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A Shared Humanity

Children at the Well fosters interfaith understanding through youth storytelling

by Kathryn Geurin on September 8, 2011

The mention of teen and tween YouTube videos likely conjures thoughts of hairbrush karaoke or daredevil stunts. It probably doesn’t evoke visions of a poised, charismatic young woman unfurling an evocative creation myth for a rapt audience composed of all ages, races and faiths. And yet, it’s just that scene that Children at the Well Youth Storytellers for Peace & Understanding have crafted through years of collaboration between area children and their professional storytelling coaches.

In the days following 9/11, attacks against the Muslim community were so prevalent that the AnNur Islamic School in Schenectady, the Capital Region’s only full-time Islamic school, closed its doors for a week. Death threats had been made against other Muslim schools, and the AnNur administration feared their students were at risk. When classes finally resumed, the anxiety remained, but in a break from the hostility many of the nation’s Islamic communities encountered, AnNur opened their doors to an outpouring of support.

 

One of those supporters was Gert Johnson. A former religion teacher with Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons Catholic High School, Johnson also spearheaded the Interfaith Story Circle of the Tri-City Area, an informal interfaith storytelling group that met monthly in churches and synagogues around the Capital Region. Johnson offered to hold a storytelling workshop with the students at AnNur school, to help strengthen their faith, identity and understanding in the aftermath of 9/11.

The workshop furthered Johnson’s hope to engage more youth in interfaith storytelling. Despite efforts to welcome children to the Story Circle, the group of storytellers remained adult—save for 11-year-old Adah Hetko, who leapt enthusiastically into storytelling, attending the group’s monthly meetings and participating in their annual performances. But Hetko wanted storytelling peers.

The seeds were planted, and in 2005, Johnson, along with Hetko’s mother, Paula Weiss, and other storytelling advocates, drafted a proposal for the Brimstone Award from the National Storytelling Network.

“It was a $5,000 award for a storytelling program that had the potential to work almost a chemical change in the community,” says Weiss. “We wrote the proposal for a program to train kids in interfaith storytelling. And we won.”

Children at the Well Youth Storytellers for Peace & Understanding, for which Weiss now serves as director, launched their first classes in 2006, with Hetko and a handful of students from the original AnNur school workshop at the programs’ core.

The students, who come from Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Unitarian, even atheist backgrounds, meet weekly with story coaches and peers over a 12-week session. The coaches are all local professional storytellers who have been drawn to the program’s misson to connect youth and families of different faiths in sharing stories from their diverse traditions, and in doing so, to subtly shape their tolerance of all religious traditions.

“The coaches work with the students on finding stories from their own traditions that resonate with them,” says Weiss. “They draw on people in their congregations and communities, on the holy books, folk stories, scripture and personal family stories, to find stories with a tie to their own tradition that they are able to articulate.”

After selecting their stories, the students work with coaches to hone their storytelling techniques and develop their tales before they present them, in an organic and unscripted public performance at the end of the session.

“Each of our kids gains a new appreciation for all the riches that exist in their own traditions,” says Weiss. “They get deeper into their own story and learn to communicate it to other people; it’s almost like being able to pass on an electric current. They feel it flowing through them to others in the community, being able to share and to highlight what’s wonderful about their own traditions with the larger community.”

Through learning to articulate and celebrate the stories from their different faiths, the students, in turn, serve as a bridge to understanding and common ground. “At the level of heart,” says Weiss, “so many of these stories have the same messages, are saying the same things. Some of them are even the same stories. It really binds us together as a community to realize that the different traditions are different branches of the same impulse to live a better life, to be a better person.”

Alaudeen Umar, a high school senior who is both African-American and Muslim, began participating in Children at the Well when he was in sixth grade. Now in his sixth year with the program, Umar says he used to experience frequent offhand instances of discrimination and intolerance. “Before joining the program, I think I was a little more innocent, but a little less aware of the world,” he says. “I would hear things and think they were normal, just jokes. Like being called a terrorist. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve become a little more aware about what that means. I can stand up for myself now, and for other kids.”

According to Weiss, Children at the Well gives students and parents alike a safe community of friends where they can talk about their experiences with intolerance and discrimination. In addition to the storytelling program, the group also holds gatherings for parents while the children are developing their stories, to help build connections across the generations.

“I think what Children at the Well does is it proves the stereotypes wrong.” Says Umar. “Every religion may have negative points, but every religion also has positive points and Children at the Well celebrates the positive points of every religion. It shows that there are Muslim kids who can get along with non-Muslim kids, with Christian kids or Jewish kids, or Hindu kids, it definitely builds understanding. . . . You get to look through the looking glass at other religions, and you also learn to better understand and talk about your own.”

Weiss proudly rattles of a list of Children at the Well students and alumni who are emerging as leaders in what she considers a vital national interfaith movement that has evolved over the past decade.

Ben Russell, one of the programs’ first students, served as the youth director of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park, and last year requested a copy of the Quran for a Hanukkah gift. Russell is currently studying Comparative Religions at Hudson Valley. “He’s reading the Quran, learning everything he can about religious philosophy and discussing it with anyone who is willing,” says Weiss.

Another alumni, John Lyon, is working on a documentary about Children at the Well for his college filmmaking program. The final shoot will take place Sunday, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, carrying the story of hope full-circle to the program’s roots in helping students process the tragedy.

And Weiss’s own daughter, Adah Hetko, now in her third year at Oberlin College, is a key organizer in campus storytelling and interfaith service programs. Hetko reflects fonly on the impact Children at the Well had on her perceptions of herself and her world.

“It connected me with my own Judaism,” says Hetko, “which I wouldn’t have been interested in at all, but I started really loving Jewish stories. . . . It helped me realize that religion is something that is really living in people, and in their lives today. When I think ‘Christian’ I don’t think about Jesus or archaic stories that are inaccessible and foreign. I think of people I know and care about. It made me see how people from different ages and schools and faiths can really come together and talk candidly about their traditions and experiences, and about their common ground.”