When Beth Damsgaard-Rodriguez helps lead a confirmation class at her church she not only teaches about her own beliefs but opens her students’ eyes to what people of faith around them believe.
And for one recent group of her students, that meant visiting both a temple and a mosque to meet teens who are Hindu or Muslim.
“The truth is, you strengthen your faith when you share with others,” the Glendale woman said.
Damsgaard-Rodriguez, a former Peace Corps worker and former director of a nonprofit interfaith organization, worked with other leaders to organize the recent house of worship tour. Teens from her that church — Pilgrim Congregational Church United Church of Christ — joined teens from Bal Vihar, Center for Indian Cultural Education, and the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.
About 15 teenagers spent the day explaining the basic beliefs of their faith to each other and giving tours of their worship spaces.
“We wanted to have the kids themselves explain what the basic tenets of their faiths are to their peers,” she said. “When they are in the role of teachers, you see the joy of their faith. They weren’t shy about it.”
In the end, they found that they were not as different as they might have thought, she said.
“They found far more similarities,” she said. “They asked questions to better understand … that were far more in depth than a lot of adults.”
“The kids really strengthened their faith in all three groups.”
Damsgaard-Rodriguez said she saw special meaning in holding the event on Sept. 10, a day during which adults around them were marking the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was beautiful – while everybody else was having conversations about pain and horror and being attacked, these guys were talking about peace and about how we are all so similar,” she said.
She said the teenagers had deep questions for each other and became so engrossed in their conversations that the adults had a hard time bringing the event to an end.
Each teen went home with a key ring they made together, with the word “Peace” written in Arabic, Sanskrit and English on different colored ribbons.
Damsgaard-Rodriguez said she thought the event went so well that she is organizing a similar event for area teens, called Ahisma Day, on Nov. 6. Ahimsa is a Hindu concept that focuses on non-violence and interfaith harmony, she said.
The youth will explore these traits in faith leaders such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They will discover how they can apply these principles into their own experiences through a morning of interactive activities, she said.
Damsgaard-Rodriguez, 45, has worked as a house mom at a children’s home and as a youth minister. After college, she spent three years in Costa Rica with the Peace Corps, teaching adult literacy classes and helping to set up a kindergarten and a health clinic.
Today she works as an interfaith consultant for the YMCA, helping to combine interfaith learning with diversity and leadership programs at the Monsanto Family YMCA and the Campus YMCA at Washington University.
Previously she was the executive director of Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls, a group that tries to foster interfaith dialogue as well as service.
Anyone interested in learning more about Ahisma Day should contact Damsgaard-Rodriguez at email@example.com.