MIDDLETOWN -- The planning for the Interfaith Youth Hangout began back in November, but when January 29th rolled around, the program had a new urgency. President Trump had just announced a ban on refugees. Protests had erupted at airports across the country, and there was anxiety in the Muslim community.
This gathering was developed in collaboration with the Islamic Center of Greater Hartford. Bassma Saeed and the youth team of the Berlin Mosque had hosted several Youth Hangouts in 2016 as a way to bring interfaith groups together for conversation and fellowship. The Connecticut Conference offered to reciprocate and First Church of Christ, Congregational in Middletown stepped forward to host the event at their church.
Over 100 youth and adults attended this program. “We were delighted that so many of our sister UCC churches could join us! We had folks from Asylum Hill, First Church in Hartford, Madison, Middletown First, Middletown South, Mystic, Newtown, Rocky Hill, Simsbury, Tolland, Vernon, and Westbrook. This was a showing of solidarity for our Muslim neighbors,” said Rev. Julia Burkey, senior pastor of First Church of Christ, Middletown.
Dr. Reza Mansoor, an elder from the Berlin Mosque who led a question and answer session on Islam with the adults present, expressed his appreciation. “The welcome was so warm. I am grateful to Rev. Burkey and the members of First Church of Middletown for making it such an awesome event.”
The afternoon included readings from Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic scriptures. Adults then entered the sanctuary for conversation with Dr. Mansoor. On their way they removed their shoes, a practice of reverence that is part of the Muslim tradition.
Ms. Saeed took the lead in planning a no-bake bake-off contest for youth. Teams had to “earn” ingredients for a dessert by answering questions about faith. The game produced creative team work, laughter, and some delicious treats. The group also watched the new UCC video “Trading Places”
and identified prayer, service to others, and commitment to social justice as common to each of their faith traditions.
The afternoon closed with a time for participants to reflect. Youth offered these prayers and intentions for improving interfaith relations:
- Youth from First Church of Christ in Hartford made the pledge to question stereotypes, pray for refugees, and to continue to learn about and experience other religions.
- “I hope that with God’s, help everyone can learn to look past any difference in our religions and instead focus on the similarities,” said Sarah from Westbrook.
- “I will stand up when I hear harmful misinformation being shared and I will take advantage of events where I can further my understanding of other faith traditions,” said Renae from Simsbury.
- “I pray for a world that cares about human life,” offered Kaynaat, a Muslim youth from Newington.
- Hailey from Newtown shared “I pray that my school will not discriminate against anyone because of their faith.”
- Kirsten from Westbrook prayed, “May we come together and love each other and accept our different ways to worship God.”
- Brook of Asylum Hill Congregational Church made this commitment: “I will ask respectful questions about people’s faith in order to connect more and learn about different religions.”
- “I pray for people to speak up on issues that matter and to take action and stand up for those who don’t have a voice,” said Katie of Simsbury.
- “I pray for all the wars in the world to end and equality between all races,” stated Nissa, a Muslim student from Berlin.
As they gathered for a final group picture, these wise youth looked up to see the inscription high on the wall of the parish hall, “Go out into the world in peace.” May it be so.
Debby Kirk is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ.