Gil, Layli and Serena Miller-Muro learn about helpfulness.
Gil, Layli and Serena Miller-Muro learn about helpfulness. Larry Miller
Rachel Galoob-Ortega helps her son Luka place a symbol of Buddhism on his lamp shade to illustrate the idea that religions may look different but have the same source that illuminates them.
Rachel Galoob-Ortega helps her son Luka place a symbol of Buddhism on his lamp shade to illustrate the idea that religions may look different but have the same source that illuminates them. Larry Miller
Tatton Oliver, Brice Gaskins and Serena Miller-Muro with the lampshades they made.
Tatton Oliver, Brice Gaskins and Serena Miller-Muro with the lampshades they made. Larry Miller
Cowboy Hay performs for Shazia Philipsen and her daughter, Serena (in pink) as well as Brice Gaskins (pointing) and his brother Carter (crawling) Gaskins and Yacob Alemayehou.
Cowboy Hay performs for Shazia Philipsen and her daughter, Serena (in pink) as well as Brice Gaskins (pointing) and his brother Carter (crawling) Gaskins and Yacob Alemayehou. Larry Miller
It sounds like the start of a bad joke: A Jew, a Baptist and a Baha'i get together every Sunday morning ...
But it's a new kind of Sunday school, where families from a range of religions gather to teach virtues to their young children. On a recent Sunday in Falls Church, Va., Layli and Gil Miller-Muro invited parents and children — aged 14 months to 6 years old — to their home to learn about helpfulness.
"Parents of my generation feel incredible pressure to make our kids read earlier, to know math sooner and better, to get into the top preschools and then the best schools," Layli explains. "But what many of us forget is the other side of the character of our children, not just the academic side, but the spiritual side and their character side."
And so last September, the Miller-Muros, who are Baha'i, approached their religious community and asked them to sponsor a virtues class — where the children learn virtues such as obedience, service and friendliness.
In the past decade, the Baha'i faith has sponsored about 900 such classes nationwide. They're based on the central Baha'i tenet that all religions are different but come from the same source, God. Gil says the couple then asked their friends if they'd be interested.
"When we proposed this idea to them, they said that was something they'd like to do to," Gil says. "So we realized we had a critical mass and it was time to get started."
The parents come from Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, Greek Orthodox and Baha'i backgrounds. Rachel Galoob-Ortega, who is Jewish, says she wants her son Luka to learn about and accept all religions.
"What I really want for Luka is when he grows up and someone says to him, 'I'm Baha'i' or 'I'm Zoroastrian' — if he doesn't know, for him to say, 'Well, tell me about that,"" Galoob-Ortega says. "I want him to show a level of curiosity, rather thinking, 'Well, that's not Judaism, that's not what I know.' And to me, that would be important to the development of his character."
And to that end, Layli calls the children to the dining room table. In front of each child sits a little lamp shade.
"Remember how we talked about how religions are a lot like lamp shades?" she asks the group. "They may look different, they may be different colors or sit in different rooms, but they all have the light of God inside of them."
The kids glue symbols of various religions onto the shades — a Christian cross, a Buddhist wheel, a star and crescent for Islam. Then Layli calls out, "Come to the light!" And the children, one by one, place their decorated lamp shades on a light bulb.
Layli then turns to the core of the program: virtues. She starts by asking about last week's lesson.
"Did anyone exhibit contentment this week?" she asks the group sitting in the living room.
"Not me!" one boy announces.
"Not you?" she laughs. "We'll work on that. But we're good at honesty."
Each week, the children learn a different virtue. They studied "justice" for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. For service, they made chocolate chip cookies and delivered them to a retirement home.
Mimi Alamayehou realized that she needed to expose her 5-year-old son, Yacob, to the notion of virtues after she had an epiphany a year ago. She and Jacob were visiting family in Ethiopia, and they saw some children begging.
"And I was telling him, 'These kids don't have any food and don't have anything,'" she recalls. "And he said to me, 'Mommy, I think you need to tell their mommies where the Whole Foods is.'" She laughs. "I was so shocked! I said, 'Oh my God, I really have a lot of work to do if he thinks the only problem is that there's no Whole Foods around!'"
So, do the virtues stick?
Shazia Philipsen thinks so, especially when she receives an occasional lecture from her daughter, Serena.
"It's things like patience," she says. "In the car, when I'm driving, Serena will say, 'Mommy, you have to be patient!' So she understands through the books, through the storytelling, what it means. I don't think she learns that at school. She's changed, and it's great."
And the children have been so patient for more than an hour, waiting for the highlight of the class, Cowboy Hay. Gil Miller Muro's stepfather strides into the room, sporting a long white beard, a hillbilly hat and a banjo. He begins strumming and the kids join in, perhaps not realizing they are crooning a theological message.
"We are drops ... of one ocean. We are waves... of one sea. Won't you come and join us in our quest for unity. It's the way of life for you and me," they sing.
The parents collapse into comfortable chairs, as Cowboy Hay and his young virtuosos sing about unity in the complex future they face.