Gathered in a St. Thomas University conference room, about 50 high school students recently took turns yelling, “Jew, Christian, Muslim, Atheist.”
They were trying to guess the religions of five people sitting on a panel, all religious leaders in the community. Called Guess My Faith , the interactive game is designed to teach the students about different faiths, and be mindful of their differences.
The program was part of MetroTown, a leadership camp for students sponsored by the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews. It was modeled after Anytown, a nationally recognized diversity, leadership and social justice program for youths.
“The type of leaders that we are trying to create are inclusive leaders,” said MetroTown director Courtney Berrien.
MetroTown began last summer as a nonresidential summer camp with about 20 student delegates. The week-long program doubled in size this year, with the students and staffers living in the dorms at St. Thomas, said Roberta Shevin, executive director of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews.
The program takes on subjects like religion, race, gender, culture and sexual orientation — not easy topics to navigate.
Tyler Harris, 15, said that in just two days the camp had changed his perception of people from different races and ethnic groups. During a discussion, a Muslim student shared how students would spit in her face because of her faith. Tyler, a rising sophomore at Young Men’s Preparatory Academy — the county’s first all-boys public high school — said that hearing her story and those of others helped him break down his views of black supremacy.
“I always felt like the black race should be on top,” he said. “How could I think about being on top and pushing them to the bottom? I realized that if we can find love and spread that out to everybody, it can be not a MetroTown group, but a MetroTown world.”
When he returns to school, he said he will no longer be quiet when racial jokes are told or when fellow students are bullied.
“I’m going to speak up. I’m not going to hold my tongue.”
Camp advisor Yvette Payne said that she, too, had learned from MetroTown. “It’s been a phenomenal experience,” said Payne, a counselor at Miami Norland Senior High School. “I thought I was going to be teaching, but I am the student.”
The MetroTown advisors are volunteers. They are certified teachers and counselors who went through additional training by MCCJ. Payne said that seeing the students work through barriers in their life helped her to do the same in hers.
Payne said that some students have a tough time opening up to family and friends about issues concerning them, but the program has given them the courage to speak.
“It shows them how to deal with those adversities,” Payne said.
Jonathan Morales, 17, was recommended by a friend because there weren’t many boys signing up. Jonathan, a rising senior at South Miami Senior High, learned that some students had a more difficult home situation than he did.
“I learned how privileged I was to have a hot meal and having my mom say she loves me,” Jonathan said. “I didn’t know there were some people who didn’t have that.”
Shevin, the executive director, said the students performed skits, watched films, played games, participated in dialogue circles and had one-on-one discussions.
“We use every tool in the toolbox so that they really immerse themselves in the issue,” Shevin said. “We make a difference one conversation at a time.”
Claire Saint-Fart, 17, a rising senior at Norland, said the dialogue circles helped her make friends with people whom she thought she had nothing in common.
“The more I interact with people, the more my eyes are open to the world,” said Claire. “You forget about color, you think about humans.”