves. Even in spite of the extreme heat, 101 degrees that day, they all did it as a sign of respect,” Armstrong said. “At the mosque, we talked about faith and some of their traditions which we found funny. But, once it was explained, it made sense.”
The students listened very intently to how and why Muslims pray, and what they believe about Mohammed. “The kids were surprised that there were a lot of references to Jesus and Mary in the Qu’ran,” Armstrong added.
As the group toured the mosque, Jake Reagan, 13, an eighth grader at St. Mary’s, asked why they were required to take their shoes off before entering. The answer he received stunned him, and many others in the group.
“They told me that the Muslims took their shoes off because they lie prostrate on the floor to pray five times a day. To keep from tracking mud onto the carpets and having to clean constantly, they take their shoes off,” Jake said. “I thought it would be for some sort of religious reason, but it was basically to keep the floors clean.”
After each trip, the kids filled out evaluations and discussed what they had seen and learned. The directors of religious education focused the students’ attention to specific topics by using Jeopardy to ask teams questions about the past week. During these discussions, Bonnie Barker, director of religious education at St. Anthony’s, related the different faiths to the theory about the mountain of God.
“It’s a concept that God’s at the top and all the religions have trails to get there. It’s just that sometimes the trails merge and sometimes they wander,” Barker said.
Barker added that students were very tolerant and respectful of the other religions.
“They knew many of the answers to the questions asked because they are still taking history in school,” Barker said. “But they also asked a lot of questions. It showed that they just weren’t sitting there. They were actually learning.”