I spent a few hours with about 30 high school students from all over the metro area one Sunday morning in November at St. John?s United Methodist Church on Ward Parkway. The program, Interfaith Our Town, was convened by Harmony, an organization aiming to ?improve race relations, increase appreciation for cultural diversity, and eliminate intolerance,? with the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. I?ve been involved in this and similar programs for many years.
When I arrived, some of the students were waking up from the overnight. Even before I began my work with them, as they grabbed breakfast, I sensed that homosexuality was a significant issue. At least one young man was ?out? and seemed to be embraced by the others.
The promotional material described the encounter as a way to help ?young people deepen their spiritual awareness within their own faith or values system while learning how to advocate respect for the unique perspectives other beliefs or religions offer.?
While they were finishing breakfast, I taped symbols of about 20 faiths on the walls in the huge meeting room and asked the students to gather at the symbol most meaningful to them. Every time I?ve done this, a different mix has appeared. Last time, for example, there was only one Jewish person in the group, so in the subsequent activity, I asked to be his ally. This time, the students gathered around symbols for Christian Protestant, Christian Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and FreeThinker. Because there was only one Muslim, I asked to be her ally.
At the outset, I asked everyone to applaud the FreeThinker group for being willing to step out of social expectations. In that group was an atheist, an agnostic, someone who said she just wanted to be open to questions, and so forth. As LGBT folk know, being a minority is easier with clear social acceptance.
Then I asked each group to discuss the following questions:
1. What do you like about your faith?
2. What troubles you about your faith?
3. What do other people say about your faith?
4. What would you like others to know about your faith?
Each group selected a scribe, who jotted down answers on newsprint. When the groups were finished, each group reported its discussion to the entire gathering and answered questions.
The learning was exciting and intense, as members of each group learned from their teammates, and the whole group learned from other faiths. Never once was there a disrespectful comment, even when disagreements were revealed. If only adults could have such mature discussions!
One question repeatedly raised was, ?What does your faith say about homosexuality?? and Islam was of particular interest. One young man even e-mailed me later to get the name of the authors of one of the books I mentioned, Islamic Homosexualities by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe.
One reason that it is so difficult for us to understand this topic is that there has been no notion of ?orientation? in any faith that I know of until it developed in the Christian West in the 19th century. We distort history when we use today?s categories of thought in trying to understand the past.
And when you have the president of Iran saying that homosexuality doesn?t exist in his country, you wonder how he could be in such denial.
In fact, same-sex love has often been praised in Islam, even as a metaphor for love of God. But nowadays the notion of orientation and a gay lifestyle are seen as part of the colonial exploitation of Islamic lands by oppressive Western powers.
While some question whether punishment for same-sex behavior is required by the Quran, in some Islamic legal systems, the penalty is death. In practice, private arrangements are tolerated so long as the stability of family arrangements is not threatened.
A growing number of Muslims in the West and elsewhere are adopting the value of openness and showing that Muslims in many countries do not understand their own heritage.
But the same could be said for Christianity. Most Christians have no idea of the esteem in which same-sex relations have been held in many periods of Christian history.
We are fortunate that young people here in Kansas City are exploring such issues and are seeking the path of liberation for all.
The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.

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