Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wellesley Students Visit a Mosque - a Challenge to Tolerance

I was surprised to find Wellesley, Massachusetts, where I live, on the front page and editorial page of yesterday's Boston Globe.

Here's the story:

Sixth graders at the Wellesley Middle School take a course on "Enduring Beliefs and the World Today." The course includes study of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. According to the school superintendent "each teaching unit is developed similarly for consistency of presentation with the following construct: Stories of Origin and Important People (Early History), Core Beliefs, Holy Writings, Symbols & Objects, Holy Places & Places of Worship, Rituals & Rites of Passage, and Celebrations & Holidays." Students visit a mosque and a synagogue, attend a Gospel concert, and meet with a Hindu group.

In May, on a visit to the mosque, five boys (not Muslim) joined in the prayer service. A parent chaperone videotaped the service and gave the film to "Americans for Peace and Tolerance." Last week the group posted a decidedly unpeaceful and intolerant youtube video. Throughout the video a prominent banner at the top of the screen trumpets "Wellesley public school students learn to pray to Allah." In the spirit of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the video conjures a Muslim plot to convert vulnerable sixth graders.

In a thoughtful letter to parents, Bella Wong, Superintendent of Schools, (see here), supports the idea of teaching students about the range of beliefs in our pluralistic world. She's right - we need to understand each other. But she apologizes for the participation in prayer:
The purpose of the field trip was for students to visit and observe a place of worship. It was not the intent for students to be able to participate in any of the religious practices. The fact that any students were allowed to do so in this case was an error. I extend my sincere apologies for the error that occurred and regret the offense it may have caused. In the future, teachers will provide more clear guidance to students to better define what is allowed to fulfill the purpose of observation.
Years ago my two sons attended the Wellesley Middle School. If they had asked for permission to join in a ritual that was not part of our own family tradition I would have said "it's fine to join in as long as it's not offensive to the people you are visiting."

When I was hitchhiking around France after my second year of college, I observed the services at a small, rural Catholic church. The young priest was giving communion, and he caught my eye and invited me to join in. I didn't - I'm not Catholic, and I feared that if a non-Catholic participated in the ritual it would be seen as a sacrilege. Years later I asked a friend who was a priest about the theology. He told me - "you would not have done any harm to the Host or have been doing anything disrespectful." Had I known that I would have responded differently in that little country church.

In teaching young health professionals we try to encourage empathy. When we are able to feel our way into our patients' worlds we become more effective clinicians and better human beings. With regard to the "Wellesley five," Marijane Tuohy, another parent-chaperone, got it right: "It was just a simple prayer. I think the students were just trying to experience it. They weren’t being indoctrinated. If anything, it was just the opposite."

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