WARREN - A message of love thy neighbor while being tolerant of others' religious beliefs is what John F. Kennedy High School senior Michael Ronga is striving to spread.
Ronga, 17, said religious intolerance is a rarely discussed topic that needs to be addressed.
"This is an issue that still affects people. It's not talked about. People are more interested in how they're getting their next paycheck or how they're going to feed their families," he said.
Tribune Chronicle / Bonnie L. Hazen
John F. Kennedy High School senior Michael Ronga, 17, looks over photographs he took for his upcoming presentation on religious intolerance. Ronga, who is considering becoming a priest, will speak March 3 during JFK’s “Change the World” conference.
Hot topics such as the economy, manufacturing and unemployment sometimes cast a shadow on what Ronga said also demands attention.
Citing instances of religious-based hatred such as the Koran-burning ceremonies in Florida in recent years as well as funeral protests planned by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, Ronga believes everyone has a right to their beliefs but should be equally tolerant of others' beliefs.
"It may not be what you believe, but it's OK; life will go on. All you can do is just accept that people believe different things," he said.
Brian Sinchak, president of JFK and teacher of Ronga's Global Leadership class, said Ronga's upcoming speech and presentation will convey a powerful message.
"I think Michael very powerfully in his presentation demonstrates that the greatest way to overcome intolerance is to love the differences and to thoughtfully listen to someone with a different perspective," he said.
Although the other students also are preparing presentations on global issues, Ronga took it a step further when he decided to write a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. He said he doesn't expect a reply, but hopes Kerry will acknowledge the issue.
Although he is considering becoming a priest, Ronga said he is mindful that his religion is only one of many doctrines, and he doesn't hold others' beliefs against them or seek to convert them.
He said even atheists have a right to their beliefs.
Ronga, who attends St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Parish in Warren, said some of the inspiration for his project was taken from sermons given by his pastors, the Revs. James Walker and Jeffrey Stealey.
"I hear my priest every week saying to go out into the world and to take on that message. I'm just taking that message in a different way," he said.
Walker said he was raised in a Catholic family that wasn't as strict when it came to their religion and he sometimes worshipped with friends at other churches.
"My mom and my dad said you have to take people as they are and don't judge them based on what religion they are and what they believe; just get to know them. I think that comes through in a lot of what I talk about.
"I make it very clear in our parish that people are welcome there ... I never tell them they're not welcome. We always accept people as people," he said.
Sinchak said if Ronga decides to pursue the priesthood, his vision will be an asset.
"Michael very strongly demonstrates that someone can be of great faith and be open and loving to others different than himself. Ultimately what people are attracted to is compassion and love, and Michael demonstrates that day in and day out in all that he does," he said.
Ronga said regardless of the path he chooses, the issue of religious intolerance is something that will always remain with him.
"I do expect people to love one another; I just don't see what's so hard about it," Ronga said. "With all the hate in the world, there is a way of bringing about peace. My solution is love."