Throwback to my 45-minute seminar at The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah last October. This presentation was my first of anything somewhat noteworthy and opened the way for countless more opportunities that have since drastically shaped the course of my life. I apologize for the shoddy audio and have provided a partial transcript below:
Hello everyone and thank you all for being here today, at this marvelous and amazing and phenomenal Parliament of the World’s Religions and at this particular break-out session. While you could have chosen to attend any other of the various presentations, exhibitions and seminars , instead here you all are gathered, about to listen to a young, short and frankly inexperienced 17 year-old speak to you on subjects often left to the adults in days past. I promise you now I will do my best to keep from losing your attention and your faith in kids my age and hopefully I will be able to plant the seeds of hope in you towards the youth of today.
Seeing as this is a religious convention and the majority of us here come from a variety of faith backgrounds, I would first like to begin this seminar with an opening benediction. Though I come from a Christian background, I still invite all others here to join with me in prayer as we contact whatever divine being, presence or power we so associate with.
To begin I wish to properly introduce myself to you, the interfaith community. My name is Jaxon Washburn, I am a budding 17 year-old advocate for the interfaith movement. I hail from Phoenix, Arizona, in a city called Gilbert though I was fortunate to be born here in Salt Lake City, where we now all have the mutual blessing to gather together at this magnificent Parliament. For this I am glad, as I share in the same first time experience I assume many here are feeling. I was blessed to have in my life the greatest of teachers and mentors, both at school and otherwise to whom I owe the direction and open mindset I have undertaken. Mr. Whitlock, Mr. Reed, Mr. Rumsey and Mrs. Novak, thank you, along with Pastor Miguel de la Mora of Sun Valley Community Church, and my Boy Scout leaders, Brothers Hastings, Clark, White and Turnbull. Thank you, where I am today I owe completely to you.
I was raised a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. I sure hope by now this is no new information, one of our temples is literally across the street. My parents were both active members, my mother being from Utah and my father from Washington state. I was taught and raised in this faith group until my early teenage years. At that time my mother found new faith and embraced non-denominational Christianity. I fully attribute this to the beginning of my own personal journey into the realm of religious thought and belief. We became an interfaith family, my siblings and I attending both our parents churches and for the first time in my life I was exposed to different perspectives on God, worship and the world. I was fascinated and I chose to delve into both faiths theologies. Time passed and I didn’t stop there, I began to visit other churches, other faiths, speaking to both their attendants and their local faith leaders. I was on a mission to find Truth, wherever it lay, for I figured it would be in my life’s best interest to find it, and cling to it. I knew that I could not just place my belief and trust in the philosophies of man, the social opinions and trends which so quickly change over time with the winds of revolution when regarding those values of humanity we so strongly hold in common. I would not take anyone’s word at face value, instead I had to pursue those ideals and beliefs that resonated within me. I combined both faith and reason to discover truth, my truth, a personal truth, a truth I try to live and exemplify to the best of my ability.
At the time I was attending Arizona College Prep, a school with an extremely diverse student body. Every day I was exposed with foreign points of view along with students with foreign background. It seemed as if every day both in the classroom and at lunch we would hold discussions, tell stories and explain our identities and beliefs. Seeing this thirst for understanding, seeing the willingness to listen with respect and feeling the deepened friendship I walked away with every day afterwards, it hit me. What if we took this a step further? What if we became organized? What if we were to create a safe and open environment where students may openly teach and share their beliefs? This, I just knew I had to go ahead and establish and thus the idea for Coexist was born.
Of course Coexist was just an informal and unofficial nickname for the World Religion and Tolerance Club. Immediately following this epiphany of mine were dozens if not hundreds of thoughts and ideas of how and what I was to have the club become. We needed a name, easy enough. We needed a teacher sponsor, many were more than willing to aide in such an endeavor. We needed a purpose, so I began to think of a mission statement, a few sentences that would encapsulate our values. With time, it began to resemble something like this…
In a world where misinformation and ignorance distorts the perceptions of many, we strive to stimulate the discussion of our own beliefs in an environment where there exists only love, acceptance and complete tolerance. For in the end we are all walking the same path; so why not lend each other a helping hand along the way? Our diversity only makes us stronger.
