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Exhibiting a Lot of Faiths in the World

EducationAt UC Irvine's religion fair this year, gaining insight into other people and their belief systems topped most participants' list.

November 11, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You like religion heated? Join the overflow crowd in the Crescent Bay Room for a Q & A on religion in the public schools. Or squeeze into a panel on religion and science.

You want experience? Slip off your Birkenstocks in the Emerald Bay Room, where musicians from the Self-Realization Center are teaching Hindu chants and Bengali songs.

If you can think of a religion, you can probably find it on the campus of UC Irvine, particularly at its annual Religion and Diversity Faire, held recently. The school seems tailored to the event. Irvine's student body of about 17,000 students is the most culturally diverse in the UC system, with its high concentration, close to 60%, of Asian students.

Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo founded the fair in 1993. Annual attendance is around 400. All the religions that take part are represented by local members. Most panels, lectures and demonstrations are led by educators, along with clergy and women in religious life.

This year's sponsors included the UCI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. Prany Sananaikone, its director, is a Buddhist born in Laos who moderates a yearly panel on campus diversity. After the first year he started lobbying for an ongoing diversity fair of sorts, as a full-time project for the school campus.

"It's not enough to have one diversity weekend a year," he says. "Diversity doesn't go away." The school has been leading the way in an inter-religious dialogue with faculty and students that includes brown bag lectures, a newsletter called Faith, a mentoring program and a Web site.

The yearly fair, though, is a search engine available to all seekers. It touches on ideas and questions that many people have, concerning the wide range of religious traditions practiced in Southern California.

Walking through the display booths, Claire Kennedy, 17, a college student raised Roman Catholic, discovers Caodai, a faith that blends Taoism and Islam among other traditions.

"I'm investigating," she says. "I don't know much about Eastern religions."

The number of college-age students at the fair is noticeably high--around 25% this year. Between sessions on Sufism, the goddess Kali, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Bible and Jewish Midrash, the hallways fill with visitors comparing notes. Katrina Ptucha, 20, is looking for what strikes her as a nonjudgmental religion.

"I'm interested in wicca," she says. "There's a lot in it about nature, and I like that."

People her age seem well aware that their generation is more open to religion than most Americans have been in the recent past.

"Some of us are very interested in all the religions; others allow for only one, to the extreme," says Matthew Brandenburg, 19, a student at Orange Coast College. This semester he changed his major from philosophy to religion.

It isn't unusual for sparks to fly when the world faiths try coming together. At the Irvine fair, however, people seem willing to listen more than impress their own views on others. Many of them say they are looking for ways to get along.

Lee Rusconi, a wife and mother from Mission Viejo, attended the lecture on religion and science. She is curious about how the two contentious fields might coexist. Scientists and theologians on the panel say they have seen progress in that direction.

"If there could be harmony, it would advance civilization," Rusconi says. "Tolerance needs to begin in religious groups, but science should be hand in hand with religion."

The standing-room-only audience at the panel discussion on religion in the public schools asked a lot of questions.

How do you prevent students from proselytizing on campus? (State law does not allow it.)

How do you decide what religions to teach in a comparative religion course? (Start with the largest, from Asia and the West.)

Can you teach ethics, wicca, humanism? the audience members wonder.

A sixth-grade history teacher in the audience explained a trend to include religions as part of the world history curriculum. The newest textbooks include more on the major religions than did earlier editions.

Brother Michael, a sacred storyteller of Asian descent, wore a robe embroidered with Celtic symbols for his session of legends and fables that contain a kernel of ancient wisdom in them. Among legends from Japanese, Irish and other traditions, Brother Michael told a Shinto legend about a woman and a bear, as a lesson in taming any "beast" by using patience.

"This sort of gathering helps make us all more open to each other," says Valerie Reed, after the session. She is a photographer from Newport Beach whose subjects most often are men and women in religious life.

She and Nrapendra Prasad, her partner, attend the fair each year.

"I believe in the strength in diversity,' says Prasad, a native of India. "In order to have world peace, we need to appreciate our differences and look for the common threads in all religions. They all teach love, compassion and reverence for one another."

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