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Message of faith fuels debate

A speaker raises concerns when she relays her faith in Jesus to a group of students during a schools-supported Rotary program.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


A speaker raises concerns when she relays her faith in Jesus to a group of students during a schools-supported Rotary program.

INVERNESS -- Citrus middle and high school students chosen by their schools were gathered Thursday morning to be recognized for making improvements in their academic and personal lives and to be encouraged to continue down the path of correct choices.

But what some saw as the message at Thursday's "Upward Bound" breakfast was that the only way to succeed was to follow Jesus Christ.

Keynote speaker Sheree Monroe told the students that there were right and wrong choices and that her way of going in the right direction came through Jesus.

At a time when religious references at school events have generated months of emotional debate in Citrus County, her speech has made some uncomfortable, including the sponsoring club's organizer.

"I think it was unfortunate that some reference was made to religion," said Ray Darling, who has been helping the Rotary Club organize the Upward Bound event for years. He said speakers are told to talk about their road to success and that never before had one been so direct in tying their comments to a particular religious belief.

"There was no intention on the part of Rotary to do anything that would make people uncomfortable," Darling said. "We do do a short prayer at the beginning of the meeting. It's non-denominational."

"It's not so much that I was offended, but I thought it was very insensitive," said Cindy Cino, a parent who attended the Thursday event. "It was almost like they just assumed that everyone there was Christian."

"I don't think it was right," said Salvatore Cino, 13, who was among the students honored at the event. "She said that as long as you have God, Jesus in your heart, you'll be a success . . . but what if there were people of different faiths there?"

"I think her message was fine except that they brought religion into it," said Richard Young, whose daughter Eleishi was also honored at the event. "That was a school function because it's school kids. Why should religion be brought into it?"

Dr. Mariananda Kumar was another parent at the event. He said he wasn't uncomfortable with Monroe's speech.

"She kept talking about prayer and that was all right with me, but that's just me. But again it's not politically correct," Kumar said.

The School Board has been grappling with the issue of how to pray at meetings since November, when board member Carol Snyder suggested all prayers shouldn't be strictly Christian. She has since tried unsuccessfully twice to have the board officially vote to begin meetings with a moment of silence.

Darling said that once a speaker is invited and hears the guidelines, there is little that the Rotary officials can do to stop someone's message. In the future, he said, "I guess we could tell them not to give any reference to religion."

Monroe said she did not believe her message was offensive or inappropriate. She said she was telling students of her own personal journey and the part that her faith has played in that journey.

"I told the kids that they're going to face a lot of choices and they're going to be out there in the world, where there are all kinds of messages," Monroe said. "I said that a lot of what they're going to be told through those messages is not the truth. . . . But there is a truth, and I told them what that truth was for me."

Monroe said the comments were personal, and she felt they were appropriate in an event sponsored by a private group. "It's a free country, and I can say what I want," she said.

But Cino noted that the event was school-sponsored because the students were picked by the schools. She also said she was pleased to hear that Darling recognized that something should be done to keep such an episode from happening again.

"I honestly believe we should be trying to include people and not exclude them," Cino said. "I think sometimes that the only people who understand racism are black people and so people just get used to sitting there and saying nothing. . . ."

"What right do I have to say to those who believe differently that I am right and they are wrong?" Cino said. "I don't have that right."

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