By Julianne Gonzalez

St. Stephen Catholic School Principal, Linda Umoh, dreamed of hosting an Interfaith Day from the moment she accepted her role as school principal in July 2016.  Today more than ever, Umoh sees a need to eradicate fear and ignorance among Americans and knew that an Interfaith Day would be a strong step in that direction.

In September, Umoh enlisted the help of Religion Coordinator Julianne Gonzalez to put together a guest list and an agenda for an Interfaith Day.  Catholic Schools Week seemed like a great time to host the Interfaith Day, as “Catholic” means “universal”.  Wednesday, February 1, 2017 was marked on the calendar as Interfaith Day.  Now all the two had to do was figure out how to celebrate it.

St. Stephen reached out to eight area schools of Christian, Islamic and Jewish faiths. Three accepted the invitation: The Hillel Academy (Jewish), The Universal Academy of Florida (Islamic) and The American Youth Academy (Islamic). The guest list included 185 eighth grade students: Islamic (140), Jewish (17) and Catholic (28).

On Wednesday, February 1, St. Stephen Catholic School opened the doors of the Family Life Center and welcomed its long awaited interfaith guests. Many students entered with smiles and some with a trace of hesitation on their faces. After Gonzalez warmly welcomed the schools, the Taoist Tai Chi Society from Brandon began the day with a historical overview of Tai Chi and led a sample class of movements for all students. In silence, 185 students moved with meditative intention, along with some giggles peppered in as they struggled to imitate the relaxed nature of the complex movements.

The Interfaith panel of religious leaders was the pinnacle of the agenda. Father Bob Schneider of St. Stephen, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg from the Hillel School, and Imam Hassan Sultan from the Universal Academy of Florida answered questions from the students. Questions such as: “What does Easter celebrate?”, “Do Muslims follow the lunar calendar?”; “Why do Jewish men wear a yamaka?”; “At what age do Muslim girls wear the hijab?”; “How does an exorcism work?” were among the many questions that the religious leaders answered. At the end of the session, it was clear to the students that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam ,although distinct from one another, share so many similarities: the practice of fasting, following a monotheistic belief, reading scripture, daily prayer, the connection of the faiths through the prophet Abraham and that working for peace, unity, understanding, and respect for all people is an unwavering intention of each religion.

Interfaith Day 2017 was a resounding success. A grandmother who chaperoned her grandson from the Universal Academy of Florida told Gonzalez, “Thank you for doing this. My grandson needed this. Our children need this. Our country needs this.” The school administrators and staff thanked Umoh and Gonzalez numerous times for providing the opportunity for their students. A group of Muslim girls thanked Gonzalez for the opportunity.” Echoed again and again, the eighth graders from St. Stephen agreed this should be an annual event.

Interfaith Day 2017 is in the books and now Interfaith Day 2018 is in its planning phase. For more information on St. Stephen School, visit www.sscsfl.org/.