This seminar revolves around these central concepts; that of creating open and respectful areas for interfaith dialogue, that we all are walking this path of life together and therefore must assist each other and finally that in diversity lies true unity. Any violence, hate speech or lack of progression almost 100% occurs due to a lack of understanding, respectful communication and love for the opposite side and so, this is the main message to the students we teach, these are the skills and traits we emphasize are necessary, essential to successfully and peacefully live in the world today.
So I began to organize and develop a curriculum for the students to follow, I mapped out a plan in which the world’s belief systems would be discussed and presented in an order taking into account for each of the variables that defined that faith, such as the number of adherents, the relative effect on the local area and the world both in history and present-day, their region of origin and their relationship for one another. The club took on several attributes. Club meetings are to be held weekly, lasting a duration of 90 minutes in the which the religion is to be taught on and discussed. As often as possible, local faith leaders are scheduled to be brought in, allowing only the most accurate and first-hand of information to be presented. Spiritual literature and other materials are shared and distributed often and Q&A segments are held. The rest of the time is left completely open to those presenting to use as they deem appropriate whether it be in the form of powerpoint presentations, videos or activities such as group songs or prayers. The club holds outside meetings often as well, providing an opportunity for the students to experience other faiths in a more casual and first-hand environment. Often times on the weekend we will visit various places of worship that we covered that same week, allowing further personal experiences. What the students do next with that faith is up to themselves, whether to research it farther or just retain the knowledge and experiences they have gained for future application.
In order to safeguard both the club and its members, signed parental and student consent forms are required in order to gain membership, declaring that those participating are aware that alternate belief systems will be taught and shared, that materials will be distributed and that an environment of respect, tolerance and love is to be maintained at all times. Such is both necessary and practical.
Now if there are any questions thus far regarding the nature of the World Religion and Tolerance Club or anything else I would be more than happy to answer them.
Thank to all those that shared. Now I have some questions for you, the audience, more of a group survey really, you can assist me in simply raising your hands if what I say so applies to you.
First, how many of you have ever seen or attended an interfaith event which promoted dialogue and interaction between those ages 30 and older? Any examples?
Second, how many have seen interfaith events carried out by college age students, whether it be by themselves or by colleges and universities? Let’s say college age to 30. Could we have some examples of those?
Finally, how many have witnessed a high school which promoted an interfaith event or the open discussion of religion? (expecting less hands) Ah, here we can see a bit of a drop-off, examples?
To understand why this may be let’s look at some statistics
In a recent email sent out by the Parliament a certain collection of statistics gathered by the Harvard University Pluralism Project was shared, displayed a few figures regarding youth and interfaith. By youth, they refer most likely to those younger than thirty. I will now share with you their “good” and “bad” news.
The Good News: 71 percent of all interfaith organizations surveyed consider “Youth” as a part of their mission’s constituency-specific programming.
The Bad News: “Youth” were the least likely to serve on an organization’s Board (32.4%), and only 17.6 percent as a leader of the Board.
The Good News: Significant, however, is the fact that 50 percent of organizations noted that “youth” served as unpaid committee leaders and 79.4 percent said “youth” held “other leadership positions” within the organization.
The Bad News: Only 3 percent of interfaith organizations surveyed had youth as paid staff.
I wonder, just how many of these “youth” were regarding high-school students. I assume it was much lower. With half of the world’s population being under the age of 30, should we not then expect greater involvement from this age group? I will digress for a bit to speak on the contrary, where youth have stepped up and taken the initiative.
One such example is the Interfaith Youth Core. Now my acquaintance here Mr. J. Cody Nielsen is more able to speak on it than myself though surely most of us here have heard of it before. It officially began it’s operations at the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa spearheaded by Dr. Eboo Patel, who is present here at the Parliament this year as well. Today it has flourished with its Interfaith Leadership Institutes and its Better Together Campaign, which reached approximately 100,000 students in its first year of existence. IFYC identifies three core components of interfaith cooperation that of respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good and promotes all of these actively towards college level students. Such work has done tremendous good and has yet the potential to do even more.
