Neighboring Faith Communities

Neighboring Faith Communities: A Process Guide
A curriculum for grades 6-8
Compiled by Dan Harper, v. 0.8.3
Based on the accumulated wisdom of Sunday school teachers at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, 2012-2016. Principal teachers involved in the development of this version of the curriculum include James Sperry and Dan Harper, with Laura Coleman, Harrison “Buzz” Frahn, and Craig Lewis.
Copyright (c) 2014-2016 Dan Harper

Version 0.8.3 of this curriculum is now available as a print edition or a free download of a PDF.
Click to order the perfect-bound print edition (64pp.) AT COST: $3.32 + shipping.
Click to download a free PDF version.


A. Overview of the process
B: Goals of “Neighboring Faith Communities”
C. Philosophy and rationale behind the course

A. Initial meetings
B. Making the visits
C. Basic class structure
D. Other class sessions
E. Logistics checklist for visits

A. List of faith communities
B. Finding neighboring faith communities in your area
C. information and resources on U.S. religion

A. List of actual visits
B. Sample week-by-week class schedules

A. How to document your visits
B. Documentation as individual and group assessment

A. List of faith communities near Palo Alto, for use by the UU Church of Palo Alto teachers
B. Links to online arts resources, mostly videos depicting musical and visual arts of various faith traditions



Masjid, Palo Alto, California

Above: Anjuman-e-Jamali mosque, Islamic, Shia, Dahwoodi Bohra community, Palo Alto, California



“Neighboring Faith Communities” offers a complete guide to the process of running a Sunday school class for middle schoolers in which you visit other faith communities.

This introductory matter, titled “Introduction and Overview,” gives an overview of the course process, goals for the course, and a rationale and a philosophy for visiting other faith communities. The second chapter, “Process Guide,” tells how to go about choosing which faith communities to visit, and how to make the visits. The third chapter tells how to locate a wide variety of neighboring faith communities to visit. The fourth chapter gives actual visits, including a week-by-week schedule, made by a class. The fifth chapter tells you how to document your visits, and how such documentation can be used as a form of assessment.

A. Overview of the process

“Neighboring Faith Communities” is a program that is based on making visits to other faith communities near your congregation. Each visit involves a three-session (three week) process:

(1) In the session before the visit, the class learns the basics about the faith community: what they should wear, what to expect when they arrive, basic etiquette, etc. A key resource for this step is the book How To Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, by Arthur J. Magida (Skylight Paths Publications, revised regularly).
(2) In the next session, the following week, the class visits the faith community.
(3) In the third session, the class talks about the visit: —What happened during the visit, and what did you especially notice? —What was the same and different about other faith communities we’ve visited (including our own faith community)?
The Neighboring Faith Communities class also includes an initial session or two where the class decides which faith communities they would like to visit; periodic sessions devoted to group-building and fun; visiting speakers (e.g., from traditions where a visit is inappropriate or impossible); and occasional sessions on other topics relating to faith communities (e.g., feminism in religion).

B. Goals of “Neighboring Faith Communities”

1. To increase religious literacy, by introducing young people to the actual rituals and practices of different worshiping communities.
2. To teach religious tolerance, by visiting faith communities with values that differ from our own, and maintaining a respectful demeanor during those visits.
3. To make good world citizens, by raising the awareness of the religious diversity of the U.S. (and the world) in young people.
4. To have fun and sometimes challenging new experiences; to build a peer group that is supportive; and to expose middle schoolers to thoughtful and caring adult role models in their own faith community.

About the Neighboring Faith Communities Rubric

Below you will find a rubric for this course. In our field tests, we have found that teens did NOT like to see a rubric, as it reminded them too much of school. therefore, this rubric is for use only by teachers, as a way to help you better understand possible learning goals for the teens in your class.

In the Neighboring Faith Communities class, young people become better citizens by learning about other faith communities, through field trips to those faith communities. This rubric is designed to help parents and guardians know how much their children have learned.

In the Neighboring Faith Communities class, we do not focus on beliefs or proper practice (the doctrinal and legal/ethical dimensions of religion). Probably the best place for young people to learn about these dimensions of religion is at school (in history and social studies classes), or through books or online learning. Instead, we focus on three other important dimensions of religion:

—the emotional dimension of religion
— the material dimension of religion
— the social dimension of religion

The best way to learn about these dimensions of religion are through experience, and that’s what we do in this course—we have young people experience the worship services of other faith communities.

The first two categories on the rubric cover the emotional dimension of religion. The next category covers the material dimension of religion (we include music in the material dimension), and the fourth category covers the social dimension. Finally, the last category in the rubric helps us measure progress towards our goal of producing good citizens in a multi-religious world.

How To Help Teens Get the Most from This Course

We usually take three weeks to learn about a faith community. In the first week, we learn a little bit about the faith community we’re going to visit, and learn what to wear and the basics of how to behave. The second week, we go on the field trip together. And on the third week, we talk about the field trip: what did we see and hear? how did we each feel? who was there and what were they doing?
Someone who participates in one or two three-week field trip cycles should be able to achieve the lowest level of learning, “Casual Participant.”

By participating in three or more field trip cycles, filling out the Participant Checklist each time, and contributing to the discussions after each trip, a participant can reach the “Regular Participant” level. “Regular Participants” are prepared to be good citizens, because they are aware that different religions
The “Good World Citizen” level of learning is a challenge aimed at 8th graders, particularly those who are in the class for a second year. “Good World Citizens” have visited a number of different faith communities, they know how to observe and listen non-judgmentally, they remember details about those faith communities, and they can compare and contrast those faith communities with each other—and with the participant’s own faith community.


Neighboring Faith Communities Rubric (PDF)

Neighboring Faith Communities Rubric (thumbnail)


Philosophy and rationale behind the course

This course has a dual educational philosophy. On the one hand, it is grounded in essentialism, where we think that young people need to be exposed to some basic, essential knowledge about religion. More specifically, in this course we aim to introduce young people to a variety of religions through their practices and their communities, as we feel this knowledge is just as important as knowledge about beliefs and theologies or religious philosophies.

At the same time, this course is grounded in existentialism, particularly existentialism as espoused by Maxine Greene in her essay “Diversity and Inclusion: Towards a Curriculum for Human Beings.” Greene asserts that for each of us, our “selves are always in the making,” and she rejects any “single visions or interpretations”; thus this course doesn’t impose a single interpretation on religion, e.g, we would never say that our religion is a more highly developed religion than others (though we may say that it is better for us). And Maxine Greene argues for aesthetic experiences and use of imagination in curriculum, to the end that curriculum might engage with alternative worldviews that allow unjust societal restrictions to be “brought within reach so that persons of all sorts can come together to change them.”

Our dual educational philosophy means that (1) we will expose young people to the diversity of faith communities that currently exist in this part of the world, such that (2) the young people witness (and perhaps even experience, to some degree) various searches for meaning, various worldviews. This dual educational philosophy means that we emphasize both knowledge (in this case, knowledge of religious etiquette and cultural literacy), and aesthetic experiences that engage all the senses.

This course also takes a somewhat unusual approach to teaching about other religions. Ninian Smart, in his book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs, identifies seven dimensions of the sacred:
1. the ritual dimension
2. the doctrinal or philosophical dimension
3. the mythic or narrative dimension
4. the experiential or emotional dimension
5. the ethical or legal dimensions
6. the organizational or social component
7. the material or artistic dimension

Western culture has been dominated by the Protestant tradition, which was itself dominated by doctrinal concerns; thus in Western education we often focus on teaching doctrine and philosophy while slighting other religious dimensions. Protestantism in the United States, with its multiplicity of denominations, also tends to pay great attention to the history of schisms and the development of new organizational or social structures; and so in U.S. education we often focus a great deal on history, polity, and denominations.

