At East Middle School in Plymouth in her seventh-grade social studies class, Shelley Lloyd is using virtual field trips, part of a program called Religious Diversity Journeys, to teach about world religions.
“One of the things I like about it is a live Q&A where they can ask questions that sometimes people are afraid to ask,” Lloyd said. “There is one about Sikhism that’s entitled, ‘11 Things You Want to Know About My Turban but Were Too Afraid to Ask.’ “I think it’s just so wonderful,” she said. “I’m learning about these things, as well.”
Under the auspices of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, Religious Diversity Journeys has expanded in 17 years from the idea of a teacher in Berkley to classes at several schools in Metro Detroit. In 2020, serendipity, a rare phenomenon during the coronavirus, struck. Forced by the pandemic, producers, organizers, videographers and programmers scrambled beginning in March to deliver the learning online, creating virtual field trips and other course material from scratch. Fruit of the labor is a 640% increase in web traffic to the site of the Interfaith Leadership Council, since Nov. 1. They also had to reconceptualize television productions related to the seventh grade classes, which are airing on the local station of the Public Broadcasting Service, WTVS-TV, including at 7:30 p.m. Monday as part of One Detroit. The classes help fulfill a world religions mandate for seventh grand social studies classes in Michigan. Students said Religious Diversity Journeys provides real-life, interesting lessons outside of the classroom and around diverse communities of Metro Detroit, even if it is virtually, this year.
“I really like the website,” said Kennedy Clawson, a student, who also participated in the staging of some of the virtual field trips. “There’s a lot of things to do, and it really helps learn more about it. “There’s five different religions that you can do. This is about their culture and religion. And, there’s recipes; there’s a lot of information.” Assisting in making videos for the virtual classes, Clawson visited local Sikh and Hindu temples. “I really enjoy just being able to learn more about it,” she said. “For example, now when I’ve learned about Sikhs wearing turbans, when I went outside, I noticed how many people are actually Sikh around me.”
Rania Hammoud, a curriculum coordinator for the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, said the increased impact of the class, forced by a pandemic, is prized.
“We’ve been involved with Religious Diversity Journeys for three years now, and in the past only a small percentage of our seventh grade students were able to participate,” Kozler said. “Now, so many more students and teachers can participate. “As part of Michigan’s seventh grade social studies content expectations, students are already learning about the different world religions,” she said. “Using the RDJ resources obviously makes students make better connections to their learning.”
Before 2020, the program was in extensive use in Canton Township, Dearborn, Farmington, Hamtramck and Plymouth, according to staff at the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Supporting the growth of the program, which its producers say reached 800 students last year, are a number of organizations and foundations, including First Foundation, First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Islamic Relief USA, the Nissan Foundation.
When COVID-19 struck, the financing some schools offer for tuitions for the program was in jeopardy. It also affected the terms of a grant used to bring some of Religious Diversity Journeys to WTVS-TV, public television, in Detroit.
“What we started seeing early in the summer was school boards were zeroing out field trip budgets, said Wendy Miller Gamer, the program director for the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. “We projected very early on this summer that the vast majority of our schools would have no ability to pay tuition.”
Gamer said First Foundation agreed to donate more money to bring the course work and field trips to students virtually. “We had some long-term planning and work that we really spent an intensive summer doing,” Gamer said. “We weren’t scrambling. It was very methodical and very prepared. But, it was an entirely new curriculum and an entirely new platform that we created. “We are extremely proud that we involved 800 kids in our in person program last year,” she said. “This year, with our program online, the potential is tens of thousands of kids.” In addition to shifting the course material entirely online, Gamer and what she described as “a whole bunch of working mothers working on their own time,” recreated the field trips to local churches, mosques and temples that are an integral part of the teaching. “We had to take a look at what happens in a five-and-a-half hour personal field trip and to reverse engineer it, so that each component we wanted to be sure to represent is on the screen,” Gamer said.
And, what student does not like a field trip?
“The basic principles of decreasing barriers of otherness, teaching students about faith from a sociological perspective, teaching kids about the similarities that bridge our faiths and enrich our communities, those messages have not changed,” Gamer said. “But how the message is delivered has changed radically.”
To “teach culture belief and experience” and share what religion means to an even wider audience, Detroit Public Television applied for a grant to film students doing the course work and taking the field trips, for the One Detroit program.