Today there are many interfaith groups just like the IFYC which promotes these same values and interactions among college age students. We as a society have recognized that in order for greater prosperity and happiness in the world, we need the future generations to be open, educated and trained in the values of interfaith and so many colleges have clubs and various student led organizations. Many attribute college to the first time that they are truly exposed to other’s points of view. College students are suddenly separated from their parents and placed in an environment where countless other beliefs and opinions are held. Here many find or develop the viewpoints that will then stay with them throughout the duration of their lives. Such is normal and expected. Because of this, in order foster unity and open discussion, many people inside and outside of college push hard for interfaith. College and university life is the developing ground where students will gain their identity and place in the world. They are deciding who they are as a part of society. College is the time to choose a career path, to choose a field of study, to choose the type of friends and people you associate with, to choose a possible spouse, to choose a possible political party, anything and everything is up for grabs… including religion. Whatever path the student then chooses dictates the course that their life will play out, leading to effects on a global scale sometimes.
Outside of various college led initiatives for interfaith we have also seen international efforts to protect and promote shared values. One of the most recent of which was the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, organized by the Roman Catholic Church. More than 17,500 people from 100 countries attended this year’s event, featuring presentations from many global religious leaders and thinkers, including a visit from Pope Francis all promoting the family unit as the essential building block of society.
Besides this example there are countless other groups that have existed for years now all promoting interfaith. For example here we all are present at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, first organized 1893 in Chicago. We come from different countries, we come from different faiths and yet still we all gather in the name of one ideal; love. We all wish to strive to spread love, compassion. understanding, unity. But just how many involved in this endeavour are below college age? Just how many presenting, participating or even conscious of the Parliament and its motives are high school age or younger? The drop-off is staggering, youth presence is here but the comparison is far out of balance. Nations are pushing for interfaith, cities are pushing for interfaith. colleges are pushing for interfaith and faith communities are pushing for interfaith? But why is this not seen in high schools? Why can governments, colleges and organizations all promote this on a local, state, national and international level but high schools cannot?
It is almost as if we, society are saying that there exists a certain age restriction, a certain “bar requirement” if you will to learn and speak on religion publicly. Already we tend to turn away from public demonstrations of faith, although organizations like this Parliament have assisted in this tremendously. What is different from an 18 year old senior in high school to an 18 year old freshman in college? The issue is the amount of social stigma set against any presence of religion in high schools. How many of you are familiar with the beginning of the 1st Amendment?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. What does this mean exactly then when referring to the public schooling system? It seems America as a whole has a limited understanding in what this entails.
This lack of understanding was reflected in a recent Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life national survey in which “Only 36 percent of survey respondents knew that public school teachers may teach comparative religion courses. 26 percent knew that teachers may read from the Bible as an example of literature and only half of Americans knew that the Qur’an is the Holy Book of Islam or that the Dalai Lama was Buddhist.”
– Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2010 survey
What people don’t realize is the liberty schools still have when teaching on the subject of religion. Schools are able to teach ON religion, just not religion. This distinction between the state-sponsored practice of a religion and teaching about religion has been reiterated in subsequent decisions (Stone v. Graham, 1980; Edwards v. Aquillard, 1987). This then leads us to the theme of this seminar, the one belief I hope all of us may walk away with today.
That, “In order to combat prejudice, cultivate respectful dialogue and ensure a brighter future, it is necessary to promote interreligious education and tolerance to students of high school age and older.”
