It’s difficult to think about all of my learning throughout this past week. I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the classroom on the first morning and now that I’ve left the classroom for the last time, I realize that my learning has just begun. At least now I have a sense of what I don’t know and as the saying goes, “the more you know, the more you don’t know.” I feel that I am beginning to understand how each of the religions are similar to one another and that there isn’t the great divide that I had always thought there was prior to class. I now understand that each of the religions that we studied this week encourage followers to better themselves through certain religious practices as well as to essentially live by the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated. I hadn’t realized there was so much crossover and commonality between religions but then again I really didn’t know much beyond the Christian wedding services I had attended over the years.
I was surprised by how much variation there is within religions as well. I guess I just assumed that because there were specific religious behaviors/rituals that congregants participated in across like houses of worship that the beliefs and communities would be nearly homogenous. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The guest speakers, student panels and site visits showed me time and time again that each congregation would have subtle differences from other congregations of the same faith. I guess I had in my mind that each religion was like a cookie cutter and all of the beliefs, practices and communities within one religion would be the same. I should have known better after having worked within 4 different elementary schools in my tenure as a teacher. Individual differences within a group of people will mesh together to create a unique community. For example, I teach towards the same standards with my students as any other fifth grade teacher in Illinois but how I get my students to master those standards may look very different than another teacher’s lessons.
I would say one of my biggest setbacks/challenges of this week has been my misconceptions about non-Christian religions, as well as my firm belief that women should be treated equal to men. I found myself quick to making judgments about what I was observing that affirmed what I felt I already knew. I had to continually remind myself to remain open to what I was actually observing and act more like a scientist making observations and looking for patterns. There were several times where I was offended when I felt that women were being marginalized or treated unfairly and again had to remind myself to continue making observations without judgment. It helped to remind myself to examine the intent or the reason for the behavior. Some of the experiences this week helped me to more fully realize that I have some non-negotiables as far as the need for equality and support of women and the LGBTQ+ community.
My essential question centered on trying to figure out how a religion could cause a person to behave in certain ways. After repeatedly reflecting on the 3 B’s, I’ve come to realize that religions are more than the sum of their parts. Based upon my learning this week, beliefs-behavior-belonging are like the threads of a woven cloth. It’s difficult to tell where one thread begins and another ends. Any one thread by itself isn’t nearly as strong as when it’s woven together with the other threads. Faith is much like that and the communities we observed, the followers worked together to build a place that was welcoming and a home away from home where people in the faith community can find support and love. That to me is what causes people to be drawn to a religious community and to follow the practices of that community. The practices (behaviors) reinforce the faith (beliefs) which can increase the sense of community (belonging) and so it goes on and on and in any order.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my son will be taking the Comparative Religions class at NCHS in the Fall and I’m very much looking forward to our discussions. I am also looking forward to discussions with future students in which I’ll be able to ask better questions about how they practice their religion and to open up a dialogue with students that I’ve avoided in the past. I now know it’s okay to talk about and help my students to learn about different religions. In these ways I’ll be able to continue my journey to becoming a religiously literate person. I also have a close friend who is deeply religious and I’ve always avoided talking about religion with her and I’d like to think now I could bring up the subject and talk respectfully about her beliefs and her sense of community at her house of worship.
In my teaching practices, I feel that this course has reminded me of the importance of creating a learning atmosphere that is free of judgment and is open to hearing and sharing differing points of view. When students are in fifth grade they are making the transition from being children to teenagers and they are often quick to pass judgment upon one another and themselves. As a result, many become hesitant to share out their thinking for fear that they are wrong in front of their peers. They also tend to begin to be less open to points of view that are different than their own and consequently miss out on learning opportunities. I learned that first hand with my own learning this week when out of habit I would look for confirmation of what I thought I knew. I’ll be able to share more stories about my own life experiences this week that will help to illustrate the importance of lifelong learning and to remain open to continuous learning that will in turn help to develop a positive learning environment. Also, when I am teaching folktales and fables, I will encourage my students to bring in their own culture’s folktales and fables to share with all of us. Finally, I think it’s important to take the time to have students share their interests, experiences and outside of school happenings with one another. Our schedule will be changed up in the coming year so that each classroom teacher be able to start each school day with a morning class meeting. These meetings will provide opportunities for students to share out important happenings, what’s on their mind, etc while also helping them to make the transition from home to school. I’m certain these meetings will provide an opportunity for religion to come up organically in our conversations so that we can learn from one another. They will also provide students with an opportunity to ask respective, inquisitive questions of one another to learn more.
We decided to attend the morning Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Shalom Saturday morning. I was a little more comfortable attending a service in this synagogue thanks to the kindness shown to us by Bernie Newman earlier in the week. We had arrived a bit early for the service and upon entering the building, we encountered a couple of congregants who were just leaving the Torah study. They welcomed us with a kind smile and as they continued to finish their discussion with one another. Then as we turned towards the sanctuary a man named, Josh, greeted us and asked if we were new to Beth Shalom. We explained that we had been attending a Religious Literacy class and our last experience was to observe a Christian worship service that we were unfamiliar with and consequently we chose Congregation Beth Shalom. We related the kindness and welcoming shown to us by Mr. Newman and Josh said that acceptance he felt is one of the reasons he keeps coming back. Josh related that he had grown up attending a synagogue in the northwest suburbs and had struggled with the messages he was receiving because he felt it was “too conservative, judgmental and elitist.” He stopped attending services on a consistent basis until he moved to the Naperville area and discovered Congregation Beth Shalom. He explained that here at Beth Shalom he felt the leaders encouraged everyone to accept the differences of others and to act in kind and caring ways toward others all the time.
Josh reminded us to borrow a prayer shawl as we entered the sanctuary and then we settled into the back row as Josh went on to meet up with the rest of his family. I’m thankful that we chose to sit in the back to observe the service because there was so much that I was unfamiliar to me. The sermon was related to the reading from the Torah Number 4:21-7:89 and thankfully after being read in Hebrew, it was translated into English. The scroll was treated with such reverence and really is so beautiful. As I saw it being unrolled to the passage, I couldn’t help but to think about the time and care that was put into writing the entire Torah on it. I also couldn’t help but think about the smuggled and hidden scroll that was found after WWII. The Jew who risked their life to remove the scroll from the synagogue and hide it as the Nazi soldiers invaded the village was so courageous.
My essential question has been about what causes people to behave in the ways that they do in the name of their religion. In thinking about the person who risked everything to save the Torah, s/he must have had such a deep faith in the word of God as written in the scrolls that there just wasn’t a fear of the possible consequences. Earlier in the week, Bernie Newman explained that Jews are encouraged to live in the here and now and to believe that God will take care of the rest. So it must have been for the person who saved the scroll, the deep belief that God will take care of him/her for behaving in a moral and ethical way. How wonderful to live a life without fear.
Pictures Courtesy of Seth Brady
Islam - What is it really all about?
We started out the day learning from former NCHS student, Wali Khan. Mr. Khan is a trauma nurse at Stroger Hospital by night and educational speaker/author by day. He was definitely a "force of nature" as Mr. Brady referred to him. Mr. Khan related how the religion of Islam helps him to cope with the stresses of his work life as well as his daily life. He explained how he didn't not fully commit himself to Islam until he was a Freshman in college. Prior to that, he said that he "cherry picked" in Islam by choosing to pray, fast and act with positive intention when he suited him and the environment was conducive. He alluded to leading somewhat of a double life as a Muslim at home and rambunctious teenager with his friends outside the home. Throughout high school it was important for him to blend in with his peers and not stand out for religious differences. Given Mr. Khan's ability to relate this personal story, I can understand why he has such a large Instagram following and is motivational for teenagers.
Mr. Khan said, "faith is synonymous with hope" and I found that to be an interesting and powerful insight. In thinking about the 3 Bs, faith and hope intertwine belief and behavior. A person who has hope in times of struggle is usually able to summon the courage to continue on and persist. Mr. Khan reviewed and explained in further detail the 5 Pillars of Faith in Islam. He shared helpful examples of each of the five pillars and how they apply to daily life. He likened prayer to soul food as well as an opportunity to break free from the rigors and monotony of every day life to make adjustments so that life doesn't pass by without working to improve oneself. This reminded me of the lessons from our visit at Watt Dhamma yesterday and how daily meditation helps us to escape pain and suffering as well as an opportunity to clear our mind and find peace. Praying and meditation are behaviors that can help to reaffirm one's faith.
Mr. Khan also explained the intent and obligation of fasting. It was interesting to hear that he interprets it to be an opportunity to get closer to God as well as an opportunity to remove distractions and to gain insights as well as to develop empathy for those who suffer from hunger all the time. I hadn't ever heard of this opportunity to gain empathy for those who are less fortunate. This heightened sense of empathy may help to reinforce the fourth Pillar of Alms/Charity and the obligation to donate 2.5% of each year's profit with those who are in need, starting with family. Again, I was surprised by this focus on thinking of the needs of others as a foundational belief in Islam. Mr. Khan mentioned numerous times that "actions are based on intentions" and that God is all knowing and therefore knows the intention of each person's actions and whether or not the intentions are free of selfish desires. For Mr. Khan it seems that his religious identity is nearly equal parts belief and behavior with belonging following closely behind.
