Religious Diversity: Understanding it Early – Michelle Thomas

My journey in the arena of inter-faith dialogue and co-operation began during my early years of life. Coming from an Indian family, which is usually not very diverse with religion, considering the norm to marry within your community, my family is different. My Father hails from an Indian Orthodox Christian background, while my Mother from a Hindu background. Although I grew up as Christian, I was made well-aware about stories from Hinduism and the importance of certain religious festivals. One of the earliest lessons I received from my mother was that I should learn to respect all faiths and the people who practice them too.

Living in the United Arab Emirates, an Arab country with expatriates from all different cultures, it was mandatory that schools’ taught students a course on Islamic awareness and how to be respectful to people of the religion. Those classes, along with the similarities between the Bible and Quran, increased my innate curiosity to learn more about other faiths. Therefore, it was very common for me to facilitate respectful conversations with people from different faiths such as Islam, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. I would spend most of my free time in between classes and on the bus discussing my faith and asking my peers questions about their faith

While at Church, I was part of Sunday School and hence was exposed to learning about the Bible, Church history and the comparative study between different sects within Christianity. I studied at Sunday school since I was 3, gave annual exams for each grade and finally graduated in 2016.

Having friends from different faith backgrounds, I also participated in various religious celebrations. While I celebrated Christmas at my home every year, I got invited to Eid Celebrations and Iftar Dinners (The meal that Muslims have when they break their fast during Ramadan) by my Muslim friends, and Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) and Holi (Hindu festival of colours) celebrations by my Hindu friends. Partaking in such festivities allowed me to understand the joy of religious diversity.

While all these personal experiences growing up developed my keen interest for religious diversity, I was exposed to the formal aspect of interfaith education during a visit to Miami, Florida for a school conference during high school. My host mom happened to teach elementary children about Interreligious diversity and was very keen to hear about my background as an Indian Orthodox Christian. She insisted that I should share about my faith with her students and I agreed. When I walked into her office, I saw posters about the similarities and differences of world religions and core values of each religion. I was absolutely amazed to see such posters and the degree of formalness about inter-faith teaching in schools in America. I realized that when schools exposed children to inter-faith dialogue at such a young age, it would really make a huge difference. It was a really great opportunity for me to share my faith and answer questions that the children had about my talk. Furthermore, I learnt a lot from my exchange with the elementary kids as they went to share their faith backgrounds.
This experience made me realize that it is imperative for everyone to learn about religious diversity from a young age. While I have been fortunate to be associated with family and friends from different faith backgrounds all throughout my life, I realize that not everyone has such opportunities. This is exactly why schools across the world should take an effort to have formal interfaith education and people should be more inclined to respectfully discuss religion.

– Michelle Thomas