WB seventh-graders take on world religion

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published March 23, 2016

 Orchard Lake Middle School seventh-graders Ayla Horwitz and Taylor Jordan stand in front of a mural of Moses parting the Red Sea at the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham in December 2015.

Orchard Lake Middle School seventh-graders Ayla Horwitz and Taylor Jordan stand in front of a mural of Moses parting the Red Sea at the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham in December 2015.

Photo provided by Jennifer Sepetys

WEST BLOOMFIELD —  In the midst of heightened stereotypes and debates about diversity, West Bloomfield seventh-graders are breaking barriers by learning about religions found in the metro Detroit region.  

The Religious Diversity Journeys program, which is sponsored by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, is designed to immerse Oakland and Wayne County seventh-graders in various religions. The program follows the state’s seventh-grade content expectations in world religions. 

Fourteen districts across the two counties participate in the program, including West Bloomfield, Troy, Birmingham, Walled Lake, Berkley and Farmington schools. The number of students from the West Bloomfield School District is split between Orchard Lake and Abbott middle schools. 

Twenty-five students from each participating district visit different houses of worship in the metro Detroit area each school year. This year, students visited a Jewish synagogue, a Christian church, an Islamic mosque, a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurdwara. 

The intention of the program is to not only teach students about world religions, but to give them a comfortable environment to ask questions, according to Meredith Skowronski, Religious Diversity Journeys program director. The program has grown year after year. Three years ago, four school districts sent 25 students, but this year, there are 450 students. Skowronski arranges the school districts into three groups, and each group attends all of the houses of worship together. Once at the house of worship, students are assigned seats so they can expand their horizons and interact with students from other districts. The final trips are to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Holocaust Memorial Center. West Bloomfield students will visit the Holocaust Memorial Center. 

Jennifer Sepetys, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School, said the students are getting a unique experience by learning about the different faiths and taking tours of the houses of worship. 

“They’re able to gain such a deeper understanding of the religion than they ever could simply by reading about it in the book,” Sepetys said. 

Sepetys said the students become mini ambassadors, and at the end of the program they are divided into groups and assigned a religion. Each group is responsible for presenting a write-up to the remaining seventh-grade social studies classes. 

“Really, everyone wants to go, because it’s such an amazing program, and I think the students really learn just how special each of these religions are and how similar a lot of them are to their own, if they’re currently practicing a religion,” Sepetys said. In order to be selected for the program, Orchard Lake Middle School students had to apply and answer questions about why they were interested in the Religious Diversity Journeys program.  

Skowronski said that even though everyone might have different beliefs or look different on the outside, many religions share similar common values. These values are just 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 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 program, visit www.detroitinterfaithcouncil.com.