Randy Christopher and Kimberly Medendorp are putting that sentiment to the test with the nation’s first interfaith high school right here in Pasadena, and the results have been transformational.
Now in its fifth year, the Peace and Justice Academy that they founded brings kids of all faiths together to learn not only about their religion, but all the others as well. Medendorp said this may be the first interfaith high school in the world, as they haven’t been able to find another one quite like it.
“There are schools that are tolerant of religion, that have students from a variety of faiths, but ours is specifically designed for kids to continue to explore their own faith in the context of other faiths,” she said. “We want people to be tolerant, but that’s just a place to start. To celebrate each other’s differences is where you want to get. Tolerance should be the starting point, not the ending point.”
Prior to founding the Peace and Justice Academy, Medendorp was a teacher and Christopher worked for an organization that owned and operated special education boarding schools around the country. Around the time the recession hit, Christopher began contemplating what he wanted to do next in case he got laid off. He decided to open a new school with a model similar to performing arts high schools, but instead of teaching kids to act and sing and draw, it would be a place where kids go when they want to learn how to become activists.
“When we look at Pasadena, there’s a Jewish K-8 school and a Muslim K-8 school, but there’s no high school for those communities,” said Medendorp, who along with Christopher identifies as Mennonite. “So much of the world’s conflict is strife because of religion, and our contention is that the world’s religions need to band together and start creating the world’s peace, not just being the cause of conflict.”
The Peace and Justice Academy, according to its literature, meets in “the intersection of all the world’s great religions, in the common ethic of love, compassion, justice and peace.” The school operates on a cohort model, and Medendorp said it’s an intentionally small school. Currently they have 25 students. They’re hoping to expand to a maximum of 80 students, but no more than that in order to maintain a sense of community. Ideally, they would have five Muslim kids, five Jewish kids and five Christian kids in their freshman class next year, she said. All 15 students would take the same academic classes together.
“Then, during their faith development class, there will be some classes where they’re individually with their own Christian, Muslim or Jewish instructor,” said Christopher. “For example, for three weeks a month they’d be in their own class and one week all the students would be together and discuss the topics they’ve discussed in their own class in a collaborative model. When the Christians learn about Jewish traditions, they’ll learn from a rabbi or a Jewish instructor. They’re not going to learn from their Christian instructor telling them about someone else’s religion.”
Once a month they bring the students on a unique field trip called a Peace and Justice Lab. They go out into the community and explore issues of social justice in the world. During one lab, students were given the scenario of being homeless and had to figure out on their own what to do and where to go.
“That’s where these discussions from our faith traditions get put in context,” said Medendorp, “where the rubber meets the road. The kids go out and learn about homelessness and say, ‘What does my faith tradition compel me to do about this? What do I know about it? How do I respond to this? How do we respond to this together?’”
Other labs have included a trip to San Diego to learn about immigration, a drive from Rodeo Drive to Skid Row to see the economic disparity in our own backyard, a visit to Manzanar to learn about the Japanese internment camps and many others.
“Our trips deal with questions like, ‘Where does your food come from? Where does your water come from? Where does your trash go?’ The field trips we go on are not typical,” said Christopher. “There’s no substitute for experiential learning. What is not so much of a secret is that all these faith traditions mandate that we do the same thing, which is to help the poor and to serve others. We have this common ethic. Where do all the great religions of the world come together? Around the common ethic of peace and justice. All the religions could send their kids here and we could learn to live in peace together and serve the world.”
For more information about the Peace and Justice Academy, visit thepeaceacademy.org/hs.