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O.C. RELIGION | ON FAITH

Let's Make Tolerance a Holiday Goal

November 25, 2000|Rev. CONNIE REGENER | The Rev. Connie Regener, a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary, is the Orange County interfaith director for the National Conference for Community and Justice. She may be reached at orange@nccj.org

"Please, Mrs. Regener, can we, can we?" pleaded three male high school athletes.

I had just reminded my evening vocational class at a south Orange County high school that they couldn't be late or eat in class.

Now these three jocks had burst into my classroom after the bell, wanting to eat food they had brought.

One look at their sweaty faces and athletic clothes told me they had just arrived at school after an off-campus athletic event.

Should they be allowed special privileges? I asked why they had not eaten their food on the bus ride home.

"Because it's Ramadan, and we have to fast until the sun goes down!"

I was familiar with the practice of fasting but had never heard of a sundown restriction. I asked if they had any proof to back up their story.

Behzad produced a paper with script I couldn't read that listed the times of sunset for about a month. I took it at face value and struck a bargain: I wouldn't see them eat if they didn't disturb the class.

Sadly, this process had exposed, in an awkward way, their religious practices to everyone in class.

Why hadn't the school district prepared me for this annual event?

In another experience that opened my eyes, I was invited by a local Jewish cantor to teach at Hebrew school. The subject was cultural diversity, and I invited the junior high students to share instances of discrimination they had faced because of their culture or heritage.

I was shocked that every student had a story to tell--and some had several.

"I was asked to make a blue-and-white ornament for my 'Hanukkah tree.' "

"I was forced to sit on Santa Claus' lap while he told me I wasn't going to get any presents."

"I was singled out in front of the class and sent to the library before the class lined up to go to the Christmas assembly."

As a former teacher, I was especially disturbed that the most painful experiences had taken place in public school.

I thought back to the way I had handled the Muslim students at Ramadan. Had I contributed to a painful school experience for them?

Part of the beauty and strength of Orange County is its cultural diversity, as evidenced by a variety of languages, practices and ethnic restaurants. But the bitter taste of discrimination, bias and bigotry survives.

The religious community in Orange County uses five area-wide interfaith councils to promote understanding and positive relationships.

In a recent program of the Central Orange County Interfaith Council, Father Rafael Luevano of the Diocese of Orange defined interfaith relations as a common seeking after truth, mutual enrichment and unity on social and ethical issues.

But we can't have unity without understanding.

Members of the dominant culture have a responsibility to act with grace and sensitivity to the traditions of others. They must treat others as they would want to be treated.

We are now entering a period in which there is a convergence of holidays of the three major monotheistic religions--Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

What a wonderful time to practice tangible acts of respect, dignity and religious freedom for all.

So what ever happened to Behzad and his friends? That year--at 16--Behzad became the youngest student to win the Outstanding Vocational Student of the Year award.

Two years later I wrote a recommendation for his entrance into a premed program. I know wherever he goes he will be a credit to his family, his teachers and his God.

And I hope that living in Orange County has given him a head start in a medical practice that will heal attitudes as well as bodies.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor William Lobdell.

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