The grant was approved about the third week of March, when much about how the world does business suddenly changed. The Michigan Humanities Council allowed what in effect was “a pandemic shift” to the way the grant was written, Gamer said.
“Again, we brainstormed, and what we came up with is filming five different communities, and DPTV engaged a local company called Reel Clever Films, and we are working with this documentary film team, and we have filmed four out of five of our journeys.” WTVS is broadcasting what has been produced.
“We are proud to offer this series of spiritual tour, which can help us appreciate our differences while discovering the common threads of conscience and compassion that hold us together as a community,” said Rich Homberg, president of Detroit Public TV. “There is no better portal than visiting the mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, churches and the othe places of worship to learn about each other.”
The teacher who thought of the idea 17 years ago, Gail Katz, is still a member of the board of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Katz said she started teaching English as a Second Language because her mother emigrated from Russia and she also lived with her maternal grandfather growing up. “I heard all the stories about living in a different country, and so many of my members of my grandfather’s family perished in the Holocaust and I heard all those stories,” she said. “I decided that I would devote my career to helping immigrant families.” In 2003, she noticed an article in the Jewish News about a grant that the Jewish Community Relations Council had received for education on world religions and thought it could be something that would be perfect for her students. She ended up running what would come to be called Religious Diversity Journeys.
“In 2006, the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion took it over,” Katz said. “Fast forward to 2013, that is when the Interfaith Leadership Council took it over. “I had retired from teaching, and I was very involved with the education committee of the Interfaith Leadership Council to take it over. What a perfect educational opportunity,” she said. “It was a wonderful program, and I am so happy the IFLC took it over. It has grown from 160 students in 2003.”
The legacy of Katz’s conception is now a sprawling educational and media initiative.
“My hope is that when we send kids to this program that they learn two things,” said Lisa Kozler, a teacher at East Middle School in Plymouth. “One is compassion and the other is that we are more alike than we are different.
“And then, my hope is that they come back to school and share it.”
Spirituality in Solitude’ program on Zoom to emphasize connection in pandemic
By Stephanie Preweda, Special to Digital First Media
Over the past 10 months, religious leaders have been coming up with creative ways to keep communities connected through prayer virtually. For many worshippers, virtual prayer is not enough.
The InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit hosted the online panel “Spirituality in Solitude,”on Jan. 27, which focused on ways of coping with isolation and loneliness.
Five panelists represented different faith perspectives including Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, Muslim and Buddhist. Each panelist was provided a list of topics and questions to speak on. Some included different challenges with personal spiritual practice and engagement and new ways or adjustments of worship.
Bloomfield Hills resident Gail Katz has dedicated her life to interfaith work and remains active with different organizations as co-founder of Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialog and Outreach in Metro Detroit, the educational committee chair for the Interfaith Leadership Council and chairwoman for World Sabbath.
For this active woman, putting everything on hold for the last 10 months has proven difficult.
“I’m always putting together panels and events, I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” she says. “Since the pandemic, I’ve been viewing Shabbat services online and there’s something missing, I want to go to my synagogue and be in the sanctuary and see my friends.”
Expressing her feelings of loneliness with fellow committee members helped generate the idea of offering a panel of speakers to discuss ways of coping with spiritual isolation. The goal of the discussion is to find different ways people can reconnect with their faith, religion and community while staying home.
As a way of coping, Katz signed up for weekly online Zoom classes focused on the Torah. She says the sessions were a way to dive deeper into and connect with her spirituality.
The Rev. Wendy Van Tassell of Saugatuck, the panelist representing Christianity, also found solace is signing up for Bible study sessions via Zoom.
“It’s important to lean into online apps and resources that provide a grounding and direction,” she says. “When people are forced to shelter in place they start asking questions about priorities and spirituality.”
Van Tassell retired in June as co-pastor with her husband,Tom, at First Congregational Church in Iowa. They decided to move to Michigan to be closer to family and their first grandchild.
“We all have a longing to find answers and part of that is finding a balance and attending to mind, body and spirit,” she says.
Above all, Katz hopes hearing others talk about their struggles with spirituality during the panel discussion will give viewers a sense of connection by knowing they are not alone during this pandemic.
Temple Israel Sisterhood and Hartford Women United got together on Tuesday, January 12th to talk about the book Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit. These women have been connecting with each other as Jewish and Christian women for about six years now to get to know each other, share their personal stories, learn about each other’s faith traditions, and do community service projects together. They will meet again next month to continue talking about the book, learning about the history of social change in Detroit due to some of the African American Baptist ministers who have made such a major difference!!
