Creating an interfaith dialog among Philadelphia youth is at the center The Writers Matter initiative
The partnership brings together middle Catholic, Muslim and Jewish middle schoolers to learn about and from one another about their faiths.
America is often described as a “melting pot” due to its rich and vast diversity, but in many areas of the country, different groups of people are very divided, both geographically and emotionally.
The disconnection can lead young people to form prejudices against others that they carry into their adult life.
To promote unity, cultural awareness and appreciation, La Salle University Professor Emeritus Robert Vogel decided to direct a program known as Writers Matter, which launched in 2005.
The main goal of the program is to improve writing skills, but a less direct one is to cultivate empathy and peaceful coexistence.
In 2017, Vogel expanded the program to become an initiative for middle-school students in Philadelphia to learn about other religions and cultures. The Writers Matter Interfaith Initiative has been bringing together 8th grade students from St. Christopher’s School in Somerton, and from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.
For the first two years of the program, students from the Al Aqsa Islamic Academy in Kensington also participated, but they were unable to participate in the 2019-2020 school year due to the pandemic.
AL DÍA sat down with Diane Peters, an English language arts and religion teacher at St. Christopher Catholic School, to learn about her experiences being involved with the program for four years.
Peters explained that the original Writers Matter program started as a group of 6th-8th grade students from of Israeli, Arab and Palestinian descent from the Palestinian authority area schools in Bethlehem.
It provided an inspirational approach for students to write freely about their hopes, dreams, ambitions, family life, friends, fears, as well as their family and community lives. Students would then relate to each other’s stories and develop more positive attitudes towards peers of other races and religions.
“It’s a program that fosters a kind of fellowship in an area that's obviously been plagued with all kinds of difficulties [between] groups of people as far as their religious backgrounds,” Peters said.
When Dr. Vogel introduced the program in Philadelphia, Peters was more than happy to get involved.
“Our initial idea was to create an interreligious dialogue and get kids to start to understand people of different faiths and have an appreciation for diversity in that way,” she said.
For the first two years, all three schools collaborated with each other in sharing their beliefs, thoughts and religious practices through writing and social connection.
“The idea is letting kids have a voice and talk about the things that concern them at the age of 13 and 14 as they’re coming into adulthood,” Peters said.
Before the pandemic hit, the three schools were able to visit each other’s places of worship. Peters took her students from St. Christopher visited a mosque for the first time, as well as a synagogue, and Al Aqsa Islamic Academy and Barrack Hebrew Academy got to visit a Catholic Church.
“We would swap questions about our different background and our different religious practices,” Peters explained.
Students from the three schools were learning about things like headscarves, the Hebrew language, kosher and halal meals and different holidays like Hanukkah, Easter and Eid.
Peters feels the program is very important, especially for students from her area in Northeast Philadelphia, where there are very few people of color.
For these three Philadelphia schools, the majority of the students don’t have any friends that share a different religion or culture than their own, so the program allows them to learn and be able to work with different groups of people and find their commonalities.
“It has given them an opportunity to meet people who are completely different people of different faiths. [You’ll see] a group of kids who have completely different worlds come together and be laughing about sports or laughing or playing basketball. I think it’s something they remember forever,” Peters said.