The Operation Understanding tour led youths to four faith communities.
Josh Brown moved with his family from Chicago to Tulsa recently, so he’s used to experiencing new environments.
The 13-year-old attended an Episcopal church in Chicago but chose to attend Boston Avenue United Methodist Church with relatives after he moved here. His eyes were opened to more unfamiliar religious traditions on Sunday when he joined a group of about 200 people on the 2013 Operation Understanding Interfaith Youth Tour.
Tourgoers from a number of area religious institutions and schools traveled to four different houses of worship on the tour, which is held each year with the intention of creating interaction and dialogue among youths who might otherwise be in a more insular religious structure.
“Especially now, lots of people’s views are nearsighted,” Brown said. “They’ll say (about other people’s religions), ‘Well, they can’t be right. I have to be right.’ And they’ll never open their eyes to experience these other people and other faiths they may not know anything about.”
Brown and the other tourgoers traveled to a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, a Methodist church and a Hindu temple.
As opposed to a field trip where they might walk through an empty building, the students were treated to a more interactive, hands-on experience. They spoke to members of each faith and witnessed first-hand aspects of each religion. “It’s good for kids to get to touch it and feel it,” said Audra Fogle, a member of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, as well as the director of senior high youth ministries at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church. “The intent is to educate, not to proselytize. It’s just to see people show the tenets of their faith.
“We don’t have to believe alike, to love alike. I think that fits.”
The tour also serves to foster respect for the different groups. Many students have attended the tour — which visits different institutions each year — multiple times, and Fogle said she saw some female repeat attendees cover their hair — as Muslim women do — at the Masjid Al Salam mosque on Sunday afternoon.
“It was great,” Fogle said. “It was done as a sign of respect for them, and it’s something that came naturally. It’s not something that the mosque requested they do. It’s good to see that kind of respect grow among these kids at such a young age.”
For 16-year-old Jeremy Garrison of Tulsa, the diversity of the people and architecture of the buildings stood out.
“Each building is so unique,” Garrison said while at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church. A member of All Souls Unitarian Church, where the windows are clear glass to connect people with the outside world, he noted that “there are so many interesting shapes here, and the stained glass windows here are very interesting.”
Garrison said he appreciated this year’s edition of the tour for its more personal feel, as opposed to what was described by others as a lecture-heavy event in previous years.
Celeste Moss, a 16-year-old who attends the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Owasso, attended the event for the first time Sunday.
“I knew it would be eye-opening,” she said. “But it’s also very interesting to see the similarities between all the faiths. I really like how you realize that we’re all equal. It’s cool to see and experience it first hand.”
In the end, Fogle said fostering this discussion not only among the religions but also among the students can only lead to good things for the city.
“We want the city of Tulsa to look out for each other,” she said. “What you find is that the Golden Rule applies to all things. There are ways we can all connect to each other.”