By Heidi Stevens
The children — Muslim, Jewish and Christian — sat crossed-legged, shoulder-to-shoulder Wednesday morning brainstorming ways to practice charity.
“Smiling!” a young boy called out.
“Helping someone carry something heavy,” suggested another.
Serving food to homeless people. Cutting the grass for an elderly neighbor. Planting a tree. The answers came fast and furious, fueled by youthful idealism and miniature bags of Veggie Straws.
The hundred or so students were gathered in the gymnasium at the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove, where the nonprofit youth arts organization Poetry Pals hosted an interfaith event for fourth-graders from Sacred Heart Academy, Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School and Muslim Community Center Academy.
“One of the greatest ways you get to know about other ethnicities and faiths is through interaction,” Habeeb M. Quadri, Muslim Community Center Academy’s principal, told me. “They’re talking about their faith, but they’re talking about it through shared values: trying to get close to God, trying to be a good individual, taking care of your family and your community.”
Shortly after they arrived, the students split into small groups and played a game called, “Yes, let’s,” in which they called out different traditions and celebrations in their religions. Then they snacked on Veggie Straws and decorated bookmarks and tiles for Little Free Libraries, small wooden boxes that house books for people to share for free.
When the crafts were complete, the students retreated to the mosque, where Quadri led the students in a discussion about charity and stewardship.
“There aren’t enough days like this,” said Ilene Siemer, executive director of Poetry Pals. “This should be normal for everybody, and this is so very far from normal.”
Wednesday’s event was the sixth annual interfaith gathering that Poetry Pals has coordinated at the Muslim Community Center. Founded in 2008, the nonprofit works with elementary schools throughout the Chicago area, encouraging kids to express and share their faiths with one another through music, art, poetry and performance.
The educators present Wednesday were as enthusiastic as the students.
“We think it’s important that kids are exposed to as many different people and cultures as possible, so they get to see that we’re all pretty much the same,” said Brian East, a lower school teacher at Sacred Heart. “Our kids are always kind of amazed, for example, that Steph Curry is just as popular with Jewish and Muslim kids as he is with the guys at Sacred Heart.”
Favorite athletes, favorite movies, favorite books — all plant the seeds that can grow into friendship, rather than fear.
“The kids learn to stop othering,” Siemer said. “Instead of being this other group of people I don’t know, they just become ‘my friend.'”
It’s a particularly critical lesson in this moment, when the nation — indeed, the world — is debating a crackdown on refugees coming to the United States, as well as recent travel and immigration restrictions that target people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
We seem hopelessly, bitterly divided. And yet, in that gym, we seemed anything but.
“Kids have pure hearts,” Quadri said. “When you catch them at a young age, you can change their perspectives before they let other factors influence their decision-making.”
The students giggled and played together, seemingly oblivious to one another’s plaid pleated skirts or hijabs or shirts with the tiny Star of David embroidered on the chest.
“It’s fun to meet people, so you’re not just reading about them in a book,” a girl from Bernard Zell told me. “You’re actually with the people, and you get to know them.”
“You learn about their personalities,” her classmate chimed in.
(The schools asked that students’ names not be used.)
During the discussion about practicing charity, a Jewish boy stood up and explained the tzedakah box, a container for collecting money that will be donated to charity. A Muslim child raised his hand and said his faith has the same tradition. It’s called sadaqah, and it means voluntary giving.
The words are so similar — tzedakah and sadaqah — and the value they express is identical.
“We learn that we’re more the same than we are different,” a Sacred Heart boy told me.
We should all find the courage to follow their lead.