St Francis Xavier Catholic Primary Lurnea celebrated Harmony Day with an interfaith dialogue that encouraged students from schools across Sydney’s south west to appreciate diversity and think outside the box.
Guest speaker Donna Jacobs Sife placed a cardboard partition around the presenters that the students in Years 3 to 6 nominated with a show of hands as not Australian, to show how easily people make assumptions based on appearance. Once it was removed, the Jewish presenter was joined in an open question and answer session by four other Australians – Buddhist, Muslim, Indigenous, and Christian – to dispel misconceptions about their various faiths.
“There was a time, not so long ago, you could look up the word Jew in the dictionary and you would find ‘a stingy person’,” Ms Jacobs Sife said.
“We all have to be careful about those stereotypes that sneak into our brains, not just about Jews but about all of us, and really question ‘how can that be true?’
Buddhist speaker Ling Halbert, from the Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong, told students about the importance of compassion, the Buddhist concept of nature and the history of Budda. Some were surprised to find out he was born a Nepalese prince about six centuries before Jesus, and began a quest for enlightenment when he first witnessed sickness, poverty and death.
Valerie Bryant, an Indigenous speaker from the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Sydney, was asked to explain the Dreamtime and spoke about aboriginal culture and symbols. Christian speaker Greg Lake, a Baptist, highlighted the similarities in Christian faiths.
Muslim speaker Ahmed Abdo told students how he prepared for prayer five times a day, and used a phone app that calculated the direction of Mecca, to which all Muslims pray, when at a Melbourne Airport.
He was also asked to describe how he felt about being discriminated against when people from his faith had done bad things.
“It makes me feel very upset and very angry that my religion is being hijacked by people who have Muslim sounding names and do things that Muslims do but unfortunately go against Islamic teaching,” he said.
“Sometimes I reach a point of despair and say to God ‘What am I to do? I don’t have the power to stop them’, but I do have the power to go out and show people what Islam really is and I guess that’s why I’m here.”
The event was organised by St Francis Xavier family educator Nikki Beech, and attended by Year 6 students from Christ the King Catholic Primary Bass Hill, All Saints Catholic Primary Liverpool, St Christopher’s Catholic Primary Panania, St Luke’s Catholic Primary Revesby, St Therese Catholic Primary Sadlier-Miller, St Catherine Laboure Catholic Primary Gymea, and St Aloysius Catholic Primary Cronulla. Parents were also invited to attend.
“Education is key,” she said.
“We view the world based on our education so if we learn about each other’s faiths and the commonalities between them I think it gets rid of a lot of misunderstanding.”
Principal Frances Bananno said she appreciated the generosity of the presenters, who highlighted the similarities between the faiths.
“I think it’s really important, particularly in today’s climate that we open up opportunities for discussion between people of different faiths. Too often we focus on the differences when in actual fact we’re after the same thing, which is bringing God’s kingdom to earth.
“One of the things I’d like to see from this is that children are drawing positive generalisations about religion and being more empowered to make judgements based on the information they’ve been given rather than what they are hearing generally and in the media.
“Ignorance does not help to bring peace to the world. It’s through understanding and learning more about each other that we can find peaceful solutions [to conflict]. Our children are our gift for the future so that’s where we need to start.”
What the students said about the day
“I thought that it was really good to hear what all of the guest speakers had to teach us about their religion. It was good to hear about the different aboriginal tribes and how they speak all different languages. I thought they all spoke the same language.”
“I liked it because we got to learn about a lot of different religions.”
“I really liked having the experience to listen to other religions and to talk about how they pray and some of the symbols that they use as well. It was very fun to get to hear about these different faiths.”
“Today was very interesting and it was also fun. The Muslim faith was very interesting. When they pray they face towards Mecca. I didn’t know the Aboriginal faith was also kind of like our religion.”
“I liked it. It was really interesting how people from other beliefs brought in some props and explained what they mean. I was surprised how the Buddhists have more of an interesting story to budda. He was a prince.”
“I liked learning about all the different cultures. It was interesting seeing how people judged that the Islamic and Buddhist people who presented probably weren’t Australians and that the others were because of things like their skin colour, their voice, where they came from and their clothes. I’d tell my friends all the facts we’ve learnt about the differences between all of the religions, but that overall they follow Jesus or God and they all believe that once we die we go to some place like heaven.”
“I thought it was really interesting that Buddhists bathe the Budda on the 8th of April because they want to be cleansed of sin and all the things that they’ve done wrong. Another thing that was very interesting was when Donna said her prayer in a different language [Hebrew] and about the [Hanukkah] miracle where the oil burnt for eight days.”
“I found it interesting learning about the different faiths and the different rituals that each faith has. They all have a main focus. Some believe in Budda but they mostly believe in God. I thought that [the box exercise] was good because it teaches you about not discriminating against people who are different, or because of what matters to them.”