Let’s Talk: A Conversation about Faith & Understanding at a Texas High School

Liberty High School Students Shahir Ahmed, Jay Schlaegel and Roshni Parikh leading the conversation about their faiths (Photo by Kendall Zapoli, fellow ISM student)

The posters extended an invitation: “Let’s Talk.” The next line hinted at a joke that could get uncomfortable… “A Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu Walk into a School.” At Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, three students looked beyond that discomfort to step into the spotlight and answer questions about their beliefs.

Jay Schlaegel, a Senior there, crafted the invitation to get people talking about the event. He recalls noticing the frustrations he knew from national headlines had started to gain traction in his community. Jay talks about the “small shifts” he saw in how people talked to one another, and then adds, “That’s not Frisco. We celebrate diversity.” He started to imagine a public conversation that challenged misconceptions with open communication and a willingness to work together.

Flyer image for Let's Talk

From the evening’s poster; Event held May 12th at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas

With careful planning, Jay led his community through much more than an uplifting evening. The final event buzzed with potential as community members came together in an act showing their shared commitment to faith and to understanding each other.

The three students taking the stage that night — Jay, Shahir Ahmed and Roshni Parikh —  represented their community at its best. Their diverse perspectives became a show of strength as they modeled the work of cultivating a shared understanding. By the evening’s end, the buzz over what the event might be gave way to a conversation-filled auditorium where attendees talked about carrying this work into their neighborhoods and workplaces.

Jay shared his work with Politicolor as a way to amplify those conversations and to help them reach communities beyond his own.

A Big Plan for Keeping it Simple

Walking through the planning process, Jay talks about the three lead student roles and an extended cast of VIPs who supported them. The audience also became part of that extended cast. With lights turned up on a seemingly casual conversation between confident student leaders, the event looked like an informal get together where respect came easy with the support of Liberty’s school community. Making it an easy proposition for the audience, however, came as the result of careful planing.

Jay knew the conversation should be oriented toward three questions: What are your core beliefs? What are your daily practices? What are the common misconceptions of your faith? He explains, “if we understand these things, we will understand one another.” Laying out a litany of dogmatic positions would not be a conversation. An honest effort to understand these closely-held beliefs required an open inquiry into individual experiences and a discussion of their daily practices. Jay wanted to keep the conversation open to create an opportunity for learning rather than lecturing.

“Let’s Talk” took shape through Jay’s Independent Study and Mentorship (ISM) course where he explored a career in Christian ministry. He had thought about organizing the event through a less formal student organization on campus, the Pulse Group. Pulse welcomed students new to campus and Jay’s work with that group had reinforced his idea that this conversation could be an important way to support his community. In the end, he decided to work with his ISM teacher, Brian Wysong, so that the event would have to meet “the highest standards.” He would have to professionalize his plan, coordinating his work with Mr. Wysong, along with his career mentor, John McKinzie and his high school Principal, Scott Warstler. This team was a channel of support even as it pushed him to think through the details of managing the conversation and the difficulties that could accompany it.

Jefferson QuoteJay reached out to Shahir Ahmed, President of the Muslim Student Association, and Roshni Parikh, President of the Hindu Student Association. Having started a Bible Study group on campus as a Freshman, Jay stood beside his peers as students already known for their willingness to lead through their faith. They combined the efforts of their respective organizations to write the first set of questions for the evening. The group leaders, who would answer the questions onstage, then selected the questions they would use for starting the conversation.

The question that marked the beginning of the agenda also made it clear that the evening would not be an easy exercise. The question aimed at everything, all at once. Jay, Roshni and Shahir would have to get directly to the point:

How does your religion answer these three questions: Who is God? Who am I? And Why am I here?

After thirty minutes of these prepared questions and answers, the audience had thirty minutes to ask their own questions. Attendees could text in their questions and “vote up” other questions with an app from Sli.do. This tool gave the audience a real opportunity to influence the second part of the conversation.

Jay was so serious about audience engagement that he rattled off the stats for the evening without prompting: 285 participants asked 175 question that received more than 1300 votes. This feature required additional logistics to manage. AP Government Teacher, Coach Swinnea, sorted through the questions as they were submitted and relayed the popular questions to Rob Rever, a fourth student on stage for the evening. Jay had the data close at hand because he wanted to know the audience had become part of the conversation.

For those who attended, it remained a simple proposition, as simple as a conversation. That’s precisely the experience Jay had planned to make possible. When it was over, he had led his community in an evening of thinking together.

Risk Taking is Reward Making

In other communities, the “what-if” scenarios could have shut down an event like this before it ever had the chance to draw a crowd. Principal Scott Warslter admitted to being worried about what might happen. When asked how he had thought through “the worst thing that could happen,” Jay responded with a statement of faith, saying that aiming for “big rewards” requires taking “big risks.” That’s what he wanted to do, and then he added, “I knew those guys [Mr. Warstler and Mr. Wysong] would take care of me.” The school community at Liberty High School showed a willingness to take risks and followed Jay’s lead in aiming for big rewards.

