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More than one faith at high school? Believe it

Religious beliefs, though based on prescribed tenets, manifest in intricate, individual expressions. Such expressions can unite and divide, soothe and anger, drive and hinder. • Although it cannot be openly endorsed in public schools, religion is a strong part of many students' lives and identities. Diverse schools such as Chamberlain High have students representing a vast mix of beliefs, including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Santeria. Recently a few students talked to tb- two* about their religion and what it means to them in and out of school.

A majority: Christianity

Ben Beller, a senior at Chamberlain, is a Christian. Coming from a not very religious background, he said converting to Christianity was "a miracle in my life." When he's not at school, Beller attends church, where he is a student leader. He also works to persuade others to embrace Christianity.

"I try to bring as (many people) to God as possible," he said.

About 77 percent of Americans identify as Christian, according to gallup.com. In Florida, the number rises to 79.5 percent. Christianity chiefly teaches that Jesus is the son of God.

During school the devout Christian participates in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as club president and in Legacy, a Christian club. He prays at school and takes his Bible with him every day.

Beller says he faces some opposition at school. Lots of kids won't "open their eyes to God." Then there are kids who "take a chance (to) walk with God."

"You just have to make the best of it," he said.

Christianity is a huge part of Beller's life. In fact he says that most people identify him as Christian more than anything else. He says he tries to do everything "with Christ's passion" and "devote it to God." He carries this into his athletics as well. Some people like him, some people don't, he said. In any case he's open about it.

A minority: Judaism

Chamberlain High junior Talia Gaies is Jewish.

Judaism, which teaches that Jews have a covenant with God that was established with the children of Israel in biblical times, has been a part of Gaies' life for generations. Every Friday night she and her family celebrate the Shabbat, which she describes as similar to the Sabbath, and have a family dinner whenever complex family schedules allow it. They mainly go to temple just for Jewish holidays.

Gaies celebrates her religion at school in a way she describes as "sometimes and silently." During the day she calls on "a quick, silent prayer," and there is also a little prayer she can do before she eats lunch.

Gaies says she thinks the school district doesn't really understand the needs of minority religions. Sometimes school events are scheduled on Jewish holidays, such as club days and sporting events.

"I miss out on them," she said.

Sometimes events are rescheduled, which makes Gaies happy. But she definitely feels she is a minority at school, she said. Most people know her as Jewish. Sometimes she gets ignorant comments concerning her heritage, she said, but she holds strong.

"You can't peer-pressure someone into changing their faith," Gaies said.

A minority: Buddhism

Allison Clark, who graduated from Wharton High last year, is a Buddhist.

She says she finds Buddhism to be more of a lifestyle than a religion. Buddhism focuses on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path based on teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, or "awakened one," rather than deities and holy books.

Clark meditates and says mantras at home. She keeps in mind the Noble Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts, a code of ethical conduct not unlike Christianity's Ten Commandments.

"Buddhism doesn't have as many rituals as other religions," she said.

When Clark was in high school, she used free time before school for meditation and reminded herself throughout the day of the Path and precepts of Buddhism.

Clark grew up in a Methodist church but says it just didn't fit her.

"I never clicked with it, but I definitely clicked with Buddhism," she said.

With her conversion, she said, came some isolation. "If you're against the majority in any way you'll be isolated, but especially when it comes to religion," Clark said. The Christians she grew up with were disappointed and "tried to convert (me) back to (my) 'old ways,' " something that frustrated Clark a great deal. People would ask her about her faith in school and it would either lead to "curiosity or heated debates."

Clark is able to disregard any pressure, she said, because she believes Buddhism makes her the best she can be. She attributes her faith as the reason for her patience, lovingness and open-mindedness toward all, she said.

"I'm not sure I would be in the place I am now without it," she said.

A minority: Agnosticism

Some people have no idea whether there is a God, the uncertainty being central to agnosticism. Amirah Mahmood, a junior at Chamberlain High, says she isn't faithless, or an atheist (who believes there is no deity). She says she believes that not knowing whether God exists allows her to have more options than most people.

Mahmood was raised a Muslim, but at the age of 12 or 13 decided to free herself from the rigid rules of Islam.

"I didn't want to follow something so strictly," Mahmood said.

Leaving Islam, she became agnostic. Outside and inside school, her attitude is pretty consistent. She lives her life open to any religion she wants. She said she can go to a church or go to a temple, and just kind of be, without committing herself to a single faith. She shows faith, she said, by being open, and by being herself.

If somebody asks about her faith, she tells him or her that she's agnostic, which sometimes leads to arguments, but she said that's not nice, and she doesn't do it often.

At school, Mahmood admitted, she can feel oppressed and limited, even out of place, especially in classes where "everybody is a strict Christian, or tries to be." She questions why people want so much to show off their religion, and said she tries to find the "happy medium" between too much and too little faith.

Her agnosticism makes her a more open-minded person than most, she said, because she is not told how to live and what to believe. She's not part of a religion where you have to agree with everything. She also has a live-life-to-the-fullest sort of attitude.

"I kind of feel better … being one with life, instead of worrying about what's going to happen when I die," Mahmood said.

More than one faith at high school? Believe it 12/04/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 2:57pm]

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