Interfaith Collaborations with Kids!

by Vicki Garlock on January 21, 2015

This post is a reprint of my article in the January edition of The Interfaith Observer. Click here to find the original version, first published a few days ago.

Humans may be hard-wired for collaboration. Of all the great apes, humans are the only ones who regularly collaborate in food-seeking situations. In fact, developmental research suggests that this evolutionary approach to resource gathering may underlie our tendency to share resources more equitably amongst ourselves. Even three-year-old children will share toy rewards if they are received through collaborative efforts (Nature, 2011). Despite that, interfaith collaborations that involve children are still in their infancy stage. Like the 10-month-old tentatively taking those first steps without holding on to anyone’s fingers, those of us doing interfaith work with kids are still feeling our way.

The Interfaith Children’s Movement

Interfaith collaborations with older youth/young adults seem to be leading the charge. The Interfaith Children’s Movement (ICM) is an outstanding example. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, ICM is led by Pamela Perkins Carn who prefers the title of coordinator to that of executive director. Their mission is mobilizing faith communities to act on behalf of children.

As she put it, “Every faith tradition I know of contains a call to care for and to love children. We need everyone’s help to accomplish this important work, and at ICM we take the opportunity, every chance we get, to say out loud that everyone is welcome at this table.” ICM-sponsored programs, such as the Celebration of Children and the Fulton County Faith Summit, bring together the faith, education, and child advocacy communities to work collaboratively on issues like juvenile justice, education, child sex trafficking, foster care, and immigration. But their advocacy efforts that include Georgia teens are truly ground-breaking.

Each year, adult mentors from various institutions accompany youth between the ages of 12 and 18 for ICM’s Day at the Capitol. ICM provides advocacy training to the participants and prepares them to speak with their legislators on legislative issues affecting children and youth. The groups are provided with their legislative districts, and each delegation meets with their elected officials. One of ICM’s unofficial mottoes is: Bring your faith tradition with you and come prepared to engage in the work. Day at the Capitol invites young people to embrace that motto sooner rather than later by teaching them to advocate – on their own terms and in their own terms – about issues that affect them directly.

Invoking the Arts for the Sake of Peace

Multi Faith Tree, Burnley Arts Centre
Photo: Julie Miles of The Arrow Art Project

The Multi Faith Tree at the Burnley Arts Centre in London offers another example of a youth-centered, interfaith collaboration that produced tangible results. During the summer of 2009, 15 young adults – about ½ Muslim and ½ Christian – designed a sculpture to represent the major faith traditions practiced in their neighborhood. They explored their own faiths, researched other faiths, learned basic drawing skills, and then designed the sculpture, the Multi Faith Tree. Artist Julie Miles helped bring the project to fruition. The metal tree, with different religious symbols hanging from each branch, is now displayed on the grounds of the youth theater.

Although collaborative efforts with younger kids are not nearly as prominent, some excellent work is already underway. Kids’ peace camps throughout the U.S. offer numerous opportunities for collaboration, and some of those camps include children in primary school. Other efforts focus more on modelling collaboration.

The “Have Some Faith in Play” project in London is a great example of this approach. That effort was set up by Steve Derby who clearly understands the extent to which children learn through play. The children, age 5-13, were either part of the St. John’s Wood adventure playground (where Steve was the Senior Coordinator) or the Salisbury World Refugee Center.

The participants of “Have Some Faith in Play” visit a Hindu sanctuary in London . Photo: Facebook

Together, they visited numerous faith centers in their neighborhood – Jewish synagogues, Hindu temples, Christian churches, and Islamic mosques – where faith leaders facilitated experiential activities. The kids tried on clothes associated with different faiths (such as saris and tallits). They blew conches and shofars. They tried yoga and meditation. Most importantly, they were free to ask whatever questions they wanted, like “Why does an imam wear a dress?” The visits were supported afterwards with follow-up crafts, interfaith quizzes, and an end-of-the-summer party to which all the faith leaders were invited.

Steve also set up Pathways, a neighborhood-based, clergy-level interfaith forum. The forum started a Roadshow that facilitates multifaith visits to local schools. As he points out, “Schools in the UK very often receive faith leaders, but rarely, if ever, together. While their visits might teach about religion, the main aim is to demonstrate cooperation.” Appreciation for the project is clearly evident in the thank you notes the visitors received from both children and adults. These excerpts were taken from notes sent by students from Holy Trinity Primary School in London.

“It was a great honour meeting a imam, a priest, and a rabbi all at the same time…All of [us] are happay you answered questions like wich characters in the Bible, the Quran and Torah you liked.”

“…I thank you for coming and teaching us important informaton and the one that I loved the most was that you shouldn’t hate, you should forgive somebody…”

Steve is currently Director at Interfaith Matters, a United Kingdom based not-for-profit that works with faith and community leaders to promote inter-religious harmony and community cohesion at the neighborhood level.

The definition of collaboration suggests that something should be produced or created by a group working together. In that sense, interfaith work is always collaborative; even the most mundane interfaith interactions can result in a greater understanding of other traditions and increased compassion. However, collaborations that produce concrete results are important. This is especially true for kids since their ability to think abstractly is rudimentary. However, it is a mistake for us to assume that interfaith collaboration is beyond their reach.

Young kids know a lot about how they celebrate holidays, which foods they eat as part of their faith festivals, and what objects are important during rituals. With a bit of adult facilitation, they can easily share that information with one another. They can teach one another crafts, they can bake something simple together, and they can demonstrate parts of their favorite ceremonies. From there, it’s a small step to producing or creating something that is not only valuable to them but an extraordinary gift to the broader community.

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