St. Stephen’s Catholic School Principal Linda Umoh dreamed of hosting an interfaith day from the moment she accepted her role as school principal in July. Now more than ever, Umoh sees a need to eradicate fear and ignorance among Americans and she knew that an interfaith day would be a strong step in that direction. The St. Stephen’s Catholic School mission states that we will help our young people, “continue Jesus’ mission”, and in bringing a multi-faith experience to them we have the potential to continue Jesus’ mission not only today but for years to come.
In September, Umoh enlisted the help of Religion Coordinator Julianne Gonzalez to put together a guest list and an agenda for an interfaith day. From the moment, the two began collaborating, their immense excitement for the event was contagious. Catholic Schools Week seemed like a great time of year to host the interfaith day, as “Catholic” means “universal”. Wednesday, February 1, 2017 was marked on the calendar as Interfaith Day! Now all the two had to do was figure out how to celebrate interfaith day.
Gonzalez began by researching interfaith day celebrations across the world. Guided by the Holy Spirit, her web search took her to the complete agenda of the Tampa Bay Interfaith Week 2016. After combing the descriptions of the myriad of events, she selected Tai Chi, a drum circle, and an interfaith panel of religious leaders to host a question and answer session. A student lead faith sharing, sidewalk chalk murals based on interfaith themes and lunch were added to the agenda.
St. Stephen’s reached out to 8 area schools of Christian, Islamic and Jewish faiths and only three accepted the invitation: The Hillel Academy (Jewish), The Universal Academy of Florida (Islamic) and The American Youth Academy (Islamic). Schools that declined did not state their reason for declining the invitation or simply did not respond. In total, the guest list included 185 students from Islamic (140), Jewish (17) and Catholic (28) eighth grade students.
The next step was to prepare our community for the event. A letter was sent home to parents about the intention of Interfaith Day. Mrs. Umoh’s letter opened with, “Xenophobia is the fear of the unfamiliar. It is that fear that leads to most prejudices that people have toward one another. The only way to fight prejudice and discrimination is through education to dispel untruths and release ourselves from fear.” Our vision was accepted by our school parents and the positive energy surrounding the event began to spread. Mrs. Umoh, an expert on history and religion, came as a guest speaker to share with our 8th graders the Abrahamic connection between the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths. The students’ hearts began to receive our excitement for Interfaith Day. Gonzalez shared the steps that St. Stephen’s was taking to prepare the community for Interfaith Day with the guest schools so that they could also prepare their communities for this positive encounter.
On Wednesday, February 1, 2017 St. Stephen Catholic School opened the doors of the Family Life Center and welcomed their long awaited interfaith guests. See photos from the day by clicking here.
Many students entered with smiles and some with a trace of hesitation on their faces. After Gonzalez warmly welcomed the schools, the Taoist Tai Chi Society based in Brandon began the day with a historical overview of Tai Chi and led a sample class of movements for all students. In silence, 185 students moved with meditative intention. There were of course some giggles peppered in as they struggled to imitate the relaxed nature of the complex movements.
Following Tai Chi, a small group of pre-selected students from each school educated their peers about their respective faiths. Looking into an audience of peers donning crucifix jewelry, hijabs and kippahs, the students began to share their scriptures, music, prayers, holy sites, prophets, pillars of religion and misconceptions. A highlight from the student presentations was a spoken word poem written by Janan Nimer, a student from The Universal Academy of Florida:
I am a girl with a plan
A plan to close the bridge between woman and man
A plan to lend a helping hand
A plan to close the bridge between you and me
A plan to open the gates of unity, to show we’re not as different as we seem
The only way I can is if you see, you’re not so different from me
We are normal teens at the end of the day
Who spend hours at the mall or stay home playing games
We socialize and laugh at weird, cheesy jokes
We let tears flow down at the end of sad books
We stress and study for final exams
Drink coffee and “coco until it goes bland
We like to watch movies and act and sing
Think aliens exist amongst normal things
I want you to stand if you’ve ever been made fun of for your size
I want you to stand if you’ve ever been made fun of for the way you look
I want you to stand if you’ve ever been made fun of for the way you talk
I want you to stand if you’ve ever been made fun of for believing in what YOU believe in
I want you to stand if you’ve ever been made fun of for being you
Now, I want you to stand if you’re human
I am a girl with a plan but that’s not all I want to be remembered as, I want to be remembered as the girl who can.
By the end of Nimer’s poem, all students were on their feet and applause of support was filling the rafters. The energy in the room was palpable and students began to see their similarities rather than their differences.
Giving Tree Inc. hosted the student highlight of the day, the drum circle. Students came together through rhythmic drumming led by Steve and “Ice”. Laughter, dance, and soul shaking drumming further unified the students as they took turns leading the rhythms, worked together to create one beat and even played on each other’s instruments.
Students enjoyed lunch together and by this time were trading social media accounts. The students were mixing in together and the initial hesitation worn by some was now completely undetectable. After lunch, students joined an interfaith small group and were given the challenge to represent an interfaith theme in sidewalk chalk using a parking stall as their canvas. Some of the sidewalk chalk themes were faith symbols, holy days, prophets, holy sites, places of worship and faith rituals.
The Interfaith panel of religious leaders was the pinnacle of the agenda. Father Bob Schneider of St. Stephen’s, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg from the Hillel School, and Imam Hassan Sultan from the Universal Academy of Florida answered questions from the students. Questions such as, “What does Easter celebrate?”, “Do Muslims follow the lunar calendar?”, “Why do Jewish men wear a yamaka?”, “At what age to Muslim girls wear the hijab?”, “How does an exorcism work?” were among the many questions that the religious leaders answered. At the end of the session, it was clear to the students that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam although distinct from one another share so many similarities: the practice of fasting, following a monotheistic belief, reading scripture, daily prayer, the connection of the faiths through the prophet Abraham and that working for peace, unity, understanding, and respect for all people is a unwavering intention of each religion.
Interfaith Day 2017 was undoubtedly a success. A grandmother who chaperoned her son from the Universal Academy of Florida told Gonzalez, “Thank you. Thank you for doing this. My son needed this. Our children need this. Our country needs this.” The school administrators and staff thanked Umoh and Gonzalez numerous times for providing the opportunity for their students. A group of Muslim girls told Gonzalez, “thank you for this opportunity.” Echoed again and again, the eighth graders from St. Stephen’s said, “you should do this every year” and “can we do this again next week?” Interfaith Day 2017 is in the books and now Interfaith Day 2018 is in its planning phase. Unity. Respect. Education. Interfaith.