Next, we had an opportunity to hear from a student panel of two girls and two boys who are open about their Islam faith. They each welcomed dialogue with others about their religion as long as the desire to learn was sincere. Again, these students were impressive in their ability to speak in front of such a large group of teachers and to carefully articulate their thinking. The girls were the more outspoken panelists and they each stressed that the way that they expressed their faith is a personal choice. It also seemed that they had grown a bit weary about being questioned about the level of modesty of their clothing. I would think for the girls that it's somewhat a tug-of-war in deciding how they would like to express their faith while also blending in with their peer group at high school. It's a possible added layer of stress that I'll never be able to truly empathize with as I did not experience anything similar when I was a teenager. The word "courage" kept running through my mind in thinking about these four students. Courage to express their faith, courage to endure possible negative, biting comments or racist remarks, courage to live the 5 Pillars of Faith. Tough stuff for a teenager!
Pictures Courtesy of Seth Brady
Our last stop on this bus tour was the Turkish American Center. I had no idea what to expect and to be honest I was quite nervous about observing the Jummah as a woman. As we entered the building, we were guided into a big banquet room filled with round tables and comfortable chairs :) One fear cast aside at least for a while - that I would be sitting on the floor for an extended period of time this afternoon. As we settled in, we were greeted by a representative of the Niagara Foundation and it was explained that we would have an opportunity to learn a bit about the Turkish culture over the next 40 minutes or so. I was in the half of the room where we had an opportunity to drink a small cup of Turkish coffee, enjoy Turkish Delights and learn a little bit from a Turkish immigrant woman named, Ikbal. Ikbal was such a kind and gentle soul and was so open to answering any question asked of her as best she could. She helped me to realize that I had been holding onto a misconception that most Muslim women were quiet, reserved and not allowed to lead. Ikbal was very definitely a leader and was not reserved in sharing her opinions and understandings.
Next, we went into the worship room and sat in the back corner on chairs to observe the Jummah service. The room quickly filled up with men and boys in the front and a few women in the back, besides the women in our group. It seemed that the women who were tasked with making sure that we were settled in and comfortable were themselves uncomfortable. I noticed that at the beginning of the service, most women settled in behind the moving lattice walls to physically separate themselves from the men. The service was fascinating to listen to and to watch. It began with the congregation repeatedly reciting prayers at their own individual pace until the worship leader began his chant. The worship leader chanted a prayer to begin the service and then shared a sermon with the congregation about the need to move beyond the shallow desire to acquire objects and instead focus on the 5 Pillars of Faith. The service ended with the worship leader leading the entire congregation in prayer again. Islamic prayers are so different than any prayers I've observed before because of all of the changing of body positions during the prayers. It's a workout and to think about how followers are expected to pray 5 times a day by reciting the same prayers 40 times altogether.
After the Jummah we were served a tasty lunch and had an opportunity to sit amongst Turkish immigrants. It was during this time that I was able to get more "why" questions answered and to identify that these Muslims were really no different than me. They loved their family, were proud of their children and wanted to be good role models for them. They were hard workers and proud of their efforts to make the world a better place through their faith. Finally, we ended our time at the Turkish American Center with a seminar led by the President of the Niagara Foundation. He basically reviewed all that we had learned from our learning experiences earlier today with Mr. Khan, the student panel and our lunch conversations. I'll admit it was refreshing that he shared the "stage" with Ikbal at least half of the time as he deferred some questions to her to answer. Also, Ikbal was at ease in adding in her thinking and understandings all throughout the seminar and at times would interrupt the Niagara Foundation President to add her two cents. She appeared to be equal to him despite being behind a screen during the Jummah.
Overall, if I consider the most prominent B of the 3 Bs for Islam, I would have to choose behavior. All of the people that we encountered were welcoming and kind and were quick to take action, whether it was to help one of us or to say a prayer. They seemed to very much be a doing people. They attempted to separate out their culture from their religion but I would say it's quite difficult to do so beyond sharing foods and talking about work. Islam is very much an influence on the Turkish culture. And, it seems that Turkish culture is also an influence on Islam because of the opportunity for people to make choices for how they worship (at home or at a place of worship for prayers) and for how they express their faith (modesty in clothing and head scarves).
