Let's face it: Though religion is an important part of millions of peoples' lives, it's often ignored by the mainstream media.
On television, religion coverage on newscasts is rare unless there's a scandal. Religion is more likely to pop up in prime-time dramas, but even then it's rarely a running theme.
How welcome then it is to see Nickelodeon and Noggin broadcast "A Walk in Your Shoes: Religion" tonight at 6. And how timely.
The hour-long special follows two teen-age girls as they explore each others' religions. Meredith Mishkin, an eighth-grader from Allentown, Pa., is Jewish. Lauren McCulley, a 10th-grader from Lansdale, Pa., is Catholic. The two trade places, with Meredith attending a Catholic camp and Lauren going to a Jewish camp.
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"A Walk in Your Shoes: Religion"
When: 6 p.m. Dec. 17, 2000 on Nickelodeon and Noggin.
"I was nervous about wearing my star, because when I came in, everyone I saw was wearing their crosses," Meredith says at the beginning of the program. Lauren was nervous, too. She attends a Catholic school and doesn't have many Jewish friends.
But by meeting other teens of different faiths, both girls grew in their understanding of religion - both the faith they were exposed to and their own. Lauren and Meredith will discuss their experiences online at 7 tonight at the Web site www.noggin.com.
Rabbi Marc Gellman of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, N.Y., and Msgr. Tom Hartman, director of radio and television for the diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., served as consultants to the producers of "A Walk in Your Shoes."
Gellman said participating in the exchange didn't shake the beliefs of either teen; rather, it strengthened it.
"When you start with children and give them an opportunity to explore the religious commitments of other kids, the first things they discover is how similar they are and how proud they are of their own religion," Gellman said in a recent phone interview. "Some people think they'll say, 'Hey, I should leave my own religion,' but it's exactly the opposite. The best way to deepen a child's commitment to faith is [for them] to teach it to someone else. That's what this show does and what these girls had the experience of doing."
The exchange gave both girls a better understanding of the others' religious culture, an understanding Hartman and Gellman hope the audience will come away with, too.
"I have long felt that the main cause of prejudice is ignorance and separation and not theological disagreements," Gellman said.
Hartman said too often society concentrates more on how people are different, rather than how they are alike.
"To be contemporary, you can't close your eyes to a global world," he said. "You lose out on something if you don't have any friends who are different from yourself."
Gellman and Hartman are long-time believers in encouraging communication among people of different faiths. For the past 14 years they've hosted a daily interfaith talk show, "The God Squad," which airs on cable and broadcast television in the New York City area. They met when a local TV station interviewed them both about Passover and Easter. Until then, Gellman said, "I owned a television set, and I didn't turn it on much. That was my media involvement."
Hartman, who was ordained a Catholic priest in 1971, said he became acutely aware of the role media could play in religion when one of his professors told him, if St. Paul were alive today, he'd go to the media.
"That's one of the three sentences I remembered from my education," Hartman said. "He went on to say, the reason St. Paul got in the boat was because it was the best way to get to where the people are."
So it is, Hartman believes, with TV. The time of year Nickelodeon and Noggin (available in Pittsburgh on AT&T's digital tier) have chosen to air "A Walk in Your Shoes" is also appropriate.
"It's religion's time in the cycle of the media year," Gelman said. "My hope is religion might get more time as a result of this extraordinary and sensitive program."
Gellman and Hartman said TV programs aimed at teens offer little encouragement when it comes to youths exploring their own beliefs.
"If the mass culture doesn't expose kids to religions, and the main way kids learn about the world is through mass culture, it doesn't take a genius to realize religion's in trouble," Gellman said. "And children are in trouble if they're not exposed to a source of wisdom and hope."
As for the girls featured on the show, Gellman and Hartman listened carefully to how they explained their own religions to one another. Both were pleased with what they heard.
"They were the great surprise of this program, how articulate they were, how open they were, how informed they were, how committed they were," Gellman said. "It figures because it was religious camps, but it was wonderful to see. It made me feel that the future is safe."
You can reach Rob Owen at email@example.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.