Some folks avoid talking religion because they think it’s just too touchy.
But an Omaha organization waded straight into that topic when it launched a video project nearly three years ago aimed at getting local people to discuss their religious beliefs.
Now the effort, developed by Project Interfaith, will help students learn about religious and cultural diversity.
Project Interfaith, a nonprofit group that aims to build understanding among people of different beliefs and cultures, created a school curriculum based on the videos that was piloted last fall at St. Cecilia Cathedral Grade School, Brownell-Talbot School and Clarkson College. The college curriculum will be available for use this fall, and the one for grade school through high school should be ready within a year.
Local religious leaders say the video project is important because the country has become more religiously diverse.
As recently as the 1980s, surveys found that about six out of 10 Americans identified themselves as Protestants. Now the share of self-identified Protestants has dipped to just under half, according to the Pew Research Center.
These days, it’s more likely than it was a generation ago for a fellow student, neighbor or co-worker to be a Muslim or Buddhist, for example, said Eileen Burke-Sullivan, associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
Project Interfaith’s initial goal was to interview 150 Omaha-area people about their beliefs, but so far more than 900 videos have been posted on the project’s website, said Sierra Pirigyi, the organization’s program coordinator.
Pirigyi said the big response is a sign that people are hungry to talk about their beliefs.
“There’s no real platform for people to talk about their religious or spiritual identity,’’ she said. “We are taught not to talk about it.”
The videos represent a wide collection of faiths, or none.
They include atheists and agnostics, Sikhs, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Hindus, secular humanists, Baha’is, Buddhists, Unitarians and Latter-day Saints.
Just glancing at the website and pictures of the men and women interviewed reveals the mix of people and faiths. Some people wear turbans, some scarves. Some have darker skin, some lighter. Some are young, some are old.
The videos are compelling.
In one video, a man from the Sikh religion says some people figure he must be Arab just because he wears a beard and turban.
A Jewish woman says some people think all Jews are rich, and that makes her feel left out. A Catholic man says some people think Catholics are close-minded.
But those people and many others in the videos say that they believe the Omaha area is welcoming overall and tolerant of religious diversity.
Volunteers started interviewing people for the videos in 2010, asking four questions: What is your religious or spiritual identity and why do you identify as such? What is a stereotype that impacts you based on your religious or spiritual identity? How welcoming do you find our community to be to follow your religious or spiritual path? Is there anything else you would like us to know about you and your religion or belief system?
Teams of interviewers went to houses of worship, colleges and other places, and Project Interfaith also held open houses to conduct interviews at its offices.
Since last year, people have been able to submit their own videos responding to the questions.
Fa’iz Rab of Omaha was one of nearly three dozen Muslims interviewed for the project. Rab, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Omaha, said textbooks can provide background on religions, but there is no match for listening to people explain their faith.
“It’s a good tool in developing a sense of tolerance,” she said.
The curriculum based on the videos is aimed at prompting discussion among students. Students watch the interviews then discuss, for example, whether they have ever stereotyped people because of their religion.
Students also discuss whether they have ever felt stereotyped because of their faith.
Monica White, an assistant professor at Clarkson College, used the curriculum with her students this school year and said it was effective.
Students told her the videos helped them realize “we tend to know only the world we are raised in.”
Clarkson trains nurses and other health-care workers. The videos increased her students’ awareness about other religions, which will help them as they care for patients, White said.
Mark Smith, who teaches religion and history at Brownell-Talbot, tried the curriculum with his high school students last fall. He said the videos showed students that even within particular religions there is diversity, such as when two Hindus or two Catholic gave different answers to the same question.
Smith said students thought it was interesting that many people in the videos said Omaha was an overall tolerant place. That’s an important lesson for students to learn, one that might make them more willing to talk about their own beliefs, he said.
“There’s not always conflict among religions,’’ he said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, firstname.lastname@example.org