Bahai News -- San Diego Union-Tribune - Faith, hope and understanding

Faith, hope and understanding

Teenagers question and learn about each other's faiths

By Sandi Dolbee 

March 27, 2003

JERRY RIFE / Union-Tribune
People say there is a peace that comes with understanding. Not in agreeing with each other. But in understanding each other.
People say there is a peace that comes with understanding. Not in agreeing with each other. But in understanding each other.

Maybe that's why Teresita Boggess, watching Muslims pray in their Clairemont mosque, decided to follow along with them.

"I found it just a different form of prayer," said the 17-year-old Christian. "I kind of stepped into their shoes. I liked that."

Until this year, she didn't know young people outside her faith. "I've always been involved in my church and religion," said Teresita, a senior at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, an all-girls Catholic high school in Normal Heights.

But after spending four Sunday afternoons talking with Baha'is, Jews, Muslims and other Christians her age, her world view has changed.

For teens, Higher power is the same but goes by different name

The question before them:
Who is God?

"He definitely plays a major role in my life but I don't really think he interferes very much," said one Jewish teenager.

A Baha'i put it this way: "For us, God is like an eternal source of guidance. It's not like a man or woman or something. It's like a soul, a spirit."

A Christian: "God is a creator." The student tried to explain the Trinity, the belief of God as father, son and Holy Spirit. "It's kind of like a shamrock, there are three leaves but it's all one."

A Muslim: "We don't say God. We say Allah. It's an Arabic word for the same thing. Islam is our way of life. It's not just our religion or our culture. It's our way of life."

"I just never had a clue what to think about them. But now I know they're just like me," she said. Then she added: "Everyone in my group, we all decided we're going to meet and hang at our mall."

In a world, and a nation, fractured along the fault lines of culture, politics, religion and, now, war, Teresita and 34 other young people were part of a winter project that hopes to build bridges between four faiths rooted in one common biblical ancestor: Abraham.

The Teen Trialogue program was sponsored by the San Diego office of the National Conference for Community and Justice, an organization founded in 1927 as the National Conference of Christians and Jews to fight bigotry and racism.

During a brief orientation on the first Sunday afternoon in February, local NCCJ executive director Ron Lanoue told parents and students that this program wasn't just going to be about learning from one another, but also about developing connections.

"We want all of you to be connected with one another in a way that allows peace, understanding and justice to flourish," Lanoue said.

Lanoue got the idea from a similar project in Oklahoma, which brings together Muslim, Jewish and Christian students – hence the name "trialogue." When he approached the Interreligious Council of San Diego, the Baha'is also wanted to participate. The Baha'i Faith, which arose out of an Islamic movement in the 19th century in what is now Iran, is part of the Abrahamic religions, along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Lanoue thought that would be fine, but decided to keep the original "trialogue" name.

Setting the tone
Religious leaders, who had come to the orientation to lend their support, coaxed the students to be open to each other.

"We're living here together," said the Rev. Dennis Mikulanis, a Catholic priest who has long been active in interfaith efforts.

"God is more universal than denominations and religions," said the Rev. Art Cribbs, a Protestant minister and former president of the Ecumenical Council of San Diego County.

And Halim Mostafa, an adviser to the Muslim Youth Council of San Diego, talked about an uncle who once lived with a Jewish person and a Christian. "It put in my mind that it was possible," he said.

The students were given copies of a primer called "Bridging Our Faiths," put out by the local interreligious council, and Teen Trialogue manuals that included rules of engagement (among them: no proselytizing, honor each other's right to be heard and show respect, even when disagreeing).

Over the next month, their journeys took them to Congregation Beth Israel, San Diego's oldest and largest Jewish congregation; to Christ the King Roman Catholic Church, where a Jesuit priest introduced them to the basics of Christianity; to the San Diego Baha'i Center in Linda Vista, spiritual home to a faith that believes in the oneness of all religions; and, the Islamic Center of San Diego, whose mosque in Clairemont is the largest in the county.

They listened and they learned.

Aimal Laiq, a 16-year-old Baha'i, particularly liked the visit to the synagogue. "I knew nothing about the Jews, it was great," said the sophomore at Mount Carmel High School in Rancho Peñasquitos. "I got to know lots of things about the Jewish religion and how the system works."

Tiffany Turner, a 15-year-old Christian from Spring Valley, was moved by the communal prayer she saw at the Islamic center. "That was nice. I was touched about how they respected everything. They took off their shoes and everybody prays at the same time."

Talking it out
When the tours were over, they broke into their small groups, where conversations included topics ranging from their views of God to more earthly matters, like dating. Some wouldn't date outside their faith. Some already do date people of other religions.

And marriage. For some, faith matters deeply when it comes to who they marry. For others, it's not important.

Some found themselves apologizing for transgressions done in the name of their religion.

When a Jewish teen said he was told once he was going to hell because he doesn't believe in Jesus, a Christian girl was appalled. "I'm really sorry about people who do that," she said.

When a Muslim told of disparaging remarks encountered after 9/11, the others at her table shook their heads in shame.

They talked about the roles of men and women in their religions.

"In the Baha'i faith, it says that men and women are two wings of a bird," said one student. "If one is weaker, the bird will die out."

"That is so cool," another student said.

They didn't always agree. There were differing views on abortion and homosexuality and eternity, among others. But no voices were raised.

Adults who watched were impressed.

"I thought the program was amazing, as a rabbi and as a parent," said Rabbi Laurie Coskey, director of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

"My son got so much out of this program," Coskey said. "He made connections with people he would never had made, he made connections with people in his own high school he never would have made."

She was particularly taken with the Baha'is and their depiction of religions being different chapters of the same book. "I think they created a sense of being connected," she added.

Lanoue was happy with the inaugural program, which ended March 9. He especially liked that the students want to continue meeting from time to time. The planning committee will talk about extending this core group, as well as adding another Teen Trialogue, he said. "I want it to become a permanent part of what we do in the community."

He also is considering suggestions from students to include more religions. Buddhism was one of the most frequently mentioned.

Scott Fox, a 17-year-old Jewish senior from Encinitas, acknowledges that he went into this venture with some preconceived sentiments about other faiths. They were erased.

"It kind of educated me that regardless of what I believe or someone else believes, that the only way that you can bring peace through the world is through talking, talking to other people," Fox said.

Saba Michael, a 16-year-old Muslim student from Lemon Grove, put it this way: "If we can unite and have an understanding of each other, I think it's one step closer to a peaceful world."

©Copyright 2003, San Diego Union-Tribune (CA, USA)

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