All faiths welcome in Catholic schools
Non-Catholic students bring diversity, unity to all students (Extended version)
Mustafa Filat, nicknamed "Mo-Mo," will be the first to say he's no different than any other student at Catholic High School in Little Rock.
The 17-year-old senior said his fellow students are a "brotherhood" -- attending Mass, participating in religion classes and activities while sharing the high school experience. But while his brothers receive holy Communion during Mass, Filat, a Muslim, goes up for a blessing.
"It's not really stressed that I'm different, I don't feel like a different person. I like it," Filat said of attending a Catholic school. "I sometimes fast during the month of Ramadan. I'm allowed to go to the library while everyone else is eating."
Filat is part of the 22 percent of students within the 30 Catholic schools throughout Arkansas that is not Catholic.
Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Little Rock, said the Catholic schools have a non-discriminatory policy, accepting all faiths with the understanding that the schools are a ministry to the Catholic Church. Students must participate in all Catholic-related activities, including attending Mass.
"I do not know of any Catholic school that would deny any faith," Bowen said. "We believe that the parents are the primary educators of their children and that they are in partnership with the school to develop their child spiritually and morally. As Catholic educators, we are to teach the Gospel message and live as Christ teaches in the Gospel to be models to all."
Catholic school principals throughout the state said all non-Catholic parents understand before they enroll their children that they will learn the rituals and traditions of the Catholic faith.
"We do see all the boys who come through us as having great value and dignity and while they're with us, we will offer them academic and religious formation," said Rob Loia, principal at the all-boys Subiaco Academy. "One of the things we do ask the boys' families is to understand that is what we're offering and to accept that."
Filat's father, Isaac, said he chose to send his son to Catholic High School because of the school's moral reputation and educational excellence.
"They don't force their religion on you," Isaac Filat said. "They're not trying to convert my kid over to Catholicism."
CHS principal Steve Straessle said the school opened in 1930, and at least since the 1960s the student population has stayed about 30 to 35 percent non-Catholic, with religions ranging from a variety of Protestant faiths to Buddhism.
"We had one boy who was a (Muslim) foreign exchange student, adamant about the times to pray. We worked his schedule out (to have the time) to pray and have a quiet room for him to go to," Straessle said, adding that once, even at an away football game, he made time for prayer.
"He put his blanket under the stands and began his prayers. Some kids from the other school were making fun of it, (the Catholic High) boys came to his assistance and he finished his prayer."
Straessle said students of other religions have the opportunity to discuss their faith in world religion classes. Straessle and most other principals agreed they have not had any disciplinary problems resulting from students not accepting another person's faith.
"Everything is taught from the Catholic perspective, but with that said, every religious tradition is respected. We've never thought of Catholic High as the happy hunting ground for new Catholics," Straessle said. "We're using it to teach the kids about Catholicism ... If a boy comes to Catholic High and he's Jewish ... if he graduates as a devout Jew that has a strong understanding of Christianity I'd consider that a success."
Bowen said while the schools do not try to convert students, "I do see families convert to Catholicism by having their children in our schools," adding that she herself converted to the faith when her son attended a Catholic school.
"I think that the reason Christianity and education go so well together is because both are focused on not what the individual is, but what the individual will become," Straessle said. "To lose sight of that ... narrows the impact and power of each."
In May, Little Rock Christian Academy, a private Christian school, denied a 4-year-old boy admittance into the school's pre-kindergarten because he is Mormon. The school has had the policy of excluding people that are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints since it opened in 1977, but some years the ban has not been enforced, according to a May 31 article published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The article quoted Carla Emanuel, a Little Rock Christian Academy school board member, as saying of Mormons, "I don't believe they'll go to heaven."
Diane Wolfe, principal of Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, said religious diversity should be a lesson for students.
"As for Little Rock Christian Academy not accepting a Mormon student, I was just like many, a little amazed, but certainly the private school has the opportunity to do that," Wolfe said. "But they certainly missed out on a great learning opportunity for their students."
Kathleen Green, a teacher at St. Joseph High School in Conway for 26 years, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and called the situation at Little Rock Christian Academy "sad."
"I think it's an overreaction on the part of religious leaders. It's sad because these are kids, they're not going to go around prophesying," Green said. "I was sorry people had just a closed-minded attitude."
Bowen said 21 percent of the staff in Catholic schools are not-Catholic, but those teacher are not allowed to teach religion classes. According to the diocesan policy, "teachers employed in diocesan schools should be either active, committed Catholics or individuals who have a positive attitude toward the Catholic faith and a commitment to Christian living."
Green said while she is a devout Mormon and vocal about her faith, she has respect for the Catholic Church and her experience at St. Joseph has been positive. Green said when she was first hired at the school, administrators held a meet-and-greet and only served alcohol, which is prohibited in her religion.
"I went out in the hall and filled up my cup with water from the drinking fountain. When I came back in, another teacher I had met and talked to and knew I am Mormon, she said, 'This will never happen again.' From that day forward, there has always been a bottle of Sprite sitting on the table," Green said. "They've always been accepting. We believe in the Ten Commandments, we believe in Christ as our Savior ... We are all Christians and trying to live the Golden Rule basically."
Isaac Filat said it's important to understand the similarities in a variety of religions.