What a difference a day makes! Today was so much less intense than the previous two days on our bus tour. I feel like I learned just as much but in more gentle, less intense sorts of ways. Starting the day with Seth’s overview of how Buddhism changed over time as it spread throughout Asia helped me to start to solidify my understanding of the differences in of the Mahayana and Theravada. The student panel of one, Cindy, about Buddhism was a joy to witness. Cindy was so open and honest about her beliefs and in describing what Buddhism means to her as a person. She seemed mature way beyond her years and seemed to recognize that in herself in a humble way. I was inspired by her focus on continually working to better herself and to be available and helpful to others in need. When asked if Buddhism was a religion or a way of life, Ciny chose, way of life. It seems to me that for Cindy, her behaviors as a Buddhist are the most prominent in shaping her identity. Her behaviors seem to reinforce her Buddhist beliefs, but she mentioned countless times that she is focused on becoming a better self. She alluded to be rebellious and perhaps a bit naughty when she was younger and that now she makes better choices and is not rebellious. She stated that she states an internal chant when she’s struggling with anger. She chants several times throughout the week and tries to go to her Sunday worship service on a consistent basis. All of these are Buddhist behaviors that Cindy was noticeably proud of and perhaps more importantly, they seemed to help her to feel comfortable with who she is and the choices that she is making.
Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Next we took a short bus ride to Watt Dhamma Meditation Center. The Buddhist Monk, Ajarn Thapakorn that educated us about the benefits of meditation and the path to living a peaceful life free of “clinging” to the human condition which is a way of reaching Nirvana in the Buddhist faith. He gave some wonderful examples of how “clinging” to our reaction to the negative actions of others, our actions are often harmful and cause pain for ourselves and others. If we were to follow the example of Buddha, we would let go of our negative feelings and continue on a path of kindness towards others, (and ourselves) so that we are continuing our work towards our best self and putting good out in the world. Then, he guided us through a chant, standing meditation, walking meditation and seated meditation to help us experience peace of mind. Again, like Cindy, it seems that Monk Thapakorn identifies himself as Buddhist primarily through his behaviors. Chanting, meditation and the consistent choice to let go of negativity are all behaviors that help him to remain on the path to enlightenment. Monk Thapakorn couldn’t stop talking about the peace that comes from meditation.
Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Finally we met with Superintendent Venerable Youheng at IBPS Chicago. She welcomed us into the temple with a gentle smile and snacks :) because we were running late and needed to postpone our lunch break. Then the Venerable lead us through a description of the form of Buddhism that is practiced in the temple. Again, a major focus is on behaviors and making choices that will better the person as well as the world. Venerable Youheng was quite impressive in her dedication to educating others by investing 8 years in helping to edit a set of encyclopedias that educate and explain Buddhism in English prior to moving to Naperville. Behaviors dedicated to helping others that in turn help her to live through her Buddhism faith. She mentioned in passing how she must shave her head every two weeks on the same day and at nearly the same time. A behavior that reinforces her faith in Buddhism that also shows others her dedication to her faith through her actions.
Overall, today was all about how actions have consequences. In order to live a life on the path towards enlightenment, making positive choices that cause no harm is a way to live the Buddhist way. I think behaviors were prominent in the Buddhist identity of all three people that taught us today. Their day to day choices in behavior seem to affirm their beliefs and also bring them joy for themselves and for those of us around them.
After reading Stephanie’s blog reaction to today’s lessons, it seems that we agree that behavior is the prominent influence on each person’s identity. I appreciated her reminder that much of what Monk Thapakorn talked about today transcends religion. He talked about choices in behavior that can help anyone to be a better person and to promote global citizenship. I often wear a t-shirt that say “Kindness Matters” and very much believe that it does. Perhaps I was a Buddhist in a past life :)
Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Day 3 began with a visit at the Congregation Beth Shalom. I had driven by the synagogue countless times since we had lived in a nearby subdivision for over a decade before moving a year ago. Mr. Bernie Newman greeted each of us at the door and showed us to a room with a variety of breakfast foods, coffee and tea :) A great way to start the day! Once everyone arrived, he welcomed us into the sanctuary and gave us a comprehensive history of Judaism. Like other religions, Judaism is not static and unchanging but rather is shaped by the followers, leaders, interactions with society as well as local and world events. Mr. Newman talked at length about the how all Jews see themselves as members of the same family. He likened it to them being members of a tribe. The girls that were a part of the student panel were quite appreciative and passionate about how they felt connected to one another and that they "had each other's back," Sarah mentioned that she felt that she could be backpacking in another country and if she needed something, she knew that she would get help from her Jewish family without question. Mr. Newman and the girls all seemed confident that their shared religion, (despite subtle differences in one another's path to enlightenment), would connect and bind them so that they could always count on all Jews to support them. Another common message shared by Mr. Newman and the girls was the importance and power of words because after all, the world was created by God's words according to the Torah. Words can harm and words can heal. Unfortunately both Mr. Newman and the girls reported recent instances when words were used very hurtfully towards them and other Jewish teenagers. It seems that jokes about the Holocaust are pervasive in the teen culture. There are actual websites that list a variety of hurtful, mean "jokes" about Jews and the Holocaust. I am still unable to wrap my mind around the cruelty that teenagers show one another. The fact that there isn't a Jew alive today who is not in some way personally affected by the Holocaust must make it one of the most personal attacks and affronts they can suffer. Yet, the final common message that I walked away with from all 4 of these Jews is that their beliefs help them to remain on their journey along the path to enlightenment despite the challenges (I would call them obstacles) they encounter along the way. Their sense of belonging to a community seems to be the glue that holds them together and then their behaviors and beliefs constantly reinforce them.
Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Upon returning to NCHS after our lunch break, Mr. Mark Woolfington spoke with us about the history of Christianity and provided a brief overview of the various branches of Christianity. Again, diversity within the religion was evident throughout the presentation. To be honest, I hadn't realized that there were so many branches in the Christianity tree. I realized there were different denominations but I hadn't really thought critically about all of the non-denominational churches that have sprouted up in my lifetime. I also hadn't thought about or learned about the subtle differences between Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. There are some consistent basics across the branches of Christianity such as the belief in the Bible, (with different translations or versions), the Apostles Creed, Baptism (with differences in ages and sprinkling versus immersion), the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist (with differences in frequency, eligible participants, who can lead it and routines), and Prayer (with differences in how it's done and who can lead). Despite these commonalities, there can be a wide variety of differences between two Christian worship services and the lives of the followers. By the end of this presentation, my head was once again swirling with the knowledge of how little I actually understand about Christianity and the world religions overall. I've got a long way to go before I can state that I am a religious literate.
Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Next we hopped on the bus to visit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Naperville Ward 1. Let's just say this educational experience was vastly different from the one I had when attending the musical, "The Book of Mormon"! I was impressed with their sense of commitment to one another as well as to humankind. Children who are raised in the Mormon Church are encouraged and supported throughout their life to grow into contributing members of society who show compassion and caring for others. Family is at the center of their life and it seemed that family was not limited to biological family because it included their church family. It seems that the Mormon religion is a bit more regimented than other branches of Christianity with the expectations for ministering to one another, mission work, Health Code and the Youth Code Standards. Also, it was mentioned somewhat in passing how high school-age students attend early morning seminary (6:45am every school day!) throughout all four years of high school. I would imagine these students get very good at time management with their seminary studies, academic studies, spending time with friends and participating in ministering to others.
Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Our last learning experience of the day was about Buddhism Brian Hoffert from North Central College. I will hold off on adding in my thoughts about Buddhism until after our site visits tomorrow. But I can honestly say that I was overwhelmed in trying to make sense of Buddhism.
So as I think back on my essential question about what is it about a religion that motivates a person to behave in certain ways, I keep thinking about the three girls on the Jewish Student Panel. They were fierce in beliefs in the Jewish faith. They seemed so steadfast and certain in their faith and certain that they were on the path to enlightenment that it was impressive. But then when the spoke about their sense of belonging and that they "had each other's back," I realized how important a sense of belonging is to all of us. I'm not sure a sense of belonging is the sole motivator for all people to make choices that are true to their religion, but in the case of those three young women, it was necessary as well as celebrated.
Finally, this evening as I read Jessie's reflection on her experiences at the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, she touched upon the sense of control that is inherent in the teachings of the teenagers of the church. The Youth Code Standards pamphlet that was share with us made me feel uneasy and wonder how much freedom teenagers are given in making decisions about their lives. It seems that to be a member of this church/religion there are a number of expectations that must be consistently met and I too wondered if there was some sort of "watching over" and evaluating the choices of others to make sure they conform. Regardless, in thinking about Jessie's question about why people it seems that the sense of belonging and the belief in helping and supporting others is what draws people in and causes them to conform to the expectations of the Mormon religion.
Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Today was a much tougher day mentally for me than yesterday. Hinduism is such a vast and wieldy religion to attempt to understand. Just when I thought I was starting to make strong connections and develop my understanding something new would be shared that would shift my thinking and my tenuous grip on understanding would loosen and seem to slip away. Starting the day with the brief overview by Seth had me thinking that I could make sense of all of it by the end of the day. Boy was I mistaken! Visiting the Balaji Temple in Aurora was fascinating being able to witness the rituals in awakening each of the Hindu gods. There was a meditative quality about the chanting and the behaviors as it seemed that the priests were able to block out the people and the sounds around them and focus solely on their spiritual tasks. It was somewhat shocking to me to see a gentleman walking through the temple while talking on a cell phone. The mix of old and new seemed natural for him but unsettling for me as I felt that I was witnessing an ancient tradition and today’s technology seemed very out of place.
