Youth tour visits worship houses
BY BRAVETTA HASSELL World Scene Writer
Monday, November 26, 2012
11/26/12 at 6:30 AM
In long maxi dresses and flowy skirts, sweaters and jean jackets, scarves covering their heads, the young women chatted among themselves as they removed their shoes, stacking them on a large utility shelf and proceeding toward the prayer hall.
"This is so cool!" Elise Eisinger whispered excitedly. "So cool!"
Later, the tour guide, Safa Elsoueissi, would tell the teenagers about prayer and about her hijab.
Was she in school? What did she do during the day when it was time to pray?
What happened if she missed a prayer?
Did she always have to come to the mosque to pray?
The dialogue that followed was what the day was all about: coming to a better understanding of faith.
Last weekend marked the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice's 30th year leading the Operation Understanding Tour. On it, Tulsa-area high school and middle school students visit a variety of worship houses and learn about different faiths with the goal of better understanding and respecting religious diversity.
Since its beginning in 1982, students taking the tour have traveled to a wide variety of places to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions about faiths with which they may have been unfamiliar, said Joshua Oaks, program and marketing manager for the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice.
By the number of the students who return year after year, wanting to know more, Operation Understanding is being understood.
For this year's program, about 200 students signed up and, on a Sunday afternoon, gathered at the Masjid Al-Salam Mosque to kick off the tour that would include stops at Hope Unitarian Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Stake Center.
The annual event came at a time during the year that interfaith relations are often seen as at their most visible: Thanksgiving.
"It's an opportune time, maybe not done purposely that way," Oaks said. But around the holidays, Oaks said, when families and friends come together to remember what they are grateful for, they do so in tradition and with an eye on commonalities they share. The spirit underlying the tour is the same.
It's the understanding differences but also recognizing what is shared in common that is so important to interfaith relations, Oaks said.
Years ago, OCCJ found better religious education was not only necessary for adults but also young people if interfaith work was to succeed.
In Sunday's tour group, the faith traditions of the participating students included Islam, Christianity, Mormonism and Judaism, and what they shared in common was their reason for attending.
For Maggie Tirrell, 17, who attends All Souls Unitarian Church, the tour would give her the chance to understand faiths outside her own. It's part of understanding the way the world works and how different people work within it, she said.
"I think (religion) helps determine their idea of what's right and wrong - their moral standards, their values," Maggie said. "And it helps control what path their life is going to take."
She knows people from different religious backgrounds but never really knew what they really believed until she began participating in OCCJ's interfaith activities.
Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Kelly said learning about how people from other religions practice their faith and why they do it, helped her understand the world around her better.
During the tour, a young woman asked Elsoueissi about her headscarf - her hijab. Why did she wear it?
"The main reason why we wear the headscarf is out of modesty," she explained. "Because God describes women as something very valuable, something very precious and you don't want everyone to see the woman's beauty, you want to take care of it and preserve it, so that's the reason we wear the scarf."
And it's not just about covering your hair, she added.
"If I'm wearing a scarf but I'm not acting modest, wearing a scarf - it's called a hijab in Arabic - it's the way you act and the way you walk and the way you talk, it's the way you live your whole life."
Kelly and Tirrell later said they really liked such a high value being placed on modesty.
Moments earlier, Elsoueissi's group sat quietly in the back of the prayer hall and watched as men and boys prostrated in the direction of Mecca as a prayer was recited.
After the men had exited and the remaining student groups arrived - the boys through one entry point and the girls through another - Sheryl Siddiqui, a member of OCCJ, led a 30-minute presentation on Islam, about the misconceptions others have spread, about the religion's truths and values.
An hour or so later, the tour group had landed at Hope Unitarian Church in South Tulsa where students were shown some of the church's amenities before everyone gathered in the church sanctuary and Consulting Minister Elizabeth Cartmell Ladd led the group in singing "Spirit of Life," a hymn that is sung at the start of all the church's worship services. She discussed the church's history, what Unitarian universalism is, and what it encompasses today.
One person in the audience asked about the church's view on abortion. Another asked about whether members pray.
Before the day's end, the students would travel to east Tulsa to learn about Mormonism.
Lindsey Ferrin said in coming away from the presentations with new information she didn't have before, her own faith and set of beliefs had been reaffirmed but that also she had now a greater appreciation for others' religions and the perspective through which they see the world.
"We're free to make our own choices and people are," said Ferrin, 17. "And this is respecting that."
Original Print Headline: Youths visit worship houses
Bravetta Hassell 918-581-8316