Activity boxes connect people of different faiths

by Luanne Williams

As the mother of a 4-year-old, Dr. Christy Cobb is always trying to find creative ways to keep preschoolers engaged, especially during the long days of pandemic-induced isolation. Through her involvement with the interfaith group Bridge Builders Charlotte, the Wingate religion professor has managed to kill two birds with one stone.

Bridge Builders aims to help bridge the gap between different faiths. When COVID-19 sent the country into lockdown mode in March, it seemed that their efforts – which involved several colleges in the Charlotte area, including Wingate – might be put on the back burner. How do you bring people of different faiths together when people of the same faith can’t even gather for worship?

But rather than give up or postpone their efforts, Bridge Builders, a joint effort of Belk Chapel at Queens University and Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, issued an even taller order, asking participants to add a COVID-relief aspect to their projects. 

That’s when Cobb and her student interns began thinking about creating Interfaith Activities Boxes to help parents and children learn about other faiths while staying engaged during the pandemic.

“As a single mom with a 4-year-old, one of the biggest stresses during COVID has been to teach him and parent him,” Cobb says. “I know a lot of people are in the same situation; they had been relying on a preschool to teach basics like letters and numbers, and now those options are not there. So there’s a gap and there’s an opportunity.

“I got this idea of coming up with an educational box that we would get to families in the Charlotte area, a whole box of activities. First there would be some interesting education about other religions, but it would also include options of activities to do with children to keep them entertained.”

Cobb’s interns loved the idea, and when it was shared with other Bridge Builder schools (UNC Charlotte, Davidson, Queens, Central Piedmont Community College and Johnson C. Smith), UNCC’s advisor and her two students jumped on board, as did a student from Davidson. The seven-member team has spent much of the summer creating 1,000 boxes that, thanks to three nonprofits – Freedom School Partners, Wayfinders and Refugee Support Services – began reaching local homes this month.

But before they could pack the first box, they had to come up with eight activities, each corresponding to a different faith or cultural tradition. They had to develop and write instructions and gather all the needed supplies for the families to carry out the activities, and they had to do it for kits tailored to three different age groups: preschool, elementary school, and middle/high school. Craft examples include tessellation, a geometric art custom rooted in Islamic tradition; rangoli, a Hindu practice in which patterns are created on the floor using colored rice, sand or flour; and nondenominational pan pipes.

Allison Barbee, a Wingate junior and religion major, delved into Hinduism and Judaism to come up with rangoli and sukkah crafts.

“This has involved researching various crafts, making prototypes of the crafts, writing instructions and photographing the steps along the way, and providing background information about the craft and the religion or culture that it came from,” Barbee says. “I have been meeting regularly with an expert in Hinduism from N.C. State University and reading a book about kolam, an art practice similar to rangoli.”

Barbee says she has learned much about interfaith work and how important it is to building a successful global society.

“It’s a way to bring people from so many different backgrounds together not to argue or determine whose beliefs are right but to use each other’s strengths and differences in order to work towards a common good,” she says. “This project has helped me grow in my faith by being able to learn from people in other religions, while also being able to share my religion with them. If you never learn about what else is out there, you can never truly be able to defend and explain why you believe what you do.”

Bringing people together

The goal of the Interfaith Activities Boxes is to have families step a bit out of their routines too.

“If students at a young age can have this experience to think about how other people experience life and faith, they will ultimately come to know more about their neighbors,” Cobb explains. “And loving your neighbor begins with understanding them, experiencing them, talking to them, right? So, we’re bringing that into their houses, with the hope that this will begin a spark of building that bridge.”

In each box is a pamphlet explaining to parents how it can be used to create ongoing activities to help entertain children for a week or even longer.

But children aren’t the only target audience for the boxes.

“Most of the time, they will need supervision, so we are hoping that the parents will learn a little something too,” Cobb says. “This has the potential to impact way more than a thousand people.”Alexandra Ferretiz Torres, a Wingate religious studies and communications major from Houma, Louisiana, is helping to ensure that it reaches Latino families by translating the lessons and instructions. About a third of the kits are being printed in Spanish.

“I hope the children from the Hispanic community enjoy learning about different religions through these activities,” Ferretiz Torres says.

The project also includes plans to videotape some recipients opening their boxes and engaging with the content, with videos to be posted to social media. Also scheduled will be some open Zoom meetings with Cobb and other religion professors of various faiths so that families can log in and ask questions. Although those could include a deep dive into theology, the activity boxes are focused more on cultural practices and artforms than beliefs.

“We tried to stay away from polarizing views,” Cobb says. After all, the idea is to bring people together and give them something positive to do in the midst of a pandemic.

It’s already working for Barbee.

“This project has definitely helped me deal with the COVID-19 stress by allowing me to work towards something bigger than myself and that I know will have an impact on families in the Charlotte area during this time,” she says.

The Interfaith Activities Boxes project was funded by a $50,000 grant to Wingate University and UNCC, one of five individual grants supported by a $250,000 contribution from the Gambrell Foundation. Collectively, the Gambrell-funded projects will involve more than 10 faith communities, six area colleges and universities, and six nonprofit organizations.

Learn more about studying religion at Wingate.

July 31, 2020

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