A very kind woman took the time to talk to a group of us about each of the manifestations of God through the ages, pointing out the changes over the time as well as the symbols that were embedded in these manifestations. The symbolism in Hinduism is amazing and I would imagine so helpful to Hindus in focusing in on ways of living their best life. Similar to the Sikh temple yesterday, I felt welcomed and comfortable in the Balaji Temple.
Next we traveled to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and as soon as we entered the drive, I felt a sense of awe looking out at the temple. Since moving to the Chicagoland area, I had seen the temple numerous times when travelling around the area and had always wondered about what it would be like to visit it. The architecture is outstanding. The fact that the temple is built with blocks of white marble that interlock with one another and without the assistance of steel for reinforcement is a sight to behold. It was very evident that our guide is quite proud to be a member of BAPS and to be able to share it with visitors. As soon as we removed our shoes and entered the courtyard our group talked in hushed tones while scanning the room and marvelling at all of the intricate wood carvings. He explained that all of the wood carving that we were viewing as well as all of the white marble carving we would be seeing in the Mandir were completed by artisans in India and then shipped here to the Chicagoland. I struggled to comprehend the sheer enormity of the work that had taken place. I wished for the artisans to be able to visit this temple and to see their work all coming together to create this work of art and ingenuity.
As we prepared to enter the Mandir by walking through the tunnel, I was struck by the celebration of Hindu accomplishments portrayed on the placards that lined the tunnel hallway. Hindus have really helped humans to advance science, technology and medicine! Walking up the stairs and entering the Mandir felt like we had left the Chicagoland area and had travelled to a distant country. The architecture and beauty of the Mandir is unmatched by any building that I’ve toured in the US. The intricate carvings on each of the columns and the arches the spanned between each pair of columns were breathtaking. Then, our guide led us to the center of this vast chamber and explained how the dome above his head was carved from one HUGE piece of marble and when it was set into place, the weight of it settled all of the other puzzle pieces of marble of the building locked in place together. Magnificent. A truly phenomenal human feat.
As the worship service was about to start, the men and women were directed/reminded to move to different areas to conduct their worship rituals. The men were placed in the front and the women in the back of the room. I was surprised and somewhat bothered by this division as I had not anticipated this hierarchy between humans given the plethora of goddesses in the Hindu religion as well as the more openness we had experienced in the Balaji Temple.
By the time we left the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Temple my head was swirling with many questions and thankfully the student Hinduism Panel followed our return to NCHS. The students were very forthcoming in their experiences as Hindus within our school district. Each of them talked about how difficult it is to separate their Hindu faith with their Indian culture. They all grew up in households where their parents were practicing Hindus and so they could not remember a time when their faith wasn’t a part of their day to day behaviors and lives. I found it especially interesting that the consensus by the students is that how one practices Hinduism and Hindu worship varies from home to home and family to family. There are subtle differences between families as well as within families. Also, there are differences between Northern and Southern Indians. These differences flew in the face of my assumptions about Hinduism. I was naive in thinking that if I talked with a couple of Hindus I would be able to develop a sense of how the faith is universally practiced. Just as in Christianity, there are basic tenents of the Hindu faith, (the belief that God is present all around us and that God’s energy is flowing in all of us, the belief in Karma and the goal to live the best life without causing harm to others), but the act of worship varies between houses of worship and followers. There are no hard-fast rules for practicing and following in the Hindu faith.
Shereen Bhalla of the Hindu American Foundation closed out our day with a very well thought out explanation of Hinduism that helped me to once again feel like I have a grasp on the basics of Hinduism. Ms. Bhalla helped me to realize that I still have a long ways to go in understanding the Hindu religion and she also helped me to gain a healthy respect for those who strive to reach Moksha and liberate themselves from reincarnation by living their best life seeking the truth.
Like the students, I am having a difficult time parceling out the Indian culture from the Hindu religion. All of my background knowledge and today’s experiences are based upon Indians practicing the Hindu religion. They appear to go hand in hand and so tightly woven together that to pull them apart seems impossible. I believe this has helped me to better understand that religions are always situated in culture. When I think back to my childhood, Christianity was the backbone of my small town. The town leaders were also leaders in the local churches. They were the moral compass for the rest of us to follow and strive to emulate so that we could achieve success and a moral way of life. So it goes with Hinduism, it seems.
