Faith and Understanding

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Expecting 800 teenagers to give up a sunny Sunday to talk about religion and cultural differences may seem like a too-tall order to some, but 17-year-old Todd Kirschen knew what he had to do: make the day fun and keep the teens comfortable. The rest, he reasoned, would take care of itself.

The plan appeared to work, as hundreds of Orange County high school students mobbed Chapman University in Orange for the first Interfaith Youth Conference, which Kirschen and about 25 other youths planned for their peers.

Besides the necessary ingredients for a serious, daylong conference about understanding religious differences--like the schedule of workshops and speakers that included a Holocaust survivor and popular religion professors--Kirschen's fellow organizers didn't overlook a host of other, teen-targeted details. Food, for example. There was lots of it. And live music between workshops, interactive games and a variety of panel discussions designed to give everyone a chance to speak.

"The thing about teens is, you can't make them feel like they're being lectured to all day long," said Kirschen, who attends Troy High School in Fullerton. "If we could just get them here, I knew they would get into it. The whole day was meant for them."

Although less than half the expected number of teens showed up Sunday, they came from all corners of Orange County and represented 15 faiths, said William Shane, director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, which sponsored the event.

"It will catch on," said Shane, who hopes to hold the conference again. "The kids worked so hard on this, and it was a huge success."

Participants were able to choose two workshops from a list of 10, with subjects ranging from "Eat It, Wear It, Light It," during which clothing, symbols, food and culture from various religions were shared and discussed, to "After Death: What Happens in Your Religion?" which included a panel of religious leaders and students from eight faiths.

Among the most popular sessions were a discussion on how religions are portrayed in the movies and another on the Holocaust.

Brad Franklin, a junior at Irvine High School who heard about the conference through his church's youth group, said a workshop with an intriguing title caught his eye: "You're a What? Is It Contagious?"

"It talks about non-Western religious traditions like Muslim, Bahai, Sikh and Jain," said Franklin, as he stumbled over the pronunciations. "I've never heard of some of these before in my life. So now I'm curious."

That, student organizers said, was exactly what they hoped would happen.

"There's a lot of misconceptions about faith and culture that people carry with them just because of biases or misinformation or whatever," said Afreen Malim, a senior at Garden Grove High School.

Added Kirschen: "We have to do more than tolerate each other's differences. We have to understand them."

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