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Before prejudice begins, open door to understanding

Students visit houses of worship of four different faiths to learn and to share.

By CHRISTINE GRAEF

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Pointing to the 14 prayer stations lining the walls in the sanctuary of St. Jude's Cathedral, Dorothy Sanderson, director of religious education at the church, explained to a group of 20 youth the representations of Jesus on his walk to Calvary.

"They're a ritual to all Catholics," Sanderson said.

The 50-year-old church was the first stop along an Interfaith Youth Tour for Pinellas County that took place on Saturday. The tour was sponsored by the Tampa Bay area office of the National Conference for Community and Justice. The group, consisting of seventh-graders through college students, participated in presentations held at each of four houses of worship -- St. Jude's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue N, Baha'i Center on Second Avenue S, Temple Beth-El on Pasadena Avenue and the Masjid Al-Muminin on 18th Avenue S.

"This is an effort to open up understanding between religions and stop prejudice before it begins," said Kate Kalbas, director of the program.

Andrew Shannon, coordinator for the youth ministry, explained the four premises of the Catholic faith. " One is the trinity. We believe in a God who is Father, Son and Holy Ghost. From that belief grew faith in the incarnation, a God who became a man, Jesus; salvation and resurrection; and grace, a belief God gifts us with each other, and individually with different abilities such as hospitality and humor."

Naysawn Naderi, 17, asked if the purpose of the faith was to live a life intended to gain entry to heaven. Shannon said the mission of the kingdom of God is here and now.

Naderi is a resident of Oldsmar and member of the Baha'i Center, a religion now established in about 300 countries and whose laws are contained in more than 100 books and documentaries.

"We can't explain the specifics of life after death. But I know the soul continues. We're like a child still in the womb, growing and preparing for birth," said Naderi.

The Baha'i faith was revealed in the mid-19th century in Persia by a man named Baha'u'llah, who, believers say, is the most recent messenger of God.

"Teachings call us to recognize all religions have the same divine source," said Baha'i member Naomi McCord. "We have no clergy. Each person is responsible for their own progression toward humanity's unity."

The center is a gathering place for discussion and prayer but the nearest house of worship is in Illinois, a nine-sided building mirrored in the nine points of a star on the banner hanging at the center. The significance of the number connotes unity in the highest single digit. The only other symbol of the religion is the Arabic gold lettering hung on the front of the center's main room as a reminder of "God the most glorious."

Symbols in Temple Beth-El carried a longer history. Menorahs, spice boxes and Passover dishes were encased in glass in the temple's entryway.

In Judaism, the Torah is the embodiment of all ethical and moral teachings. The Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament.

Meisha Tevis, education director of the temple, said the reform movement of Judaism believed the Messiah could not come in the form of a person, but believed in a Messianic age.

Shannon asked if interfaith marriages threatened the Jewish identity.

"When my parents got together, my grandfather disowned my father," said Lauren Baras, 15, a member of the synagogue. Lauren's father is Jewish and mother and sister are Catholic. Lauren said marrying in her faith was important.

Tevis agreed.

Traditional to all branches of Judaism is the mezuzah, a traditional prayer encased in a rectangular covering, which is hung on doorposts of those of the Jewish faith. The prayer inside is from the Torah. Tevis said it admonishes people to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your might."

The verse is the same quoted by Willmore Sadiqqi, leader at the Masjid Al-Muminin, when the group entered the stark prayer room after removing their shoes at the doorway.

"We believe in one God, his angels and the Bible and Torah. We believe we will all answer for the deeds we've done in the resurrection," Sadiqqi said.

The five fundamental principles of the Muslim religion are a belief in one God with Muhammad as the prophet, observance of prayer, charity, observance of the holy days of Ramadan and the oneness of humanity.

Just as Christians used a bell and Jewish people had a ram's horn to call people to prayer, Muslims have a chant that calls glory to God and declares Muhammad his messenger. Wherever they are, five times a day they kneel down with heads on the floor and pray.

Women of the faith are covered in robes and scarves. Sadiqqi said this was cultural, not religious, just as the Christmas tree was taken from a time before Christ's birth and incorporated into the celebration.

"It's important to learn your religion's history. Know what it's really about, not just what others tell you," said Sadiqqi.

"What you're doing today is making history. Ten years ago this could never happen. If we don't learn to respect and appreciate each other, we can all hang it up," he said.

Kalbas said she plans to include Buddhists, American Indians and Serbian-Americans on future St. Petersburg tours.

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