The most striking part of my learning today was the identification of the diversity within the Hindu religion. To visit two Hindu temples within a half hour of one another and to experience such different styles of worship and then to hear the student panelists talking about the differences between the four of them and also between their other peers was astonishing. It pointed out to me just how complex Hinduism is and how an outsider such as myself was so ignorant about the subtle differences between congregations, families, individuals and geographic locations. I hadn’t realized that Hinduism is a collection of beliefs that have developed over many thousands of years and that is dynamic because of the interaction with society and culture. It seems to be a religion continually changing because of the interactions between Behaviors, Beliefs and Belonging of the followers and of the leaders within our ever changing global society.
After reading Melanie's reflection I appreciated her word choice in describing the student panelists' sense that Hinduism is "fluid and personal." I believe that this phrasing really captures the essence of what I was trying to articulate in my own post. By thinking of Hinduism as fluid, it helps me to understand that it is an ever changing religion. Then to add that it is also personal helps me to realize that Hinduism is different for each person. It reminds me of teaching, we all have a curriculum and set of standards to work from, but how we implement the lessons varies from teacher to teacher and student to student. As grade level teachers, we all have the same goal for our students. But how we help our students to reach the goal will be based upon our assessment of student need and consequently our actions to meet those individual needs. In Hinduism, the followers all have the same basic goal of living the best life by seeking the truth and without causing harm to others but how each life is lived is based upon the needs and wants of the individual. Hinduism is the lessons (behaviors) based upon personal beliefs with a support system (belonging) that can help individuals live that best life and to live the truth they seek.
Photo Courtesy of Seth Brady
There is just so much to think about in my learning today. It started with Linda K Wertheimer's Skype visit in which I was introduced to the idea of the "intersections in faith education and public education." To be honest I didn’t believe that it was okay for elementary teachers to teach about religion in public school. I honestly thought it was a taboo subject and one that was to be taken care of at home. I knew that it was acceptable to show an interest in my students' chosen religions but I felt that beyond showing interest was outside the bounds of my role as a public elementary school teacher. Mrs. Wertheimer helped to open my eyes to the learning opportunities that I can foster in my classroom that align with my SEL and academic goals for my students. In considering the 3B Framework, helping students to develop an appreciation and respect for the differing religious beliefs in my classroom will foster a better sense of global citizenship and community.
Then, Benjamin Marcus from the Religious Freedom Center helped to me to develop a more nuanced understanding of the First Amendment with his explanation of the case of Abington V Schempp. He helped me to understand that educators can teach about religion to inform, (just like teaching content), and not to promote one form of religion over another. I realized that I can do that! Mr. Marcus also discussed Haidt’s Religious Identity paradigm which illustrated how Beliefs, Behaviors and Belonging are all interconnected. It’s easy to think of them as distinct and separate from one another when really each one can and will influence the others. Also, there are times in one’s religious life where Beliefs may dominate and Behaviors and/or Belonging take a backseat and vice versa. This relates to the premise that religions are “internally diverse and not uniform.” I’ve come to realize that I have been stereotyping people based upon their chosen religion. I assumed certain behaviors and beliefs about others because of their place of worship and didn’t leave room for consideration of the individual interpretation and the sense that religion is constantly evolving and changing over time. I often assumed hypocrisy in a person’s actions when they differed from my understanding of what religion is all about. Now, I’m starting to realize that I was quick to judge and find fault, rather than realize that people are on a journey to develop their best selves within their religious beliefs. In other words, I assumed that all Christians were square pegs that would fit in a square hole, when in fact there are a myriad of shapes that fit in a myriad of holes when it comes to any religion. I understand that there are basic principles that are a part of each faith but there is room for interpretation and change over time. Religion is not as static as I believed.
Finally, we went to the Palatine Gurdwara and I was overwhelmed by the openness, kindness and generosity of the Sik worshippers and leaders that we encountered. I was quite nervous about attending this class and visiting these completely unknown to me religions and places of worship. I was walking way out of my comfort zone and was just thankful that there were a few familiar faces in the class! But the welcoming atmosphere and generosity soon made my anxiety subside and I began to feel comfortable listening and taking in the information that I was learning. Starting with the Langar, the gentlemen and children that served the food to us were so kind and there wasn’t a sense of needing to earn their respect, they seemed genuine in their desire to serve. As our tour guide explained numerous times throughout the presentation, being of service to others is one of the basic tenents. Immediately upon our arrival, these people embodied this belief in their behaviors and seemed peaceful and happy doing so. This sense of peace remained steady throughout our entire visit. Raj, our tour guide continually showed an openness to teaching us about his faith and showed me that it was acceptable, even encouraged, that I be curious and inquisitive. He was acting as a teacher/facillitator in teaching us about his religion. He didn’t preach to us, he encouraged us to be learners and to remain open to learning about Sikhism and what it means to him and the followers of Sikhism. He showed me what teaching about religion really looks like and feels like as a student.
