WEBSTER GROVES, MO. - The shortest distance between two people is a song. Or it could be a story.
That's the thinking behind a pilot program called Sprouts of Peace.
"It's sparking an imagination that we can make friends in all sorts of different places. And we don't have to be exactly alike," Rev. Al Schon, of Peace United Church of Christ, said.
Started almost two years ago by the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, Sprouts of Peace brings together young children of different faiths.
"You know it's like the old story," said Rev. Schon. "A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian got together in a room and we said we've got this idea of doing something with our children. What might that look like?"
Every other month, it looks like this.
Kids from United Hebrew Congregation, Peace United Church of Christ and the Islamic Foundation get together for fun, friendship and food. Strangers 4- to 10-years old don't stay strangers long.
"We specified that age because we wanted to capture children before they had any preconceived notions," said Rabbi Roxanne Shapiro of United Hebrew.
"What is the common thing among all of us? That's the goal, to recognize that," said Farhat Shekhani of the Islamic Center.
Every session is a chance to learn from each other and about each other.
Emma Wallace, 14, is a teen helper.
"It's basically by grades," she said. "And they do activities together and they learn a little about each religion."
On this day, as a crafts project, the kids were making garden stones
"We were making stones and we put our thumb print on it," said 5-year-old Safiya Sadiq.
"So that became a garden stone for them to take home so they would know that all of their friends participated with them in making that stone," Rev. Schon said of a project at the program.
Call it education through imagination, because if you ask the kids their favorite part:
"Play the games and eat!," Andrew House, 9, said with a laugh.
Of course, the kids wouldn't be in the program unless their parents had the desire to be part of a larger community.
"It's breaking barriers," one mom said in a parental discussion. Another added, "They've already built a relationship with someone of a different faith."
And the parents have built relationships with each other.
Organizers said Sprouts of Peace is more important than ever because these are challenging times.
"We've been really concerned about particularly the way our Muslim brothers and sisters have been treated since 9/11," Rev. Schon said.
"Not everybody is like that but some people are making it difficult and kids are feeling it in school," Farhat Shekhani added.
Even as the kids played, a police officer was paid to help keep them safe.
"It's antithetical to what our goal is, but we want to make sure that people feel comfortable when they come together," Rabbi Shapiro said.
The hope is, this is just a first step on a journey of understanding.
"I think because they're kids and when they grow up they'll meet new people and won't just assume stereotypes," said Sienna Shapiro, an 11 year old volunteer.
"I feel like they could be just one big religion because they're basically all the same," said 9-year-old Lucia Lopez.
Sprouts of Peace. Innocence erasing ignorance.
"It just fills me with so much joy," said Rev. Schon.
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