What four strangers of different faiths learned while living together during a pandemic
Hadar Cohen, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour and Jonathan Simcosky were chosen as fellows for an interfaith experiment known as the Abrahamic House. They come from different faiths: Baha’i, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
The four fellows of Abrahamic House, Hadar Cohen, from left, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour and Jonathan Simcosky share a Christmas greeting from their residence in Los Angeles. Courtesy photoJanuary 12, 2021
LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Nearly a year ago, four young people of different faiths — Baha’i, Christianity, Islam and Judaism — moved into a Los Angeles home as part of a new interfaith experiment known as the Abrahamic House.
Hadar Cohen, Ala’ Khan, Maya Mansour and Jonathan Simcosky were chosen as fellows for this project, in which they kept their day jobs and lived rent-free, while organizing and hosting public interfaith events and programs.
They moved in just weeks before the coronavirus outbreak sparked stay-at-home orders across country, settled in amid the uprisings ignited by the police killing of George Floyd and are leaving the house just days after supporters of President Donald Trump besieged the U.S. Capitol.
The four officially wrapped up their fellowship on Sunday (Jan. 10) with a virtual graduation where they shared the lessons they learned from one another during the tumultuous year. The application process for a new round of fellows, who are expected to move in in August, will open in May. People from all over the U.S. are encouraged to apply.
Mohammed Al Samawi, a Muslim man from Yemen who founded the Abrahamic House, reflected on the deadly occupation at the Capitol, in which religious imagery and conspiracy theories played center stage, and highlighted how interfaith work can help dispel misinformation and stereotypes. His vision for this project, he said during the virtual graduation, was to have people of different faiths not only celebrate their similarities and differences, but also “speak about the truth, only the truth, not conspiracy theories.” Al Samawi, who now lives in Los Angeles, endured threats for his interfaith advocacy in Yemen that he recounted in his memoir, “The Fox Hunt.”
Back in the spring, the fellows spoke to Religion News Service about how they were adjusting to California’s public health orders and to each other’s religious practices, like fasting in preparation for the Baha’i new year or honoring Shabbat, a day of rest.
The way Mansour, of the Baha’i faith, sees it, “We’ve been given such a year that’s ripe with opportunity to show up for each other in solidarity,” she said on Sunday.
The fellows, during their graduation, spoke about the initial difficulties of celebrating Easter, Ramadan, Passover and Ridvan, a Baha’i observance, in April amid quarantine and without their respective communities.
To Simcosky, a book editor who is Christian, bringing in these diverse experiences during their first full month at the house “was a powerful opening to the year.”
For Cohen, celebrating the Jewish holidays without her community was challenging.
“For all the fellows, the holidays are the time where we really get into our spiritual faith and into our community,” she said.
However, Cohen added, “it did provide us opportunity to show up for each other and to learn what is important about the holidays for one another.”
Khan, a filmmaker who is Muslim, spoke fondly of “Religion 101″ classes the fellows held for each other to not only learn historical context, but also how “we connect with each of our faiths and our personal practices and how it manifests in our daily lives.”
“That felt really special and really important because no one religion is monolithic. There’s such diversity within religion,” Khan said during their graduation. “To understand someone’s personal grounding in that was really special.”
Throughout the year, the fellows hosted more than 30 programs that included a documentary screening on Zoom about a binational day of prayer at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego with Muslim and Christian leaders; a virtual multifaith feminism event in honor of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday that celebrates wisdom, by staying up all night to learn; and an online artist talk series featuring women of color and how spirituality influences their work.
Aside from hosting these events, living under the same roof also enabled the fellows to have nuanced conversations about issues unraveling around them. They said they spoke often about how to best look out for each other’s safety during the pandemic, what it means for a Black person to live through the social upheaval they were experiencing, and how Muslim and Jewish people face Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Race and religion and religious oppression were common issues of discussion.
For Simcosky, being an ally to people of different faiths and races “has to be an authentic expression of care for the community.”
“It comes through proximity and through sharing all these experiences, and through a curiosity of learning about what is challenging,” he said on Sunday.
Khan, on Sunday, shared how these conversations were a reminder “not to have assumptions and to just listen.”
“We had to get really real and really listen to each other,” she said.
