STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
OK. A Jew, a Baptist and a Baha'i get together every Sunday morning. No, it's not the set-up line for a bad joke. It's a new kind of religious education. Once a week families from a range of religions gather to teach virtues to their young children.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty visited one such class in Falls Church, Virginia where she learned about helpfulness.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Sunday school at the Miller-Muro's house is not what you would call typical.
Ms. LAYLI MILLER-MURO (Religious Educator): Hey, Gil, can you manage the pillow fight? I'm not sure that's a great idea.
HAGERTY: Welcome to the virtues class, where eight rambunctious children between ages three and six have gathered with their parents to learn about obedience and service and friendliness. Layli Miller-Muro says there's so much pressure on young kids today - the push to read earlier and to get into the best schools - that spiritual education falls by the wayside.
Ms. MILLER-MURO: We want them to succeed in society not only materially but also spiritually. We want them to contribute and be good people. And there's not a whole lot of training out there for that.
HAGERTY: And so last September, Layli and her husband Gil, who are Baha'is, went to their religious community and asked them to sponsor a virtues class. In the past decade, about 900 such classes have sprung up nationwide. They're based on the central Baha'i tenet that all religions are different but come from the same source. Gil says the couple then asked their friends if they'd be interested.
Mr. GIL MILLER-MURO (Religious Educator): When we proposed this idea to them, they said that that was something that they would love to do, too. So we realized that we had a critical mass and it was time to get started.
s. MILLER-MURO: OK. Let's start. Tat, tat, tat. (Singing) Is Tatten(ph) here today? Is Tatten here today? Oh, yes, he is. Oh, there, he is...
HAGERTY: Kids and parents sit on the living room floor. They're from Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, and Greek Orthodox backgrounds. Rachel Galoob-Ortega, who is Jewish, says she wants her son to become familiar with and to accept all religions.
Ms. RACHEL GALOOB-ORTEGA (Virtues Class): I really want Luka to have, when he grows up, is when someone says, I'm Baha'i, I'm Zoroastrian, I'm - whatever they say, if he doesn't know, for him to say, well, tell me about that.
HAGERTY: And so Layli does. She gathers the children around the dining room table, each with a little lamp shade.
Ms. MILLER-MURO: Remember how last time we talked about how religions are a lot like lamp shades? They might look different, but they all have the light of God inside of them.
HAGERTY: The kids glue symbols of various religions onto the shades - a cross, a Buddhist wheel, a star and crescent for Islam.
Ms. MILLER-MURO: Everybody who finishes their lampshade, come over to the light and we'll practice putting it on the light, the lamp. OK?
After they've come to the light, Layli turns to the virtues. She starts by asking about last week's lesson.
Ms. MILLER-MURO: Did anyone exhibit contentment this week? No?
Unidentified Boy #1: Not me!
Ms. MILLER-MURO: Not you? Well, we're good at honesty.
HAGERTY: Each week they learn a different virtue. They've studied justice for the Martin Luther King holiday. For service they made chocolate chip cookies and delivered them to a retirement home.
Mimi Alemayehou says she came to the class after she had an epiphany a year ago about her son, Yacob. They were visiting family in Ethiopia and saw some children begging.
Ms. MIMI ALEMAYEHOU (Virtues Class): And I was telling them, you know, these kids don't have any food and don't have anything. And he said to me, Mommy, I think you need to tell their mommies where Whole Foods is. I said, Oh my God, I really have a lot of work to do.
HAGERTY: Hi. Do you have something to say to me?
Unidentified Child #1: My favorite virtue is TV.
HAGERTY: Actually, TV is not on the list of virtues, but helpfulness is.
Unidentified Child #2: Yacob, you want to be my partner? Come on, partner.
HAGERTY: To illustrate helpfulness, the children take turns guiding each other blindfolded around obstacles in the room. Some are more helpful than others.
So do the virtues stick? Shazia Philipsen thinks so, especially when she receives an occasional lecture from her daughter, Serena.
Ms. SHAZIA PHILIPSEN (Virtues Class): And it's things like patience. In the car, I'm driving, she'll say, Mommy, you have to be patient.
HAGERTY: And they've been so patient, 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.
COWBOY HAY (Musician): (Singing) Won't you come and join us in our quest for unity. It's the way of life for you and me.
HAGERTY: The parents collapse into comfortable chairs as Cowboy Hay and his young virtuosos sing about unity in the complex future they face.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
COWBOY HAY: (Singing) It's the way of life for you and me.