We are very excited to announce that the IFLC has received a grant from the Community Foundation to support the expansion of our Religious Diversity Journeys program. And we want to express gratitude that the Board of the Community Foundation has chosen to partner with us on RDJ, and support the crucial work we’re doing to promote understanding, respect and appreciation for the diverse faiths in our community.
During the 2015-2016 school year Religious Diversity Journeys will increase from two cohorts to three, and increase in participating students from 250 to 450. And next year, we hope to grow even more.
The Religious Diversity Journeys Program is an immersion-based program for seventh graders currently running in Oakland and Wayne Counties which aligns with the State of Michigan 7th Grade Level Content Expectations in World Religions. Through the Journeys program, twenty five students from each of the participating districts, both public and private, are given the unique opportunity to visit a variety of houses of worship in the metro-Detroit area over the course of the school year.
During each Journey, students are engaged in learning about the customs and practices of the faith they are visiting, given ample opportunities to ask questions of faith leaders and community volunteers, share a meal and participate in activities designed to promote greater respect and understanding. The current Journey year begins in November with our first Journey to a synagogue to learn about Judaism, and continues through April as we explore Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism with a summation session at the Detroit Institute of Arts or the Holocaust Memorial Center.
While the ripple effect of this program on the lives of students and parents is difficult to measure, we have seen some remarkable benefits:
The Religious Diversity Journeys program began in 2001 with four participating school districts in Oakland County in response to the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the heightened need within the community to build bridges of understanding between members of different faiths. In 2013, the program was taken over by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit where, in the first year (2013-2014) it grew from four districts to six, and in the second year, (2014-2015) has expanded from six districts to ten. With the approach of the 2015-2016 school year, the program will expand to fourteen participating districts.
However, while many schools are anxious to participate in the Journeys program- with funding needs becoming increasingly more demanding, and many schools finding themselves struggling to pay for basic programming, schools are finding it challenging to spend money on supplemental programs. The generous support of the Community Foundation will allow us to continue expanding the program over the next year and to offer financial assistance to currently participating districts that wish to either increase their student participation (send two groups of twenty-five students, for example) or to new districts who demonstrate financial need.
As our schools and community become more diverse, the need for religious and cultural understanding becomes exceedingly more important. People of all ages fear what they do not understand and that fear often manifests itself as bullying and aggression- especially in a school setting where the opportunity to interact with “the other” is limited by time, class size and student’s natural tendencies to remain in their pre-selected social groups.
Through the Religious Diversity Journeys program, students and parents confront their misunderstandings in a welcoming, safe and nurturing environment where they interact with members of different faiths and cultures, talk with them, eat with them and learn that, as one student shared, “no matter how different we may seem, we are all people who are trying, in our own ways, to become better.”
Dr. Gerald Hill, Superintendent of West Bloomfield Schools and long-time program participant stated, “The Religious Diversity Program promotes a greater understanding, awareness and knowledge concerning many of the religions prevalent in metro-Detroit and prepares students for life in our increasing diverse society.”
Educating our youth is the primary focus of this program. However, there are several other benefits that are gleaned from it, as well. Each visit requires a host site (congregation) and an army of community volunteers who donate their time, energy and efforts to planning and implementing our Journey day. These volunteers have become valuable allies in aiding our efforts in building community, in creating networks of local congregations interested in interfaith education, and also as important voices in our future plans to develop an adult religious literacy program in the metro-Detroit area.
Along with the need for religious literacy programs aimed at our youth is a growing need for similar programming for adults. On any given Journey day, we have between 40-50 adults that join us (teachers, parents, clergy and volunteers).
And while the Journeys program is designed for seventh graders, through the immersion process, our participating parents, teachers and clergy are also given the invaluable opportunity to experience these faith traditions and work to dispel their personal misconceptions, stereotypes and prejudices. Oftentimes, the community volunteers and hosts from one Journey become so interested in the program that they follow us to the remaining Journey locations over the course of the school year so that they, too, can learn about other faiths and cultures.
Adult exposure has a ripple effect within the community, in that after leaving the Journey, these adults often return to their personal networks and families energized to share what they have learned and to recruit their houses of worship and congregational leaders to the program, as well. As one parent recently shared in their parent feedback, “This program helps students and parents understand the reason(s) behind the religious differences they see amongst their classmates and within our community. This cultivates a greater respect for these differences and hopefully, for ‘the other’“.