House of Worship Tour helps participants explore religious diversity

A new interfaith program aimed at highlighting Southern California's religious diversity and bringing different communities closer together is getting under way.

The House of Worship Tour is a series of day trips to Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Hindu sites across Southern California starting Nov. 12 and continuing each month until April 2017.

Each trip includes a bus to one of the religious centers — which were selected for their prominence in the community as well as their architecture — a scholar on the bus who will provide a presentation on the faith tradition being visited, a private tour of the facility, the opportunity to observe a worship service and a lunch on-site or at a nearby restaurant.

"Without a doubt the benefit is a greater understanding of other traditions, cultures and faiths," said Bill Shane, co-director of the House of Worship Tour with Sue Smith. "It's for people who say, 'I've always wanted to go to a Buddhist temple, but never knew where to go,' or 'I was always curious about a mosque, but I wasn't comfortable going on my own.'"

"It gives people a chance to break down those barriers."

The tour will visit Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim, the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard Jewish Temple in Los Angeles, St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles and BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple in Chino Hills.

For Shane, interfaith programs like the House of Worship Tour have clear benefits.

"Studies show that the greatest barrier to understanding and the greatest reason people have their prejudices is because they don't know somebody," he said. "But when you have a neighbor or a friend who is Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, fill in the blank, they become real people that have the same concerns, whether it's health, family, education or peace."

Maria Khani, a board member for the Orange County Interfaith Network and Muslim consultant for the House of Worship Tour, agreed, saying it's especially important in today's political climate.

"A lot of people may not have the right information, and this will be a good opportunity for them to learn more about Islam and vice versa," she said. "When you learn more, visit, talk and ask questions, you minimize fear.

"You get to know people and you see that they're like me — Muslims are like me, Christians are like me, Jews are like me, Hindus are like me. We live in the same country, do the same service. The only thing that's different is the way we worship, but the rest is the same."

The program at the Islamic Institute of Orange County, Khani said, includes a tour, discussion of the mosque's architecture, which includes a dome custom-made in Anaheim, "Islam 101" and question and answer sessions, observance of the noon prayer and a dinner from a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Ann Nguyen, vice president of the Garden Grove-Stanton-Westminster Interfaith Council, said that what makes the House of Worship Tour stand out from the other interfaith activities throughout the county is the presence of the scholar on each site visit.

"It's so valuable to have someone there who you can sit and talk to and ask questions," she said. "It's good to be able to ask questions directly and not feel like any question is stupid."

The idea for the House of Worship Tour, according to Shane, dates back two decades, when he was regional director for the National Conference for Community and Justice. Between 1997 and 1999, the group had a similar program to visit different religious centers throughout Southern California.

"It was wonderful," he said of the original tour. "Most people had a reaction of, 'This is so important, we need to do this, and we need to do more of this.'"

But Shane sees the House of Worship Tour as being even more essential today, in a post-Sept. 11 world with increasing ethnic and religious diversity at home.

"In Orange County we've seen the introduction of greater numbers of people from different ethnic communities," he said. "People are blending together more and interacting more. The schools are more multi-ethnic now, and maybe we need the parents to be more interactive as well."

Added Nguyen: "We have an amazingly diverse community in Southern California, and we should enjoy it and connect, because once we connect on a human level, talking together or eating together, it can change the way we see things."

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