We need to equip today’s youth with an understanding of the world’s diversity as something that will always be present. We need to tell them bluntly even, that besides the one they hold there are an infinite amount of alternate viewpoints, carried by people with faith, reason and emotions just as real as their own. This is a fact that needs to be accepted and then moved forward from. Because of this fact the necessary response needs to be respectful dialogue, cooperation based off shared foundations and compassion for those who disagree. The world will not change in a day, it definitely will not change based off the wishes of one, ten, a hundred or a thousand. In order for change to occur a new generation of youth must rise forth. A generation united on bettering each other, their communities and the world despite any differences in religion or belief that may exist, and who better to teach that then the public schooling system.
Now I assume you may be thinking “What a fanciful idea! Religion and public school! Those two have never butted heads in the past before!”. I am right there with you but I am here to tell you, this works and has been proven highly successful in the past, so long as certain measures are first undertaken.
Let me ask you, how many school district in the United States require students to take a comparative religions class in order to graduate? Let’s throw some numbers out there,
Hint: The number can be represented using just one’s hand.
One, the answer is one. The Modesto, California School District serves as a monolith to the public schooling system in America. For 15 years it has been the only district in the nation to require a semester of Comparative Religions to graduate. Other schools also offer a Comparative Religions class as an elective credit such as Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, or Canyon Schools District here in Utah. Now you may be wondering, How does this even happen? The answer first begins with community involvement.
One of the teachers from the Modesto District, Sherry McIntyre explains that “We had buy-in from day one. We didn’t just throw this at the community. We said, ‘This is what we want to do, help us do it right.'” Kathy Zinger, who taught a world religions elective in Fairfax County says “I think everyone has to feel that they’re going to be safe to come to the table and talk about their concerns and that their values will be safeguarded in whatever program is brought forward, I think if you do that and establish good community relations it can be such a positive addition to a program.”
Both teachers in their combined years of teaching Comparative Religions have never run into a single problem due to intense community and family involvement.
The most common proprietor of ignorance is simply misinformation. How many faith groups out there have been marginalized, generalized and misrepresented time and time again by today’s media? Because of the media, many Americans now suffer from Islamophobia, unaware of the majority of peaceful, loving and godly people who make up the religion around the world. Because of this unawareness into the real nature of this faith, many then go about spreading the same untrue stereotypes and false assumptions they once heard. This ignorance leads to misunderstanding, this misunderstanding leads to stereotyping, which leads to hate speech, which leads to fear, which then leads to violence. The students in this country and in this world need to be trained to test the stereotypes. Test them, just as you would go about using the scientific method. What might be true about one person at one time doesn’t make it true for the majority or even a fair number. The opposite holds true as well with the presence of outliers. The just of it is that religion is too personal, too intimate and too nebulous to just be categorized in a few words or more. Often the most accurate instance of this is simply in loving others, loving God or Truth, and building a oneness with those around you. But this is all the more important reason that in public teaching on said religions only the utmost accuracy and open mindedness should be maintained. Students commonly may carry experiences or viewpoints that differ. That is ok. That is theirs to have and theirs to share. They have that right. Some may disagree or not share in the same beliefs, that is expected as well, the topic of which then brings us to the fostering of interfaith respect and dialogue.
The ability to carry on a conversation with a person who may differ on you on all things religious, political, social, or philosophical and yet still remain friends is far greater in my mind than being in agreement with someone just like you. It takes far greater compassion, understanding and respect to do such as that. Reality is we are all minorities because we are unique. We are individuals. All of us have been endowed with the same base emotions, the comprehensive ability to think rationally, the same ultimate desire for happiness. The difference lies in how we interpret those things, what we do to reach them, how we express them on the daily basis. This is reality. We are different. But difference does not mean defection. To be different does not mean one is defective. This is where tolerance plays in. The students must learn the inherent definition of tolerance. A quote from John F. Kennedy I feel epitomizes this well, he says “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”
To be tolerant is not to tolerate destructive behavior towards society. It is not to force others to hold your same viewpoints. It is not to sacrifice that which you believe. Instead it is to ensure that all people, regardless of gender, color, race, creed, or religion are ensured the equal right to hold what beliefs they may and practice them without fear of oppression, hate speech, persecution or injustice. The same should be taught in the classroom. Questions or comments towards a religion should always be in the spirit of goodwill. They should be sincere, respectful, tactful and correctly worded to not give offense, especially when touching upon sacred, personal or hot-button issues. I can promise you that in all my time of speaking with people of different perspectives, different faiths, that I have never had a bad experience so long as we both adhere to these values of openness, mutual respect and sensitivity. Religious understanding is an all too attainable achievement if only we do what is necessary to reach it.