"If you just primarily teach your faith, I don't think an individual will grow and make his own decisions about religious beliefs," he said. "The stories in the Bible, Koran and Torah almost parallel one another."
St. Joseph High School principal Joe Mallet said many religions "came from variations of the Catholic faith."
"When you study all religions, it opens up everyone's eyes," Mallet said. "Our goal is to get to heaven; we're all trying for that."
Leah Elenzweig said her daughter Bayley, a junior at Mount St. Mary's, has not only had a rich educational experience, but a chance to understand another religion. Her other daughter, Lexi, will be a freshmen this year at the academy.
"Our Judaism is very important to us. I love the fact that they can see another religion and watch it work and how it works and learn about themselves with the similarities as well as the differences. You can be part of the whole but have differences from it," Elenzweig said. "I want my children to respect other people's beliefs."
Bayley Elenzweig, 17, who is very active at Temple B'nai Israel in Little Rock, said people should learn about other religions in order to "survive in this world."
"I still have to take theology class like everyone else. It's been weird, but they've been nice about it and not in your face about anything ... I had a lot of misconceptions about Catholicism that I found out aren't true," Bayley Elenzweig said. "Most of the kids in my school have never met anyone who is Jewish. They wanted to know more because they were really interested. A lot of them asked a lot of questions."
About 30 percent of the academy's students are non-Catholic, Wolfe said. All students follow the school's list of Mercy Values, which includes "recognition for the intrinsic worth and dignity of each person" and "respect for varied religious traditions and beliefs," according to its website, mtstmary.edu.
"Once we did research on the Mercy Values, I was blown away because the Mercy Values are what I share," Leah Elenzweig said. "I felt like if my daughter could absorb those values in my home and at school it would make her a better person."
Wolfe said the academy makes accommodations for students of other faiths to be able to participate in their own traditions, including a Muslim student who graduated last year.
"We made accommodations for her at noontime to participate in her prayer and provided her, actually in our chapel, a quiet sacred place for her to participate with her faith," Wolfe said.
The academy also hosts the annual Christian Unity Week, where pastors from other faiths in the area say a morning prayer and a few words over a closed circuit TV, broadcast to the students.
Betsy Young, minister of discipleship and spiritual formation at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, said she's spoken at Christian Unity Week twice.
"Both times I kind of took the opportunity to talk about the church getting outside of its walls regardless of what our denomination is and making a difference in the community around us," Young said. "I've experienced just a lot of openness and felt really embraced by the faculty and the students."
Jim Hattabaugh, principal at Trinity Junior High School in Fort Smith, said the school emphasizes that "we are all children of God," an important concept to accept not only as a student, but as a working adult.
"It's important not only for spiritual reasons, but economic as well. We're in a global economy and being able to interact and do business with people of another faith, I think it's good to have that knowledge and ground work to be prepared for that," Hattabaugh said.
Though religious diversity is more common in Catholic high schools, the state's elementary schools also have an array of religious backgrounds.
Little Rock's Christ the King School principal Kathy House said the school first accepts Catholic students and if there's room, non-Catholic students. Since the students are younger, differences in religions do not stick out as much as in the upper grades, House said.
"We try to make the (non-Catholic) children feel very comfortable. They come up to get a blessing (at Mass). They do everything," House said. "You don't know which [students] are Catholic and which are not Catholic, they blend in."
Marcia Brucks, principal at Immaculate Conception School in North Little Rock, said the school had a student a few years ago that went to the Church of Christ, which was a good learning opportunity for the young students.
"It was a great exchange between the kids. Some of the kids went to church with her to see what it was like," Brucks said. "I loved hearing them talk because they were learning so much about her religion compared to theirs ... She (also) loved learning about (Catholicism). She wanted to learn as much as she could."
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Bowen, who was then principal at St. Edwards School in Little Rock, invited Sue Filat-Alami, whose son Adam was a fourth grader at the school, to speak about the Muslim faith.
"I was born and raised in this country. This was an opportunity for me to explain that not every (Muslim) in this country is a terrorist," Filat-Alami said. "We never had any issues. We are so pro-Catholic schools."
Filat-Alami said her son went on to graduate from Catholic High School for Boys and his experience convinced her in-laws, who didn't understand why she'd send her son to a Catholic school, to provide a Catholic education for their children. She added that throughout his education, her son made straight A's in his religion courses.
"It's still one God. Each has their own way of believing," Filat-Alami said. "Everyone should accept everyone's religion and faith no matter who they are ... that's why God created everybody. He didn't create all of us the same."
Non-Catholic students and parents considering a Catholic education need to keep an "open mind," Bayley Elenzweig said.
"If you're not going to have an open mind, don't go. I had a Jewish friend who went to Mount that didn't have an open mind and left," she said. "If you're going to a place where you're not in the majority, you need to be the one that's going to be accommodating. Everyone's been very nice about (my faith) and interested in it. It's a good experience to have."
Mo-Mo Filat, who will graduate this year, said he will be leaving Catholic High as a strong young Muslim man with a clearer understanding of Catholicism and lifelong friends.
"If I didn't have the opportunity to go to Catholic, I'd be upset. I'm really glad Catholic High didn't not accept me because I wasn't Catholic," he said. "Through religion class, I've learned all about the Catholic faith and feel like I'm very informed. I'm really glad I got to open my mind and understand the Catholic faith."
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