Some of the tension that worried staff members showed up on the audience’s list of questions and persisted. Coach Swinnea had the task of reviewing questions and skipping those that wouldn’t be helpful. In a show of confidence in the students, he ultimately passed along the question, “A common debate in our society today involves discussion about gender identity, homosexuality and acceptance of everyone. What are your religion’s views on topics such as these?” When asked about that question, Jay said he didn’t think it was the most difficult one of the evening. He worried more about answering the very first question from the audience, “What does each respective faith believe happens to non-believers when they die?” The debate over the study of evolution and creationism also made it onto the agenda before the conversation was over.

The students each proceeded cautiously, thinking deeply and holding to their commitment to speak honestly. Shahir became the perfect example of dealing with his own uncertainty when addressing the question about evolution. He began his response with Adam and Eve and then a caveat:

“I am not as knowledgable on this topic as I would like to be but there are people in our audience who are, definitely, and I wouldn’t want any of my personal thoughts to get in the way of the truth of what Islam actually believes in.”

Shahir asked the audience to seek out those more knowledgeable practitioners at the end of the night. He concluded his remarks with a statement of truth that transcended the question, “I have a lot to learn still, when it comes to everything really.” Shahir showed how accepting the incompleteness of one’s own understanding can change the tone of our conversations.

Lets Talk MadisonJay believes this moment represents an advantage student leaders have when navigating these controversies. Before the conversation started, the students explained that they were still working to understand their faiths themselves. Jay said he asked for “forgiveness and grace” up front because they were certain to get something wrong, to choose the wrong words and to say something that might cause offense. This gesture asked audience members to understand the students as individuals practicing their faith, puzzling through their own questions even while attempting to answer whatever questions the audience asked of them. This framed the conversation as an exercise in understanding one’s own faith as much as it was an effort to know the beliefs of others.

Wanting to show that the conversation was just getting started, the final act of the night included one more invitation. The students asked everyone to bring their questions to the front of the auditorium where they would be joined by adult practitioners of their faiths. The auditorium filled with conversations as audience members left their seats.

This moment had worried Jay some. He had imagined what it would look like if no one took them up on this less formal and more personal part of the evening. The audience could have instead filed out of the auditorium and left the conversation behind them. Stepping to the front of the stage at the end of the night, Jay shared his concern with the audience, “if the conversation stops when you walk out the doors, then this night did not meet its goal.” He then finished his remarks by emphasizing the evening’s theme, “Let’s talk,” and extended it to include, “Let’s communicate. Let’s cooperate.”

The audience stayed to talk more. Jay laughed as he recalled having to resort to flipping the lights on and off to convince everyone to go home.

Their evening together had reached its end but the conversations spilled over into the days that followed. Jay, Shahir and Roshni received an invitation to speak to a nearby retirement community, and the Lieutenant of the Frisco police asked them to come talk to the police force too. Jay excitedly shared that he had just seen a letter the retirement community sent to the Muslim congregation building a mosque near their residences. The letter referred to having attended the “Let’s Talk” event, expressed appreciation for the the beauty of the building taking shape next door and then extended a good neighbor’s offer to help if they needed it.

Conversations at the front of the auditorium

Conversations at the front of the auditorium

A Community that Listens Together, Learns Together

Jay paused and thought over the question about the night’s success, but the answer came quickly. He knew the night was a success at something near the halfway point of the evening’s agenda. He remembered looking out into the crowd and seeing faces that looked like Frisco… “there were turbans next to baseball hats.”

The support of his community had sustained his work and made it possible. That, however, would not have been enough to make the event succeed in all the ways he wanted. When asked to consider what made the evening work in Frisco and what would be important in planning events in other communities, Jay identified three must-haves:

  1. The participation of well-respected students who were willing to demonstrate the work of learning together,
  2. A school community willing to take risks and able to support one another in the face of those uncertainties, and
  3. An audience able to accept the students’ appeal for forgiveness and understanding.

Like a professional event planner, Jay added that a heavy amount of marketing had also contributed to the night’s success. He devoted a month to promoting the event with his simple proposition, “Let’s Talk.” That simplicity made it possible to counter the tension and discomfort of religious differences in a community. That casual invitation put learning together and respecting one another back at the top of the community’s agenda.

The conversations sparked by a one night event at Liberty High School continue to work their way across the community improving the way people there talk to one another. When you want to start this conversation in your community, you know who to talk to.

Video of the event’s first 60 minutes courtesy of Halle Barham, an ISM student at Liberty High School

1 Comment

  • Jay Schlaegel says:

    Hey it’s Jay Schlaegel from the article! If you’re reading this and want to learn more or desire to launch a similar event in your community, feel free to contact me at [email protected]!

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