Non-Christians Learn Sunday School Value

A parent and the director of the Washington Ethical Society, a humanist religious community in the District, talk about the center's approach to Sunday school. Video by Jacqueline Salmon
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008

If you think Sunday school is just for Christians, think again.

Each Sunday morning, thousands of children show up in classrooms at houses of worship across the Washington area. But instead of learning about Jesus Christ, the Trinity and stories from the New Testament, they study the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and the Torah. They learn about Indian culture, memorize Arabic or Hebrew, or explore an atheist path to ethical living.

It's all part of a rich pastiche of lessons developed over the decades for the children of those in non-Christian faiths -- including Jews in Cleveland Park, Muslims in Sterling, Hare Krishnas in Potomac and humanists on 16th Street NW -- that take place on the traditional Christian day of worship.

"That's when people are available and that's when they're used to dealing with matters of faith and philosophy," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the D.C.-based American Humanist Association. It recently announced that it wants to dramatically expand its "secular Sunday schools" from a handful to all of its 125 chapters around the country.

In the Hindu faith "there is nothing in the tradition which mandates Sunday as particularly sacred," said Vineet Chander, a spokesman for the Hare Krishna movement. Formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, it is a branch of Hinduism.

But in the United States, Sunday "becomes a practical choice," Chander said.

For many minority faiths, Sunday education involves teaching children about more than just their religion. It is a time for immersion in language, culture and tradition that children probably will not encounter outside their families and their religious communities.

At the Hare Krishna temple in Potomac, "we try to include the culture along with the religion," said teacher Vidarbha Suta. Children learn about Indian life along with delving deeply into their faith.

The Jewish faith offers Sunday school, even though its Sabbath runs from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. For Reform and Conservative synagogues, as well as some Orthodox ones, Sunday mornings are a time for younger children to learn about their religion and the Jewish culture in preparation for their bar or bat mitzvahs.

Hundreds of children, from kindergarten through seventh grade, spend their Sunday mornings at Washington Hebrew Congregation's Cleveland Park synagogue or at its suburban center in Potomac. There, they spend half their time learning Hebrew and the other half on Judaic studies, such as Bible stories and Jewish history, Rabbi Joui Hessel said.

Sunday religious programs for Muslim children are also a well-established tradition in the United States. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), one of the largest mosques in the D.C. area, offers morning and afternoon sessions for 500 children at its Sterling location, ADAMS spokesman Rizwan Jaka said. Along with studying the Koran, the children learn Arabic, socialize, play sports and do community service work. The usual Islamic day of worship is Friday.

And now humanists have launched an ambitious effort to expand their Sunday school programs. Pointing to a 2006 poll, which estimates that between 14 and 18 percent of Americans consider themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists or not religious, humanists see a big demand for their own education programs.

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