We had no doubts we wanted our kids to go to St. Agatha Catholic School. A few blocks away from our house, we used to walk by it regularly before kids and dream about how one day we would send them there. Then, we moved to the East Coast, overseas, and back to the East Coast. All throughout, though, we never forgot our house in Sellwood, our neighborhood, or the school. So when it was time to move back to Portland with kids, we knew exactly where to send our Muslim kids.
We had never been inside the school or the church. We did not know any of the teachers or the administrators, the parish, or the school community. But we felt it was the place for us, so one day in June, from across the country, we signed our kids up.
That was in 2016, and it was the best decision we had made for our kids in a long time. While it all seemed natural to us, we have hear many ask us how it feels to be Muslim in a Catholic school?” Ask my children, and they will tell you it feels great!
In the last two years there, my kids have been welcomed, included, and loved. They were not singled out, or forced to take part in what they do not practice at home. On the contrary, efforts are made to bring them in during parts of the day when they otherwise would have been left out. For example, my son’s teacher once asked him about his special mealtime prayer, and offered him the opportunity to say it while his friends reiterated their version. He beamed, he grew, and he felt special. He had been given a place and a voice, and a message conveying it is okay to be different.
This is not to say that being Muslim among their Christian friends does not leave them feeling uncomfortable, because sometimes it does. They get noticed in class, in the lunch room, and at mass. They get looked at when they fold their hands, and bow their heads and go quiet during prayer times. Their classmates ask them the whys, whats, and hows about Islam. But all that questioning and discomfort is helping build their character. It is making them more confident and more invaluable. They are discovering that they, too, have something to offer, something that their friends may otherwise not be aware of.
Just the other day my daughter’s religion teacher walked up to me and told me it was a pleasure to have my daughter in her class. I was surprised; not because I thought less of my daughter, but because I did not think she would be so involved in religion class. I smiled and thought, “that’s my girl,” to myself, “giving her best in everything.”
Our primary motive behind sending our kids to a Catholic school was to expose them to diversity, and help them become well-rounded, more tolerant, and show more understanding. There is much value to what they are learning about history and culture, morals and values, and love and respect. They are taught timeless messages and common spiritual practices. At home we discuss the similarities and the differences between Islam and Christianity. Our discussions help them discern where the two intersect and where they differ. And while some of these differences are intrinsic and cannot be compromised, our family is convinced that the net benefit of growing up Muslim in a Catholic school is worth far more than many other experiences we can offer them at this point, and in this life.