Birmingham students learn about religions through program

By: Mike Koury, Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 23, 2016

 A student drapes herself in traditional Indian garb during the Religious Diversity Journeys trip to the Sri Venkateswara Temple.

A student drapes herself in traditional Indian garb during the Religious Diversity Journeys trip to the Sri Venkateswara Temple.

Photo provided by Meredith Skowronski

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BIRMINGHAM — At a time when there has been much debate and conversation about religious sensitivity and discrimination, Birmingham School District students are participating in a program where they learn about different religions.

The program, Religious Diversity Journeys, is presented by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit and allows seventh-grade students from various school districts to learn and experience religions they might not be too familiar with by visiting the places of worship.

Fourteen districts — including schools from Birmingham, Walled Lake, Troy, Farmington, West Bloomfield and Berkley — chose 25 students each to visit the homes of religions, such as a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque, a Sikh gurdwara and a Christian church.

One such student was 13-year-old Ania Uzieblo, who first heard about the program during a presentation at her school, Birmingham Covington.

“I immediately wanted to do it,” she said. “I enjoy learning about other cultures, and some religions I didn’t know that much about, like Sikhs and Muslims. So I wanted to learn more about it, so then I’d be able to understand them in the future.

“I know lots of people misunderstand other religions, and I didn’t want to be like those people. So I figured that if I knew and understood the religion and the purpose of it, then I’d be able to explain to others that they’re not bad people.”

Uzieblo was able to experience different parts of each religion and culture, from sampling the cuisine to hearing how religions use music in their worship and holidays.

One thing Uzieblo has learned so far is that Hindus don’t believe in many different gods but one in many forms.

She said being able to visit places of worship helps give her a better understanding and makes it easier to learn about each religion.

Next, Uzieblo will be visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center as part of the program, and the students will make a video about what they’ve learned so far.

More than 450 students are participating in this year’s program, said Religious Diversity Journeys Program Director Meredith Skowronski.

Students are given assigned seats so they can expand their horizons and interact with students from other districts.

Skowronski said that even though everyone might have different beliefs or look different on the outside, many religions share similar common values reached through different rituals, practices and beliefs.

“We kind of went with the major religions prevalent in our area,” Skowronski said about how they select the religions. “Honestly, we would love to bring in the Buddhists, but we don’t have time. There’s only so many days we can take the kids out of the school. We go with the most prevalent and hope it’s enough.”

It takes an army of people at each house of worship to put the program together. While Skowronski travels to each location prior to the trips to discuss what needs to be taught and presented, each place provides volunteers to not only discuss the religion, but to make lunch and introduce things like cultural dancing or sari wrapping, or even to demonstrate how they pray.

Because the program must maintain the separation of church and state, Skowronski stresses to each house of worship that the trips are completely educational and not a conversion program.

“A student isn’t going to walk into a Hindu temple and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ … To have a place open their doors to us and go as a group and have a comfortable, safe environment, I don’t think there’s a better way to break down stereotypes than to be immersed in a culture,” Skowronski said.

For more information about the Religious Diversity Journeys program, visit www.detroitinterfaithcouncil.com.

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