Leaders of an Oklahoma City Buddhist temple — familiar with tour groups of 20 people or less — watched Sunday as more than 100 youths gathered at their place of worship.
Nicole Pham, one of the youth directors at Vien-Giac Buddhist Temple, said the 160 participants of the 2012 Interfaith Youth Tour represented the largest tour group to visit the temple at 5101 NE 36.
Smiling, she and other temple leaders said they were prepared to welcome the big crowd because they believe interfaith awareness is important.
“I think this is a good idea. It's a good way of learning and sharing and understanding,” another temple youth director, Van Nguyen, said Sunday.
The sixth annual youth tour was coordinated by the Oklahoma Council of Churches' Religions United Committee. In addition to the Buddhist temple, young people and their adult advisers also toured St. John Missionary Baptist Church and the Baha'i Faith Center of Edmond.
The Rev. William Tabbernee, Oklahoma Council of Churches' executive director, said the yearly tours give youths an opportunity to visit different houses of worships to learn about the beliefs and traditions of different faiths.
“This is a wonderful turnout, particularly in light of some of the misunderstandings that exists in the world today regarding different faiths,” Tabbernee said as he watched the group file into a chapel at St. John, 5700 N Kelley.
“It lets young people put a ‘face to the faith,' and it makes it more difficult to make a caricature out of other faiths.”
Dr. George Cooper, a Religions United Committee member who is part of the Baha'i Faith, drew laughter from the attendees when he joked that the youths were taking the so-called “B tour” of Buddhist, Baptist and Baha'i houses of worship. He encouraged the young people to get to know someone they had not met before as they rode the buses to each tour site.
A different experience
People from the Christian faith made up the majority of the tour, with several denominations represented including United Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Baptist, Unitarian-Universalist and Episcopal — some from as far away as Ardmore and Tonkawa. Other faith groups represented included the Baha'i Faith and Islam.
The Rev. Lawrence Kirk, the church's director of Christian Education, explained the concept of the Holy Trinity in Christianity and the significance of baptism, Communion and how the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a foundational part of the Christian faith.
The youth directors at the Buddhist temple told the visitors about the temple's beginnings as a place for Vietnamese Buddhists to gather. The temple leaders also explained to the crowd why they were expected to sit on the floor — to signify equality — and other Buddhism concepts such as enlightenment and the four truths of Buddhism.
The youths also were taught lyrics to a simple song about happiness so they could sing along with the temple leaders.
A short question-and-answer period was held at each site along the tour, giving participants a chance to gain more understanding about the different faith beliefs.
A Muslim woman sitting in the pew at St. John asked why many Christian churches, including the Baptist church, have stained-glass windows.
Several Christians asked the Buddhist temple youth directors questions about the Buddhist concept of death and the importance of the numerous statues inside the temple and on the temple's outer grounds.
ViaFaith McCullough, 14, a member of Quayle United Methodist Church, said she enjoyed the temple visit and wished the group had more time to learn about Buddhism.
“I thought this was a different religious experience,” she said.
The Rev. Erica Thomas, associate pastor at Quayle, said she brought a group of nine youths on the tour.
“I pass by this place everyday, and I have always been so interested in Buddhism,” she said of the temple. “I'm not scared of exposing my young people to different things.”
Aaron Krueger, associate minister at Crown Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), shared similar sentiments.
“I think it's really important to learn more and to try to educate ourselves out of a concept of tolerance as opposed to ignorance,” he said.
Genevieve Gordon, 14, and her friend Jayden Andrews, 14, both members of First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City, said they found the tour informative.
“I thought it was great, and I'm really grateful that we got to look around,” Gordon said of the temple.
Tabbernee seemed enthusiastic about group's curiosity.
“The young people see that other young people are just like themselves, though they worship in a different way and have different faith traditions,” he said. “There's a basic underlying humanity because we're all created by one God.”
He said the youth tour has become so popular that a separate interfaith tour, one for both youths and adults, is planned for Oct. 21 in Oklahoma City.