The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York and Raffaele Timarchi is the Interfaith Center‘s education director.
By Matthew Weiner and Raffaele Timarchi
Why should students in urban high schools learn about religion?
The Interfaith Center of New York recently received a call from Penny Kapanika, a social studies teacher at Nazareth Regional High School in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. Canarsie lies on the eastern edge of Brooklyn, next to Jamaica Bay. To get to the school, you take the number 4 subway train to the end of the line, hop on a bus down Utica Avenue and finally walk to a sparsely populated neighborhood that was once an Italian and Jewish hold out against white flight.
Nazareth, a Roman Catholic school, is now ethnically African American and Caribbean. In the old days, students came from the neighborhood, but now most of them take the bus from Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. Only 51% of the kids are Catholic, but most are Christian. The kids, though, live amongst Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, where a history of racial conflict still looms large, and Muslims in “Bed Stuy,” one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I found my students asking me questions that I could not answer,” Kapanika explained. “They don’t understand why the Jews dress like this, or won’t talk with them. And honestly, I don’t know too much about it either. There are stereotypes and we need to address them.”
Kapanika found the Interfaith Center, which was interested in her case. The Interfaith Center, a secular non-profit that educates religious communities about one another, worked with Nazareth to locate religious leaders from these communities who could come in and talk with the students. They also worked with the New York Police Department’s community affairs bureau. Detective Michael Theogine, whose job is religious outreach, invited other Catholic educators to see how a school-based interfaith project could work. Theogine himself is African American and went to Nazareth in the 1980s, when he was one of the very few people of color. “It was sure different then,” he says with a smile.