Around the year 1985 there was a bit of a controversy stirring in Stockholm, Sweden. The dispute was over whether or not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could construct and dedicate a temple there. There were many in the area which opposed this out of the alternative religious beliefs that they held. One Lutheran Bishop who lived there by the name of Krister Stendahl presented at a press conference held nearby, 3 rules that others should undertake when attempting to gain religious understanding. By his speaking out and his wisdom, the world was given a reminder of a few essential principles so easily forgotten. They are now so rightly dubbed. “Stendahls 3 Rules for Religious Understanding” and they are as follows:
(1) When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
We must teach the students the importance of gathering credible first-hand accounts from those who are part of the religion. Consider the following illustration as an example of the frustrations some face when others wish to tell them what they believe. We have all been there.
“Hi, Scott, how are you?”
“I’m doing well, thank you…and actually, my name is Mike.”
“But the person on the other side of the room said your name was Scott.”
“Oh, well…I get called a lot of different things. But my name is Mike.”
“I don’t think so. I have it on pretty good authority that you are really Scott.”
“I’m telling you, my name is Mike…seriously.”
“No, I don’t believe you. I say you are Scott.”
The students should be taught to avoid this, I can tell you from personal experience that nothing is more annoying than someone telling you what you actually believe based off half-truths they have heard and then continually disagreeing when you say otherwise.
(2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.
It is easy to walk into a different place of worship and think this is different and because of that this is wrong. Stendahl says not to do this. For example it has been noted that some Christians will say, “Christians believing in loving one another like Jesus Christ, but look over there at those radical Muslim terrorist bombers, Islam is so wrong.” They do this instead of comparing their own ideals of love and peace with that of Islam or comparing the extremists in one religion to the radical Christian bombers in Ireland. In all, don’t make unfair comparisons, it only perpetuates misinformation and ignorance and can only deter one from finding the true similarities one shares with others. and finally,
(3) Leave room for “holy envy.”
What he means by this is leave room for feelings of envy, taking in the qualities and aspects of that religion that are appealing to you, the instances or values that make you stop and think “I wish I had that in my faith, I can relate to that or I can now strengthen my own faith because of this”. Leave room for the positive experiences that will make you a better person and strengthen the values and faith you hold dear. Then use these aspects whether they be shared in belief or not as a foundation for further unity and collaboration. Focus in on them because no one person, community or religion can do this alone. It will take a combined effort.
While attending an interfaith assembly celebrating this country’s freedom of religion just last month, a Roman Catholic pastor and acquaintance of mine shared a common story which highlighted the need for unity. Whether it stands as being based in actual events or not, it still portrays a message relatable to today. It begins in the open countryside, an area inhabited by a dozen or so farming families and their respective acres. A small boy from one of the families decides one morning to go out and adventure upon the lands his family owned. He was out for the whole day, not returning for lunch or supper. Upon the falling of night the family became worried, concerned about the location of their young son. They frantically began to search their fields with flashlights, hoping to find the boy to ensure that he was safe. The results were negative, the boy not being found anywhere on their property. Desperate, the family called for the help of their neighbors and friends, to have them search their own lands to find the boy. Still he was nowhere to be found. In a final effort to discover the fate of the young man, the neighbors gathered together at the far end off all their property and linked arms, slowly walking forward until the boy was to be found. Eventually this just so happened although everyone’s greatest fears were realized. They were already too late, the boy had died. The Father, after crying while holding his dead son in his arms finally looked up at those gathered. He wiped his tears and said “If only we had linked arms sooner, if only we had linked arms sooner.” Does this not equally apply to our youth today? How many upon being flung headlong into the world and its problems will be met with frustration, alienation over differences of beliefs and some type of failure due to an unwillingness to become united. We need to, like Coexist’s mission statement says, inspire the youth to walk this path of life together and not alone. Our paths may be different, our obstacles varying, but our friendship and unity should be everlasting. Because in the end, we are all seekers of truth.