To be honest, I was particularly fascinated with the sense of equality and lack of hierarchy that Raj expressed in regards to gender, race, socio economic status, etc. He explained how men and women are equal and that whatever a man can do, a woman can. I was caught off guard with this statement because I realized I had mistakenly assumed that because the religion originated in India and Pakistan men would have power over women and equality wouldn’t be an option. There was genuine sincerity in his words that I truly appreciated.
I was also struck by Raj and the children’s sense of forgiveness in the mistakes or ignorance of others about their religion. The children did not share any stories of times when they were mistreated or subjected to the thoughtless ignorance of their peers which I found unsettling and heartening at the same time. Having taught elementary students for a number of years, I couldn’t imagine that there weren’t instances of poor choices on the behalf of their peers because children make social mistakes all the time. Hopefully I’m mistaken but I got the sense that their religious beliefs encourage and guide them into forgiving the mistakes of others and in themselves. They continually work to become closer to God and therefore don’t hang onto the negativity or sense of ill will towards others, they move on.
Overall, I was unprepared for my experiences today. I am grateful for these experiences and the openness that was given to me as I moved a bit further in my journey to develop religious literacy in my own life.
After taking a look at Jessie's blog reflection, I found that I agreed that it is courageous for Siks to wear their religion on the outside. I found it interesting that it didn't seem that they felt it was courageous. I got the sense that wearing turbans and scarfs are a behavior that expresses their beliefs and also shows their belonging to the Sik community.
I felt that Melanie reminded me of some very interesting points on the day. I enjoyed her summary of her observations. It was such an interesting day! I was intrigued with the openness of the worship service being what the individual needs on any given day. It really embodies the equality and lack of hierarchy which is fundamental to the Sik religion.
Identifying an essential question that will help to focus my thinking and learning throughout this course is a tough one because I know so little about the world's religions. I know that I first need to understand the origins of a religion and the basic beliefs of a religion before I can begin to dig deeper and consider the motivations and experiences of those that practice a religion. I often wonder what causes people to make the choices in their behaviors and words based upon their religious beliefs. What is it about their religion that is such a strong influence in their daily lives. Is it a sense of community, a sense of spirituality, or a duty to continue familial traditions?
In developing a better understanding of religions and religious practices through my essential question, I feel that I'll be able to make stronger connections to my students. Understanding what may motivate my students can help me to better understand their choices in behaviors.
Based upon my understanding of our readings so far, I believe religious literacy is the continually developing understanding of how religion and religious practices have developed throughout human history. It also is an understanding of the historical impact and influence of religion on society, politics and culture.
I have come to realize that I am very limited in my religious literacy. I believe there is a higher power that connects all of us but I can't really articulate my beliefs beyond that. I have never consistently attended any church services. My father was raised Catholic but chose to leave the church as an adult and consequently we never attended Protestant or Catholic services on a regular basis. As a child, I attended a couple of vacation Bible schools with a close friend and member of our hometown’s Lutheran church. Unfortunately I remember very little of what we learned in those classes. As an adult I was married in an Episcopal Church (my husband’s mother was raised Episcopalian) and attended a few Sunday services prior to the ceremony. I have not developed an understanding of the basic tenents of any religion and rather have experienced several different Protestant religious ceremonies. Overall, I believe I am a religious illiterate and have much to learn.
I believe it is important for educators and other school staff to develop religious literacy to help us to be more responsive to our students. Students are more likely to develop positive relationships with teachers that they feel respect and care about them. As a teacher it is imperative that I show my students respect all the time and one way to show that respect is to express and interest in their personal lives. Often times, religion and religious holidays are a big part of their personal lives and it will help me to better understand where my students are coming from if I have a better understanding of a variety of world religions.
My overall goal for the course is to develop a basic understanding of the religions we will be learning about throughout this week of study given that I am basically illiterate when it comes to religions.
I'm so excited that summer is here and the rain has stopped, (at least for a few days!) Next week, I will be participating in a class by Seth Brady from NCHS, Religious Literacy for Educators on a Bus Tour. Check back throughout the week to read about my experiences and reactions to my learning.