A total of 118 8th grade students from different faiths participated in the third annual Interfaith Day.

By Julianne Gonzales

St. Stephen Catholic School Principal, Linda Umoh, hosted the third annual Interfaith Day on Friday, February 8. More than ever, Umoh sees a need to eradicate fear and ignorance among Americans, and she believes that Interfaith Day is a strong step in that direction.

St. Stephen’s reached out to area schools of Christian, Islamic and Jewish faiths. The Community Day School of Sarasota (Jewish), The Universal Academy of Florida (Islamic) and The American Youth Academy (Islamic) have collaborated in this venture since the inaugural year and returned this year.

A letter was sent home to parents explaining the purpose of Interfaith Day. Umoh’s letter opened with, “Xenophobia is the fear of the unfamiliar. It is that fear that leads to most prejudices that people have toward one another. The only way to fight prejudice and discrimination is through education to dispel untruths and release ourselves from fear.”

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. Following Tai Chi, students from each school educated their peers about their respective faiths.

Father Dermot Dunne of St. Stephen, Rabbi Michael Werbow and Imam Mamdouh Elsayed from the Universal Academy of Florida answered questions from the students. Questions such as, “What does Easter celebrate?”; “Why do people call a Catholic priest, Father?”; “Why do Jewish men wear a Yakama?”; “At what age do Muslim girls wear the hijab?”; and “What music is permissible for Muslims to listen to?” were among the many questions that the religious leaders answered.

At the end of the session, students recognized that although the religions are distinct from one another, they do share some similarities such as the practice of fasting, monotheistic belief, reading scripture, daily prayer and the connection of the faiths through the prophet Abraham.

The students finished the day with some athletic games. The boys played soccer while the girls enjoyed volleyball. Our Muslim guests, had time and space dedicated for their Friday Prayer Service and all students departed with a commemorative pen with our Interfaith Day logo.

Interfaith Day 2019 was a resounding success. A father who chaperoned his child from the Universal Academy of Florida said, “Thank you for doing this. Our children need this. Our country needs this.”

The school administrators and staff thanked Umoh numerous times for providing the opportunity for their students. A few 8th graders from St. Stephen said, “You should do this every year” and “can we do this again next week?”

If you are a school administrator or teacher and are interested in Interfaith Day 2020 for your 8th grade class, please reach out to St. Stephen’s Catholic School, located at 10424 Saint Stephen Cir. in Riverview. For more information, visit www.sscsfl.org.