To Mansour, it was significant that the Baha’i faith, which normally isn’t included in interfaith work, was part of the fellowship. That’s why it was important for Mansour to amplify the voices of other faiths not represented in the fellowship, like the selfless service of the Sikh community, which the fellows highlighted through a documentary screening.
The fellows on Sunday shared how the Abrahamic House helped them realize the importance of sharing their faith more openly with others.
At the Abrahamic House, Cohen said, she became aware of how much she has kept her “Jewishness hidden” because “there’s a lot of fear, the hatred that comes with it.”
Khan said the Abrahamic House helped deepen her relationship with her own faith. Now, she feels more comfortable sharing her religious practices with the people around her, who are mostly not Muslim.
“I feel like I’m taking a confidence about sharing more specific practices with others,” she said.
Seven Women Artists of Color Have Honored Kamala Harris’s Inauguration With a Video Celebrating
the Roots of Her Historic Triumph
The ambitious video art project was filmed by artists around the country.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons in her art performance piece When We Gather, a tribute to the inauguration of Kamala Harris. Photo by Tommy Oliver courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
A group of seven women artists of color are collaborating to mark the inauguration of Kamala Harris as America’s next vice president with When We Gather, a new artwork presented by New York public art nonprofit Creative Time.
The idea for the project first came to Afro-Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons the day the November election was called in favor of Joe Biden and Harris.
In her acceptance speech, the vice president-elect—the first woman, the first Black person, and the first person of South Asian descent to hold the post—thanked her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who moved to the US from India at just 19 years old.
“Harris claimed this moment for ‘the generations of women—Black women, Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment,’” Campos-Pons said in a statement. “She called on us all: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, girls; cis and trans, to celebrate with her. When We Gather is our collective answer to her invitation.”
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons in her video art performance piece When We Gather, a tribute to the inauguration of Kamala Harris. Photos by Tommy Oliver courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Inspired by the Yoruba religious rituals of her childhood, Campos-Pons envisioned a circle of women of all ages and ethnicities, clad in Suffragist white and dancing around the White House. She knew that executing such a piece live in DC on Inauguration Day would be impossible due to security concerns and the realities of the global health crisis, so she quickly reimagined the performance as a film.
That allowed her enlist artists from cities across the county to take part: Okwui Okpokwasili, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Dell Marie Hamilton, Jana Harper, Lisa E. Harris, and Samita Sinha, for a total of seven women—one for each of the seven powers in the Yoruba religion.
Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco, which represents Campos-Pons, immediately got behind the project, with Norris signing on to executive produce the film.
When We Gather director Codie Elaine Oliver with cinematographer Tommy Oliver. Photo by Rodney Marsh, courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris.
Codie Elaine Oliver, co-creator of the documentary series Black Love, served as the film’s director, traveling to cities including Nashville, Houston, and Brooklyn to shoot each segment individually. She wove the resulting footage together with historic photographs of women, concluding with a portrait of Harris.
The three-minute film is overlaid with a poem by Diggs, a poet and sound artist, that is narrated by actress Alfre Woodard. Though the seven dancers are separated by vast distances, the video joins them together in a circular dance, with choreography by Okpokwasili, a performance artist.
“This performance presents us all with an opportunity to take part in healing and uniting our divided country through positive action and through the strength and ability of women, starting with the vice president,” Norris said in a statement.
When We Gather director Codie Elaine Oliver with Jana Harper. Photo by Tommy Oliver courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
She hopes that the project, which was produced with funding from the Ford Foundation, will tour museums and universities.
When We Gather will premiere online at 7 p.m. on January 27, one week after Biden and Harris are sworn into office, and runs through February 15. The website also includes interviews with the participating artists and invites viewers to create and upload their own videos inspired by the piece.
“When We Gather arrives at an inflection point—serving as both a moment of reflection and a galvanizing call to envision, and enact, a better tomorrow,” Creative Time executive director Justine Ludwig said in a statement. “The work speaks to the elemental role that women have played in the progress of this nation.”
Dear interfaith colleagues: This collection of 200 dialogue and dialogue-related quotations is gathered from a wide range of sources – ancient and modern. This anthology touches on numerous issues including diversity, pluralism, unity, global consciousness, anti-racism, justice, transformation and listening. You will find these quotations to be useful for group reflection, writing projects, workshops, conferences and as a permanent reference document. Please consider forwarding this document through your network or linking to it on your website: