How Prospect teacher offers 'a seat at the table' to promote religious literacy
Growing up in a condominium complex in Des Plaines and later in a duplex in Arlington Heights, John Camardella's family dinner table was always crowded -- and diverse.
It often included their neighbors -- a Korean Buddhist family and a Jewish widow -- and Mundelein seminarians who grew up in Poland, the Philippines and Uganda.
"As I entered my teen years in Arlington Heights, I found myself as a minority at my own dinner table," Camardella said, "and I grew to love it."
That ever-expanding table is how Camardella says he came to understand his own Catholic faith tradition and what led to the development of his world religions course at Prospect High School -- a nationally acclaimed program aimed at promoting religious and cultural literacy among students and the community.
Since establishing the social studies elective course in 2009, Camardella has promoted the ethos of religious awareness and education to not only students, but their parents, local religious groups, educators across the country, and even the Toronto Blue Jays front office.
On Thursday morning, he was the keynote speaker at the 34th annual Arlington Heights Mayor's Community Prayer Breakfast, where he encouraged the virtual gathering of some 200 people across different faith traditions to ponder how they might be able to offer a seat at the table to their fellow citizens.
"As we think about our community, we expect many forms of literacy out of our population. Obviously, we want everybody to be able to read and write," said Camardella, adding the importance of financial, nutritional and technological education as examples. "I pose the question to you today of how much longer are we comfortable waiting before offering opportunities to our next generation to become more religiously and culturally literate?"
Such a knowledge gap of religion and culture, Camardella argued, has real-world consequences, such as a simplistic or shallow view of world events, and a weakened capacity to critique the claims of those preaching religious intolerance and hate.
Camardella's message was among a series of reflections, readings and prayers given by local leaders at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre and broadcast live on Zoom. Many of the program's musical performances were recorded and produced remotely.
Despite a COVID-19 surge and resulting mitigations last fall, Mayor Tom Hayes said the prayer breakfast planning committee never considered canceling the annual tradition -- normally attended by some 300 people -- outright. That led to the virtual presentation.
"The committee was unanimous in the belief that our community needed the prayer breakfast this year more than in other years," Hayes said.