Five years ago, a fledgling interfaith event geared for young people drew about 40 teens and their advisers.

These days, the Oklahoma Conference of Churches’ annual Interfaith Youth Tour has attracted up to 300 people, filling at least four charter buses that travel to three houses of worship or cultural venues in the metro area.

The Rev. William Tabbernee said the youth tour was organized by the Conference of Churches’ Religions United Committee and was held for several years before he became the organization’s executive director in 2011. Before his involvement, the tour was not held consecutively, but he decided it would be beneficial to offer it as an annual event.

The tour’s growth is a good indication that people’s interest in religions and cultures other than their own has been piqued, Tabbernee said.

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Tabbernee said the tour initially was created to coincide with International Day of Peace, sometimes unofficially known as World Peace Day, on Sept. 21.

However, he and other interfaith leaders said the tour is particularly timely because some faith traditions are being maligned or misrepresented through presidential election rhetoric and other means. They said education about different faith beliefs and houses of worship is key to dispelling myths.

“We’re changing perceptions one kid at a time and overcoming stereotypes one kid at a time,” Tabbernee said.

Cultural variations

The next tour is set for Sept. 25 and will feature stops at East Sixth Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 1139 NE 6; Masjid Mu’min Mosque, 1322 NE 23; and Vien-Giac Buddhist Temple, 5101 NE 36.

Previous tours have included Frontline Church-downtown Oklahoma City, Grand Mosque, Temple B’nai Israel, Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, Sikh Gurdwara of Oklahoma City, St. John Missionary Baptist Church, Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City’s mosque, Edmond Baha’i Faith Center, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, the Hindu Temple of Oklahoma City and St. George Greek Orthodox Church.

Adam Soltani is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Oklahoma chapter, but he also serves as chairman of the Religions United Committee that coordinates the youth tour.

He said he recommended that the tour include houses of worship in the northeast metro area because many of the tour participants have not had opportunities to visit that part of the community at large.

The tour included the Vien-Giac Buddhist Temple several years ago, but this is the first year East Sixth Street Christian Church and Masjid Mu’min Mosque, both predominantly black, have been featured.

Soltani said it’s important to show the young people that congregations that share faith traditions with other houses of worship may have differences in cultural practices and other aspects.

“They will find that Christianity and Islam do not have one look, but they exist in different cultures within their own city,” Soltani said.

Firsthand look

The Muslim leader and Rabbi Vered Harris said the tour gives young people a front-and-center look into faith traditions other than their own.

“I think people are hungry for actual information from the source, rather than from other people,” Soltani said. “Young people, in my opinion, are open-minded to other cultures and ways of life.”

Harris shared similar sentiments.

“We think that it’s important so that they can learn firsthand about other faiths. Seeing actual faith practices and going into the actual houses of worships helps them get a better understanding,” she said.

“It makes it not scary. It makes it accessible and comfortable to know that you are welcome.”

Harris said it was important to Temple B’nai Israel leaders that the Jewish house of worship open its doors for the tour. The temple at 4901 N Pennsylvania was part of the tour in 2004, 2011 and 2013.

During the 2013 tour visit to the temple, Harris and Rabbi Abby Jacobson, Emanuel Synagogue’s spiritual leader, answered visitors’ questions. The rabbis’ session was preceded by an information session hosted by Jewish youths who spoke about Judaism to their non-Jewish counterparts.

The tour participants were shown the temple’s sacred Torah scrolls and also got to go inside a sukkah, a hut-like structure used in ancient times during the harvest season. The sukkah was created at Temple B’nai for the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Harris told those on the tour that many Jews build sukkahs in their backyards and sleep in them during Sukkot while others build them at their house of worship.

“We always welcome visitors to our building, because we want to know our neighbors, and we want them to know us,” she said during a recent interview. “I believe when we build bridges, we are building a better world.”

Building bridges

Tabbernee said he has been impressed with the distance some groups come to participate in the youth tour. He said many metro-area houses of worship bring youths each year, but participants also have come from churches in Ardmore, Enid, Stillwater, Altus, Morris and McAlester.

He said a fee of $15 per person helps defray transportation costs and hasn’t been seen as a deterrent.

Meanwhile, Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said the society’s mosque has welcomed non-Muslim visitors for many years.

He said a visit to a mosque is requested about 80 percent of the time in surveys of tour attendees. Enchassi said he attributes this to young people’s general curiosity about Islam, and the interfaith group coordinating the tour seeks to capitalize on this interest.

Enchassi said youths have seemed eager to build bridges with people of other faiths and to help each other to see what they can do together to serve humanity.

“We decided early on if this message is to resonate in the future that we ought to start bridging those differences early on in people’s lives,” he said. “We also have a tour for adults, but the youth are the ones that are going to take that message to a totally different level.”

Also, he said requests for mosque visits typically increase when anti-Muslim rhetoric increases around the state and country.

“To be quite honest, the more negative news about Islam out there, the more politicians spew the hate against Islam, the more people are coming and wanting to know more about Islam,” Enchassi said.

He said tour participants often come away from the event having reflected on and strengthened their own faith beliefs.

“It’s really fascinating, as Eboo Patel says in his book “Sacred Grounds,” people go to other people’s places of worship and reflect inward about their own faith,” Enchassi said. “The kids reflect inward about their own faith and their own experiences, so it strengthens one’s faith to be part of an interfaith movement.”