But in this course, we turn the focus away from doctrine and philosophy, and we spend little time on history or denominational organization. Nor do we take up the narrative or mythic dimension, since that is a focus in our religious education programs for younger children. Instead, we turn our attention to the experiential or emotional dimension: what does it feel like to be part a worship service in another faith community? And we turn our attention to the social component (exclusive of the organizational component): how should we behave so that we fit in as well as possible to another faith community’s social structure? — this is of course the question of etiquette, and it is not by accident that this course is titled “Neighboring Faith Communities“. Finally, in this course we directly experience the material or artistic dimension: when we visit another faith community, what beauty do we experience, what art and architecture, what music, what smells, what tastes, what movement or comfort or discomfort?

As it happens, these foci of attention prove to be particularly suitable to early adolescents. The social component of religion is perfect for them, because early adolescents are highly social beings who are doing lots of learning about how to relate to peers and those older and younger than themselves. The emotional component of religion is perfect for them, because early adolescents are just beginning to experience a whole new range of complicated emotions, and early adolescence is a time to learn how to make sense out of the emotions. Finally, the material or artistic dimension of religion works well for them, because early adolescents are at a stage in life where they are newly alive to the power of all the arts. (It should be noted that while the course does expose young people to the ritual dimension of religion, “worship … is supposed to be sincere” according to Ninian Smart. We can’t expect someone who visits another faith community just once to experience the sincerity that comes from regular participation in the community’s ritual.)

A further rationale for this course is that we have found the existing printed curriculum guides tend to focus too much on the cognitive aspects of religion, rather than on the power of religions as aesthetic experiences and as living ways to make meaning in the world. For example, the Building Bridges curriculum, published online by the UUA as part of their “Tapestry of Faith” series, takes more of a facts-based approach, rather than an experiential approach; it places a strong emphasis on doctrine, philosophy, and history, with less emphasis on experience, emotion, and the arts. The still-older print-version curriculum Neighboring Faiths curriculum is even more problematic, because not only does it emphasize facts to a greater degree than we are looking for, but it is factually inaccurate in places, and it does not adequately cover the non-Western religions which are now a part of the U.S. cultural landscape.

So it is we found ourselves developing our own approach to experiencing other faiths, an experiential and existential curriculum based on the most recent scholarship in religious studies.


Palo Alto Friends Meeting, California

Above: Palo Alto Friends Meeting, Friends General Conference, Palo Alto, California



The following are some of the books that have been consulted during the preparation of this curriculum:

Historical curricula

Isaacs, Mary K. Building Bridges: A World Religions Program. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2014. Accessed online in 2015,

Manwell, Reginald D., and Sophia Lyon Fahs. The Church across the Street. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958, 1947.

Reed, Christine F., and Patricia Hoertdoerfer. Neighboring Faiths. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1997.

Vail, Albert R. Heroic Lives. Boston: Beacon Press, 1917. Chapters on Zoroaster, Muhammad, Buddha, the Bab.


Published sources

Chaves, Mark. American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. New York and Oxford: New York Public Library and Oxford University Press, 1986.

Eck, Diana. A New Religious America: How a ‘Christian Country’ Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Engelke, Matthew. “Material Religion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Greene, Maxine. “Diversity and inclusion: Towards a curriculum for human beings.” Teachers College Record, vol. 95, pp. 211-221, 1993.

Matlins, Stuart M., and Arthur J. Magida, eds. How To Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2010, 2015.

Partridge, Christopher, ed. New Religions: A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

————— , ed. Introduction to World Religions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Prothero, Stephen. God Is Not One. New York: Harper One, 2011.

————— . Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t. New York: Harper One, 2007.

Smart, Ninian. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996.


Works about individual religious traditions

A wide range of contemporary scholarship on individual religious traditions was consulted during the development and implementation of this curriculum. These books are not listed here because the curriculum as written has little information about individual traditions.

Curricula for UUs