No matter what our religious or spiritual affiliation, all of us, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu or other can attribute the strength of our belief to that instance of spiritual phenomena which so personifies the concept of religion. Though our rationale may support our belief, though we may have been raised with it, though we have formed community through our faith, that faith is still made up of things which have no empirical evidence; something you can’t confine to a test-tube, isolate on any graph or prove using any sort of method. In the Book of Mormon, one of the main volumes of Holy Scripture for those of my religion, in Ether 12:6 it says “faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” Faith is what we feel, faith is what we know to be truth. That same truth that I have found holds different than the truth millions of others have found. It is personal, it is based off my rationality, my relationship with my Savior Jesus Christ, my love for others and the answers I believed to have received from God through prayer. Others in a similar process have chosen to follow Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, Sikhism and a multitude of others. That is the path each of us have undertaken and above all, we need to teach students to respect that.
Let me ask you, what is it that makes paintings beautiful. Is it the presence of a single color? Is it the usage of a single hue of red for example? Plenty would disagree. Just because something is red does not make it superior to things that are blue. You see it’s the combination of a multitude of different colors, tones and shades that create beautiful art. Sometimes the presence of one in particular significantly impacts the whole of the painting either in a positive or negative light. The same is true with the world’s religions. They are beautiful because they differ. They all have their unique characteristics that when added together in the perfect combination, has the potential to produce a work of art to trump all others. I don’t believe that this has been painted yet. Up until this point, humanity has only produced several rough sketches, often purposefully leaving out certain colors, whose absence takes away from what could be beautiful. My point is the time is know for us to create this final work of art. It is time for the age of religious fear and intolerance to end. Every student is a potential artist in embryo, just waiting for the tutoring they need to make their mark on the canvas of life. Each mark will be different, but that’s where the beauty comes in.
I wish to instill faith in you towards the youth of today. I promise you, we as highschoolers, are so ready to take this challenge and run with it. Up until now, God, religion and spirituality have been pushed aside to the margins of our textbooks, only mentioned when necessary to develop further understanding in some subject area. This can’t just be the work of college students alone. If we as an interfaith community are to succeed we need to accept people of all age groups in on the cause. Interfaith values can’t just be taught at college, they need to be already solidified for that time. Aristotle once said “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” and frankly I agree. Right now, the public schooling system is telling us as a society that in order to be successful in life one must have a solid understanding in science, mathematics, English (or some other language) and history, disregarding the tremendous role that religion plays in shaping the world in the past, present and future.
Just as before I will say again that,
“In order to combat prejudice, cultivate respectful dialogue and ensure a brighter future, it is necessary to promote interreligious education and tolerance to both high school and college students.”
My dream is that some day, religion might not be such a hot-button issue in the classroom. With all the trouble that myself and others have gone in creating the World Religion and Tolerance Club I hope some good will come out of it. We are not the first, that’s for certain but neither shall we be the last. If just one student can walk away from the Club and apply it in their lives somehow, it would be all worth it. I come to you as a first hand witness to the remarkable zeal of today’s youth of high school age. We want to help. We want to learn. We want to find our place in the world, if only we are allowed to first.
Be the change we need for each other to thrive. We need to, like Coexist’s mission statement says, inspire the youth to walk this path of life together and not alone. Our paths may be different, our obstacles varying, but our friendship and unity should be everlasting. Because in the end, we are all seekers of truth, we just need to help each other find it.
I just want to close in thanks to my God, for the endless blessings he has given me, for the chance I have to come and speak here, I want to thank my Church and it’s leaders for the chance I have to partake of their inspired wisdom that so shapes my life, I want to thank you for coming and listening to me, together we can make a difference, finally I wish to thank my family, I love you so very much.