Adults could learn a thing or two if only they listened more when young people of different faiths get together to talk.
One recent Monday morning a Catholic youth minister called to tell me about the teen from his parish who had just attended an interfaith youth event. The girl's family life had been tragic. Her father was in prison for killing her brother, and she was experimenting with drugs. She said she wasn't interested in talking about a God she didn't believe in anymore. But her mother insisted that she go.
At the event she met two Muslim girls, and they stayed together all afternoon. She watched them at the mosque during community prayer. She was impressed with their devotion to God and how their faith influenced their lives. That night the three of them went to the movies together.
The next day she showed up at Sunday Mass without being cajoled by her mother. She told her youth minister about the two Muslim girls and that she wanted to have that kind of close relationship with God. So she came back to church and decided to pay more attention-to see if she could get in touch with the God she used to believe in.
For the past four years I've been involved with the Milwaukee Area Interfaith Youth Forum, which began when 18 youth-six each from the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish faith traditions-came together with their adult leaders to respond to the events of September 11. We launched the forum with the goal to increase understanding between the different faiths, reduce misinformation, and promote peaceful relationships.
Follow-up events have included a Shabbat service, a potluck supper, a picnic, and "Midnight Muslim Bowling." One youth's suggestion led to the creation of the Interfaith Peace Wall Retreat, a day of learning about eight different religions. Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Unitarian, and Baha'i communities joined our original three. We decorated both sides of a hinged wall with hand-painted symbols, photos, and attached objects. This wall is now the centerpiece for communal prayer at every interfaith youth event.
When Isaac, a Jewish teenager, introduced our interfaith dialogue day called "Sons and Daughters of Abraham," he pointed out that at such events it's easy to take it for granted that Jews, Christians, and Muslims can get together without hostility. "But you know that's not the case in many parts of the world," Isaac said. "So we are here today so that our children don't have to grow up in a world as violent as ours and with as much hatred as ours."
We hear about religiously motivated violence on the news every day. Yet through the initiatives of young people I have witnessed strangers become friends and ignorance melt into understanding. I have watched young people celebrate both the similarities and differences among their faith traditions.
Sometimes I hear adults express concern that too much dialogue with folks from different religions may weaken the faith of our young people. If they hear about great stuff happening in some other house of worship, they might just forget all about being Catholic.
I suppose it's always possible that young people could decide to change their religious affiliation. Yes, they are intrigued with different faith customs, and they ask insightful questions about prayer and the afterlife and the meaning of words. But they come back more curious about and interested in their own beliefs and faith practices as well.
As a Muslim boy in one group said, "Ignorance is not bliss." Ignorance is what stops us from trusting each other. Only a person who has never met a Muslim and has never witnessed the reverence of their prayer would draw a connection between September 11 and the general faith of Islam.
Parents are reluctant, adult leaders are concerned, but young people seem ready and eager to meet with each other, listen to new points of view, discuss important issues, and ask the hard questions. Adults need to learn from their enthusiasm, their openness, and their easy acceptance of viewpoints different from their own. After all, teenagers are not the ones who created the world we are living in, with all of its racial and religious tension and prejudice.
I think it's time for adults to stop looking down at youth and to let their example speak to us of their love, faith, and purity.
This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 71, No. 1, page 50).