Opening the door to religious diversity

By  Leila Wong-Ko-Nang, Youth Speak News
  • January 29, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - A school visit to three places of worship is not an average field trip, but this is exactly what 50 Canadian Catholic schools have experienced since 2001.

The field trip is offered by the Canadian Centre for Diversity, a privately funded organization that began from a small experimental initiative six years ago. 

“The purpose of this program is to ensure that today’s youth get a chance to learn about other religions and faiths in a non-threatening environment. It is to foster open dialogue,” said Judy Csillag, director of faith-based initiatives for the Canadian Centre for Diversity.

Today, the program caters to approximately 15,000 students annually in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Halifax, with plans to expand to all provinces.

It offers free full-day field trips to elementary and high school students in which they visit three places of worship and learn about the basic beliefs and practices of religions.

The majority of participating schools come from Catholic boards and private schools in Ontario. Due to the mandatory Grade 11 world religions course in Ontario’s Catholic school curriculum, students are exposed to various religions outside of Catholicism, allowing the program to function as a hands-on way of experiencing other religions.

“This program is a great way of immersing students in the sacred space of other religions and this trip definitely increased the students’ respect and understanding of other religions,” said Marilyn Grace, chaplain for Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts Secondary School in Toronto.

In December she accompanied three Grade 11 world religion classes to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu Temple, Adath Israel Synagogue and Fo Guang Buddhist Temple.

“So many horrible things happen in this world today because of religious conflicts and this program is important to Catholics because it encourages us to celebrate differences, not tolerate them,” said Grace.

“Our Catholic Church calls for ecumenical understanding and not only to be aware of other religions, but to accept everyone as God’s people.”

Public schools, on the other hand, do not offer religion courses at the elementary level and the world religions course is only optional in the public high school curriculum. But last fall the first public school in Canada went on the field trip, as a Grade 8 class of 23 students from Brampton’s Calderstone Elementary School boarded a school bus to visit a Hindu temple, an Islamic mosque and a Jain temple. 

“We do not have a religion course in our curriculum so I can’t really teach religion,” said Calderstone teacher Aamer Zuberi, “but this trip is how I can teach them about religion. I was happy to finally find an organization that is willing to teach diversity and embrace other cultures and religions.”

The program has now become a Peel public board initiative and is open to all schools in the board.

The field trip is administered year-round to both elementary and high schools.

For information, contact Csillag at (416) 597- 9693 ext. 24 or visit www.centrefordiversity.ca.

(Wong-Ko-Nang, 23, is a masters student in theology at the Toronto School of Theology.) 

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