Filming faith

Episcopal High senior Nicholas Leo says he once believed that religious strife and disharmony consumed the area's differing faith communities, but making a self-directed documentary helped him rethink his assumptions.

Leo spent nearly two years filming and interviewing area spiritual leaders, including a Jewish rabbi, Catholic priest, Buddhist monk and an inner-city Baptist preacher to make a 34-minute documentary, "Spirit and the City."

Along the way, Leo said, he uncovered common goals and principles among religious leaders - namely that they are seeking to find peace, unity and good in people.

"I learned to approach new faiths without presumption," he said. "I found that we get presumptions through the media and through what other people say. But when you ask someone their view, that's when you get the real view and learn something about them."

Different and opposing religious beliefs can be discussed and worked through, Leo said.

"We can respect each other," he said.

Leo, 18, a Catholic, is a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Church, which is featured in his documentary. He also interviewed leaders of Baha'i Faith Unity Center, Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, Greater New Guide Baptist Church, Congregation B'nai Israel and the Tam Bao Buddhist Temple.

Leo said he would have liked to have included representatives of Hinduism and Islam, but the time constraints on his project wouldn't have allowed him to do justice to those faiths.

His documentary was done as part of his school's two-year Honors Diploma program, which puts juniors and seniors into interdisciplinary courses, such as social justice, and has them develop an independent research project that must be presented before students and faculty, said deacon Charlie deGravelles, Leo's thesis adviser.

"I believe the project was a life-changing experience for Nick," deGravelles said. "More than an academic project, it was a spiritual quest. He was questioning and testing his own faith and wanted to know what else was out there and what value religious faith can have for a community."

Leo, who is a 2013 National Merit Finalist, developed his religion topic from a Bible study class he'd taken at Episcopal and from his participation in poverty forums and meetings at the Interfaith Federation of Baton Rouge, explained his father, Dr. Ronald Leo.

"He'd started wondering about (beliefs) and looking at the Bible and different religions and faiths," Ronald Leo said.

During filming at a "Sounds of the Community" concert featuring praise songs, Leo learned one of his greatest lessons.

"People from Christian and Jewish denominations were singing and clapping," Leo said. "That's the pinnacle moment that shows that the interfaith community can come together in harmony."

The Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, executive director of the Interfaith Federation of Baton Rouge, said Leo began attending interfaith dialogue sessions where his ideas for his documentary grew.

In the documentary, McCullough-Bade said her organization's goal is to bring a diverse community together, display a genuine interest in neighbors and find common ground.

Rallying around a common cause, including poverty, could help accomplish that, she said.

The federation provides feeding programs, poverty forums, transportation for the elderly and other ministries, McCullough-Bade said.

Leo's documentary also explored ministers' feelings about opposing religious viewpoints and different denominations.

"I'm not a big advocate of denomination," said the Rev. Isaiah Webster, whose inner-city Greater New Guide Church ministers in a community wrestling with such issues as violence and HIV. "What God calls us to do is more important than what denomination you have."

Webster said that while he does not always agree with others' teachings and interpretations, he can respect the people who believe them. "If we (as various religions) can come to some kind of agreement, then we do that," he said.

Rabbi Jordan Goldson of B'nai Israel said interconnectivity is the key to unity.

"Across the street there is a church where people are praying and we do things differently, but it all comes together to create some universal truth," he said.

In Judaism, "Our efforts are more to train people and encourage them to think about how can you be a better person and how you can be more involved in helping make this a better world," Goldson said. "You don't become Jewish by believing in a certain thing but by doing and acting in the community in a certain way."

The Rev. Phil Spano, of Most Blessed Sacrament, said the need to judge or condemn another's religious beliefs because they don't belong to the "right group or the right tribe" is a form of egotism.

Even in opposing religious viewpoints, unity can be found, Spano said.

"I think there should always be humility between people of various creeds and backgrounds. The thing I stress a lot is to try and guard against self-righteousness," he said.

Spano said Jesus freely forgave people.

"The people he seemed to have the most difficult time with were the self-righteous people in groups. There was a tendency that they made a God out of the institution rather than letting the institution serve God," he said.

Thich Dao Quang, a Buddhist monk, said his faith institution practices meditation as a form of self-awareness. Buddhism also teaches drawing from positive rather than negative information.

"Meditation is the best tool to look inside yourself, otherwise, you just go, go, go," he said. "Wisdom does not come from school or the book(s). It comes from inside yourself."

Inner peace fuels outward peace.

"If all people come together and create inner peace, they (can) try to develop sisterhood and brotherhood and it will make the Baton Rouge Community more peaceful."

Steven Wyant , a member of the Baha'i Faith, said in the documentary members are encouraged to find common ground. They are prohibited from arguing about their faith, but are encouraged to share their faith in a loving, nonjudgmental way. The faith itself teaches unity of God, religion and humankind.

Leo said his interfaith journey surpassed his expectations.

"I never imagined I'd ever create so many connections with people I'd never met," Leo said. "I don't think I'm done."