The Building Of a Tradition
Jul 02, 2018 10:31AM ● Published by Ashley Madonna
A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a Texas church… it’s not the beginning of a joke, but rather the beginning of Carroll Senior High School’s Interfaith Baccalaureate service. In Southlake, a town known for a tradition of excellence, change happens slowly. The baccalaureate proved no exception.
In 2016, my son was graduating from CSHS. I learned of the Interfaith Baccalaureate when the embossed invitation arrived in the mail. Hosted by the PTO and held at White’s Chapel Methodist Church, the interfaith service was meant to honor the graduates and their families. I asked the PTO which faith groups would be represented. They told me Catholic, Methodist and Jewish clergy would be speaking. While my Muslim family was welcome to attend, no Islamic clerics had been invited.
My request that an imam be included was met with resistance and even vows of negative press. Eventually, an invitation was extended to the imam. It was the first time Muslims, Jews and Christians were represented together at this interfaith event. Muslim graduates were present despite the initial uncertainty of our inclusion. The advice from the clerics was genuine and strikingly similar despite the different religious traditions.
An Inclusive Transformation
A year later, it was my nephew’s turn to graduate from the school. The imam had been invited back. The rabbi, imam, deacon and pastor spoke on tolerance, kindness, giving, happiness and joy. Eleven students offered faith statements reflecting the diversity of Southlake. Jewish, Muslim, Nondenominational Christian, Latterday Saint, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Hindu and Baha’i voices were all heard.
They were a diverse group of students: different religions, races and ethnicities. In the small world of high school, they came from polar opposites – choir kids, football players, introverts and big personalities. But the seniors who participated in the 2017 service knew why it was important.
Maddy Heymann, a 2017 graduate, was eager to speak up and represent her Jewish faith.
“People forget that Southlake is not a monolith,” Heymann says. “My religion teaches me that we are part of one human race. It taught me love.”
While Saeed Semrin, who also graduated in 2017, was more cautious in speaking about Islam.
“I’ve known people here my entire life. They know that I believe in God. Being Muslim is part of who I am; it’s the moral compass I follow – same God. Same rules for right and wrong as everybody else,” Semrin explains. “I decided to talk to make sure the people I don’t know personally understand that. So many people think they know what Muslims believe without actually ever speaking to a Muslim.”
For the first time, students of non-Abrahamic faiths were also given the opportunity to speak to their peers about their religion. Neaka Khalilian was able to speak about the importance of her Baha’i faith. “I’m pretty sure most people had never heard of Baha’is before,” Khalilian says. “I wanted them to be aware that spirituality and connection to God is forever.”
And quiet and reserved 2017 graduate Vasumati Polavarapu was able to represent Hinduism.
“People don’t understand Hinduism. But I was happy to share a forum with all these other classmates,” Polavarapu says. “I felt it got people really talking about other faiths.”
Even the choice of music was deliberate. Graduates from the 2017 class, Sarah Johnson, Billy Wade and Jocelyn Ward, mentioned the hymn “My Kindness Shall Not Depart From Thee” was a favorite in their LDS Church. They had been touched that Presbyterian and Methodist graduates would sing it alongside them. And Wade hoped future services would showcase
even more diversity.
“I would love to hear other groups perform their songs of worship,” Wade says. “It would be amazing to hear Hindu or Islamic chants.”
Tre Sledge and Laurentius McGill were two members of a trio that performed “10,000 Reasons” at the 2017 service. Both were members of the football team, devout Christians and, as people of color in a predominately white school, felt it was important to be a part of a event focusing on inclusivity.
“I’m always surprised at how open people are about being close-minded,” Sledge says. “Praising God, in all our different ways together, was important for our class to see.”
Jazmine Hooper rounded out the trio. As the third member of the singing group that year, she stood out from the other two because of her methods of personal expression including tie-dyed hair, multiple tattoos and piercings. But she wanted to show with her participation that her appearance did not have anything to do with her faith.
“I wanted to perform to remind some of the adults that God loves us all,” Hooper says. “His love is not contingent on my hair, makeup or how I dress.”
Rabbi Cytron-Walker, who had been a pillar of the service for years, left the 2017 Interfaith Baccalaureate impressed. His advice in the planning stages had been to make sure that at the end of every prayer, everyone could say “Amen” without reservation.
“I had no idea what the hymns were, but they were pretty,” Cytron-Walker says. “This year was beautiful. This year was a revolution!”
A Tradition Evolves
CSHS PTO organizers Tobin Osterberg and Jill Cantrell were responsible for the truly inclusive 2017 service. They had taken their mandate for change seriously when the PTO decided the service needed to include more faiths. They were undeterred by critics who felt the presence of both an imam and a rabbi was sufficient. They spent hours talking to people of all different faiths and faith leaders in the community. They realized despite Southlake being predominantly Christian, a service that truly honored the graduates needed to have representation of all the faiths included in the class. They felt the best way to do that was to allow the students to represent themselves.
One of the program additions was a candle lighting ceremony. It acts as the highlight of the service with students representing different faiths standing in a semi-circle, each holding a candle. Once the central candle was lit, the flame was passed to each neighboring student. The image of different faiths sharing the same light was profound. It was a visual confirmation that we shine brighter together than alone.
After the service, Imam AbdelRahman Murphy reflected on the positive feedback he received.
“To hear firsthand and deeply humanize people of different beliefs and backgrounds is a powerful experience,” Murphy says. “People actively mentioned that they were devoted to their particular faith, but found positivity in my message. That is what this is all about, seeing how we can benefit one another while appreciating our differences.”
Cantrell was gratified by how touched people were.
“We received not one single negative comment – quite the opposite – even from people who doubted the most. [CISD Superintendent] Dr. Faltys’ words to us immediately following the service were, ‘I think we have just started a new tradition.’”
Continuing a Legacy
The 2018 Baccalaureate continued this new tradition. Rabbi Cytron-Walker, Imam Abdel RahmanMurphy, Father Jason Wooleyhan and Dr. Todd Renner spoke on the common theme of living a life that matters. They gave homilies on leading a life built on character and love with common values present in all the represented faiths. The event included the same lighting ceremony and the student faith statements. Travis Almand, a recent graduate, represented his Methodist faith and knew the distinctive value of the inclusive service.
“With the many blessings we are given in Southlake, and the positive time of graduation, it is extremely important for our school and community to unite through out faiths.”
Southlake prides itself on traditions of academic, athletic and artistic excellence. We should be equally proud of the lessons we impart on kindness, tolerance, inclusivity and respect. The evolution of the Interfaith Baccalaureate showcases the diversity and beauty of the beliefs in our town. A priest, a rabbi and an imam walked into a Texas church to deliver messages for graduating high school seniors. And we all came out with a deeper understanding of each other and the common values we share. That is a tradition we should cherish and continue to build on.
Nuha Said, MD is a faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Southlake resident, wife and mother. Her son graduated from Carroll Senior High School in 2016 and is now a rising junior at the University of Colorado Boulder. She also has two nephews in the area, one who graduated CSHS in 2017 and one who is currently a junior.