Most of my students had questions about logistics. What sort of lunch should we bring? Can we please not wear our uniforms? Will we be back by the end of the day? Then I called on Jonathan. “So when we get there, I mean while we are at the mosque, are we going to pray?”
It was the perfect question. Our school community is one that prays together. It only made sense that we would do the same while visiting a place of prayer. But I didn’t have an answer. Could a fifth grade class from a Catholic school visit a Mosque and pray?
On Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, a series of coordinated attacks in Paris left 130 people dead and hundreds more injured. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. In religion class the following Monday, I asked my students what they knew about Islam. They were silent. Eyes darted about, looking to see if anyone could answer the question. Many students knew the word Muslim, and a few recognized that it referred to a people, but nobody knew that it refers to people who practice a specific religion.
Could a fifth grade class from a Catholic school visit a Mosque and pray?
I was relieved. I worried they would raise their hands to talk about ISIS or bring up terrorism. But in that moment, I pictured what my students’ impression of Islam would be in a couple of years if they learned about the religion by way of cable news.
The curriculum for religion in the schools of the Archdiocese of Washington calls for a study of Islam. But the fifth-grade religion standards are 44 pages long; the three standards pertaining to Islam are on page 42. The religion textbooks cover only Catholicism, and there are no curricular materials available in our school to support a study of other religions.
After Paris, after the presidential candidates began to feed off the country’s fear and after hate crimes against Muslims in the United States tripled, my co-teacher and I decided it was time to bring Islam into the classroom.
We approached our learning from both a religious perspective and through the lens of current news reports about the Muslim world. One morning, just a couple weeks after the attacks in Paris, I found an article that inspired an important conversation among my students. It reported about Pope Francis in a Muslim region of the Central African Republic, where he visited a mosque to pray.
“It’s like he’s telling Catholics—telling us—that we should feel comfortable with Islam.”
I asked if any students wanted to share their thoughts about the article. Hands shot up. Jocelyn told us, “I think it’s beautiful that the pope went there even though it might be dangerous.” Edgardo jumped in to talk about one of the photos in the article: “Look how happy all those people are to see the pope. I mean, you said it’s a Muslim region. So they’re not even Catholic, but they know he’s there for peace.” Canfield steered us toward the pope’s message: “And he went there to visit a mosque. It’s like he’s telling Catholics—telling us—that we should feel comfortable with Islam.”
“So what does that mean for us?” I asked the class. Someone called out, “We should go to a mosque on a field trip...just like the pope.” Heads nodded in agreement, and I knew I had a field trip to plan.
We sat on the carpeted floor of the mosque as people filtered in and began preparing for afternoon prayer. Our guide asked, “So, a question for all of you: What are Islam, Christianity and Judaism?” Hands went into the air. My students were ready for this question. Our guide pointed to Evelyn. “Um, they’re all religions?” Our guide nodded. “But what does that mean?” he continued. “What is a religion?” Hands slowly lowered.
Our guide relished the moment, “Ah, now I get to be the teacher,” he replied with a smile. “Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all ways of life, all different ways to the same God.” The guide spoke to students about the five pillars of Islam, Muhammad and the Quran. Then he demonstrated how a Muslim prays. Gesturing with his hands, he brought them up to beside his cheeks, and crossing his arms over his chest he prayed in Arabic as he prostrated himself.
The carpeted space filled while we sat with our guide. Then an imam stepped to the front and called the worshippers to prayer. Our guide excused himself and left us. My students and I sat watching the process of afternoon prayer. The congregants formed lines and prostrated themselves in unison, praying in Arabic.
Back in the classroom, my students reflected on what they had witnessed at the mosque. They found similarities between their own ways of worship and Muslim prayer. The prostrations reminded them of genuflecting and kneeling at Catholic Mass. They saw connections between the hand gestures that started the Islamic prayer and their own sign of the cross.
But my students were also aware of what was different between their Catholic faith and Islam. There were no statues in the mosque, no crucifix or holy water. Instead of the Hail Mary or Our Father, they heard unfamiliar prayers, chanted in a different language. Thanks to our field trip, students came to recognize elements of their faith as being uniquely Catholic, and this deepened their love for their own faith.
Which brings me back to my original question: Can Catholic fifth-grade students pray in a mosque?
Reflecting on our experience at the mosque, my answer is yes. My students understood the differences between Islam and Catholicism as ways of life. They recognized the unique forms of Catholic prayer and Muslim prayer. But they also recognized that authentic prayer, regardless of religion, leads to the same God. Pope Francis described prayer as “the heart: gazing on the Lord, hearing the Lord, asking the Lord.” This gazing, hearing and asking transcends the distinctions made by religious traditions. When we pray, God listens, whether we pray in a mosque or in a church.