Many religious adults underestimate the contribution young people can make in their faith communities, according to Elizabeth Dabney Hochman, founding editor of KidSpirit, an online, interfaith community where 11- to 17-year-olds can read and write stories about moral questions.
"There's a feeling among kids that adults don't want to listen to them," Hochman said, noting that teenagers are more often the subject rather than the leaders of discussions on the future of faith.
At this month's Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake City, Hochman bucked that trend, bringing two of her high school contributors to speak at a panel on interfaith cooperation among young people.
"In the hundreds of panels this week, there were, all together, only about seven kids who spoke," she said. "I think that's a missed opportunity."
Panels such as KidSpirit's are essential because today's middle and high schoolers can teach everyone about the value of interfaith initiatives, Hochman said. With only a few keyboard strokes, a generation raised on Google searches and smartphone technology can learn about other religions and exchange ideas with other believers that promote the interfaith ideals of understanding and collaboration.
This engagement could challenge personal beliefs, leading young people to view their family's religious traditions with a more skeptical lens. But Hochman and other adults who work with youth said giving kids freedom to learn about other faiths could also pave the way to a more peaceful future and most often keeps young people active and interested in their religious communities.
"I no longer think we ought to think of faith formation and then interfaith cooperation as sequential; I think these things are much more intersected," said Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core.
Younger faces of faith
The Pew Research Center's latest religious landscape survey, released in May, found that young adults are more likely than older Americans to be religiously unaffiliated. More than one-third (36 percent) of younger millennials, born between 1990 and 1996, don't associate with a particular faith group, Pew reported.
In light of findings such as these, some people assume today's teenagers are destined to leave faith behind even though many kids are naturally curious about life's big questions, Hochman said.
"A child who wants to talk about deep stuff might start thinking about it when they're 4 or 10 or 12," she noted.
KidSpirit's Interfaith Connections section publishes three perspectives on each issue's theme from three different faith traditions, challenging young people to describe what their tradition says about a subject and what they believe.
"We know that by putting this information out there in a positive spirit, it's very educational," Hochman said.
It's also empowering, according to Skyler Sallick, 16, who has been leading a KidSpirit editorial board at her school in Massachusetts for the past two years. Members of these boards edit story submissions together and discuss issues such as morality and war.
"(Teenagers) have deep thoughts, and we can articulate them in interesting ways. A lot of times, adults are interested because they didn't realize we have the ability to interact that way," she said, speaking on KidSpirit's Parliament panel.
Through KidSpirit, Sallick has drawn on her interfaith relationships to deepen her spiritual life.
"I wasn't raised in a particular religion, and I was encouraged to go out and figure out (my beliefs) for myself," she said. "I've learned so much about different faiths and religions. What I believe is very individualized."
Religious practice came naturally for 16-year-old Nimai Agarwal, a member of the Vaishnava branch of Hinduism.
"I've grown up surrounded by members of my religion and hearing stories from our scriptures," he said, sharing a Parliament stage with Hochman and Sallick.
However, he wasn't content to remain sheltered from the world's religious diversity. Four years ago, when a faith leader told him about KidSpirit, he started an editorial board at his Maryland school.
"I knew it was a great opportunity to talk about my faith," said Agarwal, now a 10th-grader. "KidSpirit is a place I can express my beliefs and widen my understanding of religion."
Sallick and Agarwal said their parents have welcomed their interfaith engagement, but some families view initiatives such as KidSpirit with fear rather than approval, Hochman said.
She remembers meeting with the father of an evangelical Christian girl. Although his daughter was deeply rooted in the family's faith, he seemed uncomfortable exposing her to other religions with practices that contradicted her own.
Hesitation on the part of some parents is understandable because blossoming faith can be challenged when kids measure their religion against the beliefs of their friends and peers, said Jesse Matthews, a psychologist based in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.
"When a Christian (student) meets a Jewish friend or classmate, his or her religion might be so different that the Christian might not question what they're taught," he said. "But from one form of Christianity to another, there is less of a contrast. Confusion is more likely to happen."
Interfaith programs present young people with different challenges, Matthews said, noting that "it depends on the extent of their involvement in their own religion."
Some, like Agarwal, could feel that their faith is enriched by bringing it into conversation with other traditions. Others, such as Sallick, who never belonged to a particular group, could feel more comfortable picking and choosing what they believe as a result of learning about other religions.
Attitudes toward interfaith programs will vary from family to family, Matthews said. "Some (parents) would be more tolerant if their child said, 'I'm not as religious as you. Maybe my beliefs are different.' For other families, that would be tragic."
Letting kids take the lead
Although some families might be anxious about where interfaith engagement could lead, parents should recognize the benefits of letting kids direct their spiritual journeys, which include enhanced compassion and conflict resolution skills, Hochman said.
"When kids are the impetus, most parents will come along," she noted.
Patel said he enjoys watching his children, ages 5 and 8, understand the family's Islamic faith in new ways through interactions with other young people.
"My children ask all the time, 'What is our obligation to these people?' and I explain that the Muslim obligation is mercy and friendship and kindness and openness," he said. "I wouldn't have had the opportunity to make that dimension of their tradition salient for them" if they weren't aware of religious diversity.
Allowing children and teenagers to investigate other faith traditions also holds educational benefits, said Lena McCain, co-creator of Spiritual Playdate, which provides interfaith curriculums for 5- to 10-year-olds. She noted that starting interfaith engagement at a young age helps kids grow into spiritually literate adults.
"We know it's easier to learn when you're younger because your mind grabs on to it and builds new neural pathways," she said. "Teens can power through information at such a complex level."
During his four years contributing to KidSpirit, Agarwal has learned to see his faith, his friends and the world in new ways.
He's written about Hinduism's stance on caring for the environment and on gender issues, pouring over his scriptures each time, searching for answers.
The piece on gender "was the toughest article for me to write, but it was a great example of how KidSpirit has helped me reconcile parts of my religion that seem contradictory," he said.
Before KidSpirit, Agarwal and his friends "didn't talk about religion or philosophy. Instead, we would talk about video games, movies, our friends and our life," he added. "On the editorial board, we opened up. It was cool to see that transformation."
Agarwal is only eligible to participate in KidSpirit for one more year, but he said the lessons he's learned through the interfaith program will serve him for the rest of his life.
"We live in a world where we're constantly in contact with other cultures and religions," he said, highlighting how media reports regularly mention Islam. "It's important at this age to be able to rationalize all of that and understand how all religions are similar or different."
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