Building Community through Interfaith Experiences

Building community is about developing and nurturing authentic relationships, celebrating diversity and striving together to create inclusivity. A stellar example of communities coming together to do this involved interfaith initiatives between the Christian and Muslim communities in London, Ontario between the London Christian High School (LCH), Al-Taqwa Academy-Secondary School, and Al-Mahdi Islamic Center. Practical Muslim believes in supporting and celebrating these initiatives, and we invite you to read about the journey of faith and discovery in this exclusive interview with LCH.

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PM:  Can you tell me a bit about your interfaith initiatives at London Christian High and why it is important to build these bridges?

LCH:  World Religions has always been a required course at London Christian High School (LCH) as we believe it is important for our students to recognize they are not the only faith community in Canada.  We live in a multi-faith country. Our students already are encountering those with other faith commitments and will continue to meet with them in sports, school, work, and social settings.  So, we believe it is important for our students to be knowledgeable about other faiths besides their own.

Interaction helps all of us gain knowledge and understanding.  In the past, LCH has had individuals come to the school and share some of the symbols of their faith and their beliefs; we’ve also gone to visit various places of worship.  A few years ago, we had an interfaith panel come to the school, and from that experience we made some local connections in the London faith community.  One of our Muslim panelists invited some of our teachers to an interfaith breakfast this past spring, which led to our visit to Al Mahdi Community Centre this fall.

For the first time this year our teachers were given the unique opportunity of team-teaching two classes—English and World Religions—and the pairing provides tremendous opportunity to learn facts about religion alongside some of the stories in various faith and ethnic communities.  For example, we combined our study of Islam in World Religions with the study of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner in English.  Students could use knowledge gained in one course to come to a deeper understanding of the novel’s characters.  As teachers, we also desired to connect with actual people in the neighbourhood, so we visited the Al Mahdi Community Centre and Al-Taqwa Academy Secondary School.

PM:  Tell me more about LCH and your values? In your opinion, how are these consistent with the values you have learned about in your interfaith initiative?

LCH:  London Christian High is founded on the idea that our faith informs all areas of our lives.  We believe that is true for everyone, regardless of their faith background; one’s belief system is lived out in daily actions and decisions.  For us, then, it is important to have our students interact with people of other faiths so our students can see how others, in a similar way, integrate their faith within our Canadian cultural context.

 PM:  How do you believe that Islam and Christianity share a similar approach to interfaith and community-building?

Both groups welcomed the opportunity to interact and there was a mutual interest in learning from one another.  Both Muslim communities—the Community Centre and the High School—were very hospitable and friendly.  Each group—LCH and the Muslim communities–were interested in each other’s stories and breaking down barriers.

 PM:  How do you believe this work can challenge our biases, stereotypes and misunderstanding of each other?

LCH:  The visits gave us an opportunity to tell the truth about each other rather than maintain misunderstandings. Our students acknowledge it is better to hear things first hand, rather than learn about beliefs and practices in lecture form or by reading about them in the textbook.  We were able to see places of worship and the high school for ourselves and realise these students are very similar to us and share the same concerns about school, dating, future, and family life that we do.

There were misconceptions on both sides, whether about prayer—3x a day or 5x a day for Muslims; only on Sunday for Christians (not true); music inside and outside of worship; our (mis)understandings about Jesus and Muhammad; halal and haram;  or about wearing hijab—is it restrictive or freeing?  Just hearing people give personal reflections on a faith practice was enlightening.

PM:  You had a recent event, can you tell me about it?

LCH:  As mentioned earlier, in conjunction with our combined study of Islam and the novel The Kite Runner, we had a desire to connect with Muslims who live in the London community.  For the “Experiential” part of the unit, we spent one morning at the Al Mahdi Community Centre where Sister Shahin Pardhan and Brother Ali Kazmi gave us a tour of the worship space and provided education on Islam.  It was an informative and interactive presentation that highlighted similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam and helped dispel misunderstandings.  They also provided great treats for us.

A few days later, we visited Al-Taqwa Academy Secondary School which provided an opportunity for students to connect with others their own age.  Again, we were greeted very hospitably with food and drinks and opened with some ice-breaker games to get to know one another better.  That activity was followed by small group interviews where we met in groups of 4-6 people and shared questions and answers about our faith and its expression in our schools, families and communities.

Based on those experiences, our London Christian High students presented some of the information they learned in various formats such as in classrooms and on LCH’s social media.

PM:  Why do you believe that introducing this initiative to youth/students is important?

LCH:  As our students transition to post-secondary institutions and into the workforce, they will continue to encounter people of various faith backgrounds and will interact with them on a more regular basis. We believe we’re commanded by God to love our neighbours and part of loving our neighbours involves building relationships with them.  Interacting with individuals allows us to have a better understanding of the people with whom we’re living in community.

Much of the news receiving coverage today concerns extremist representations of faith—whether Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism. Most people of faith do not share these extremist beliefs, but fear can be a powerful influence, and we hope we can shape shared knowledge and understanding before biases, prejudices, and stereotypes become entrenched.

Sharing this type of experience as high school students also gives a positive first encounter/experience which also helps break down barriers.

PM:  What has been the overall experience of the students? What sort of special relationships did they form?

LCH:  Students will affirm the entire unit was a positive experience and they learned a lot.  By far the actual trips were the best part and they especially enjoyed going to Al-Taqwa Academy Secondary School.  We approached the visits with trepidation because we were stepping out of our comfort zones, didn’t know what to expect, and were very concerned about whether it would be a comfortable interaction.  In the end, the interviews were a highlight of the unit of study.  We were surprised to discover that we’re very similar indeed.

Here are some of the reflections shared by our students”

By understanding the culture and society of Muslims from different countries, we have come to a better understanding of Muslim beliefs. This understanding helps us to create a wall display that encourages us to love our Muslim neighbours.

In a multicultural society, our Muslim neighbours face many challenges that we may not relate to, but that doesn’t mean we should be quick to judge. Everyone has struggles and challenges to overcome within their beliefs and religions, not only Muslims. We need to realize that and appreciate diversity.

We hope that our school community will be able to see our display, gain information, and be compelled to break down stereotypes.

PM:  What special relationships did you see take shape with the students?

LCH:  It is hard to build relationships when we only meet for an hour or two, but we came to mutual understandings of one another and both groups know each other’s faith and beliefs more.  We, as teachers, also hope to continue interactions and build on the relationships in future semesters.

PM:  Do you believe that we can nurture building similar bridges with adults in our community? How might that happen?

LCH:  Many students shared that they had very positive and interesting discussions with family members about this unit. As we age, we may become more entrenched in our ideas and less willing to change, so it is important to educate people early.  Students liked being able to pass on their learning and to correct misconceptions with others.  Students also know more concretely what some actual beliefs are so also feel more confident in dispelling misunderstandings and speaking into situations with friends and family.

Building relationships begins with connections, so we need to be intentional on both sides about social and informational invitations. This type of learning seems natural in a school setting and would be more voluntary with adults in the community; however, we can continue to extend the invitation.

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