An Updated Opinion on a Still Limited Perspective: Teaching World Religion Through Lived Experience
Journal Submission at Union Theological Seminary
Most people I meet are surprised to find out I teach religion in a public high school, and conventional wisdom leads many to ask about the Constitutionality of my job. To be frank, the issue was settled in 1963 by the United States Supreme Court and has been upheld in each subsequent case. Teaching these courses brings on a host of rewards and challenges. On one hand, I get to engage with students as they encounter ancient traditions and address, often for the first time, their preconceived notions concerning religion. I am acutely aware, however, of the need to be both genuinely authentic and widely educated in the realm of each faith tradition. In trying to articulate to my students the diversity found across, and within, the religions of the world, I have discovered the greatest professional challenge of my career.
In response to this sense of responsibility to “get it right” in the classroom, I have slowly developed this desire to read and travel at an almost unhealthy pace. I have taught at Prospect High School outside of Chicago since 2003 and been fortunate enough to travel to more than fifteen countries during this time. This three-week program will be followed by flights to Cambodia and Thailand before school begins again in late August. With that said, a couple of recent experiences here in New York have again forced me to reconsider my perspective on how I teach the subject.
My morning begins each day on the border of the Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I pass Hasidic Jewish men on the street and routinely give a nod to a mural of the late Christopher Wallace across the street from the Lafayette Garden Housing Projects. My subway ride up to 125th Street in Harlem offers me ample time to review readings from the previous night and prepare for class. My program is sponsored by the Interfaith Center of New York, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted at Union Theological Seminary on the campus of Columbia University. The director, Dr. Henry Goldschmidt, is a highly effective leader with a passion for interfaith dialogue. He fuels the course through intense readings and lectures, diverse religious panels, and visits to houses of worship. This pace of life and studying suits me well, and the inherent nature of this field of study often lands me in the minority of religious gatherings.
Previous international travel has offered similar experiences, so I figured attending a couple of predominately African-American worship services this past week in Harlem would provide much of the same. However, in typing this, I find myself still harboring this sense of guilt for my blindness to a fact I had never considered. Although I had become quite comfortable [and at the risk of sounding arrogant, quite proud] of visiting foreign countries to immerse myself in different cultures, I had never once done so in America.
Prior to the attending these services, I reminded myself of traditions I might encounter from the respective faiths. On Friday afternoon, I repeated “Wa alaykum al-salam” in my head so as to be able to return the Arabic greeting of peace, “Al-salamu alaykum”, should I receive it from my hosts. On Sunday morning, I turned my focus to the role the Holy Spirit would play at the Baptist service in order to be fully present for the entire experience. I felt academically prepared and religiously aware for anything that might present itself. And then it happened. First in Islam, then again in Christianity.
The leader of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood is Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid. Founded in 1964, the mosque is of the lineage of the Muslim Mosque founded by the late El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, known to the wider world as Malcolm X. The sidewalk outside M.I.B. is painted green as a warning to all would-be drug dealers to stay off this turf.
Upon entering, women were directed into a first floor room, while the men headed up a flight of stairs. Once inside the Masjid, multiple security guards dressed in religious clothing, sat behind the podium. There was a dualistic sense in the air of both communal peace, and religious intensity. We took our seat in the back of the room, and as the Adhan began, Imam Talib was ushered into the room.
Just thirty blocks to the north of the mosque is Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Greeting worshipers at the entrance were women dressed in white waiting to usher people to their seats. As I gathered with some classmates on the steps, weekly congregants filed past us to get a seat inside. The singing had already begun and was accompanied by rumblings of a celebrity in the house. Truth be told, the man chosen to deliver the sermon this morning, was about to bring down the house.
Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes is the Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church on the campus of Columbia University. Rev. Forbes was recognized by Newsweek as one of the “most effective preachers in the English-speaking world” and was recently asked by the Democratic National Committee to give an opening benediction at the convention next week in Philadelphia. It just so happens that on the day we attended Convent, Rev. Forbes was brought in to deliver a much needed sermon. Once inside, I realized that those in attendance didn’t just come out this morning to attend church, they came out to do church.
It is here I must confess that prior to each service, I figured I knew what was coming. I had read most of the sacred texts, was familiar with the traditional prayers, and knew what to abstain from once inside. I was grateful for the opportunity to study in Harlem and attend these historically important worship centers for those in the African American community. I felt duly prepared for moments like these, yet soon came to realize my preconceived notions on teaching religious diversity were no longer tenable. I was initially shocked by my naïveté, but later ashamed and embarrassed at my utter lack of awareness.
As I left church Sunday afternoon and walked towards the subway, my opinions as a teacher of World Religion had to face this stark reality. I had entered the sacred spaces of Islam and Christianity prepared to engage the religious differences, yet left these experiences having neglected the cultural similarities. I failed to recognize the pressing need for Imam Talib and Rev. Forbes to address their communities concerning the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. I failed to appreciate the raw emotions that would surface as worshippers listened to the powerful sermons from these two devout men. What disappointed me most, was that I had followed each of these tragedies closely, and yet still failed to recognize the high probability they would be addressed in a place like Harlem where a majority of citizens face a shared reality that transcends religious divides.
Up until now, I viewed and taught religion as separate from culture. Academically, I overlooked America as a place to study religion and never sought out ways to learn about “lived religion” in my own country. During previous years, I prepared for class by referencing experiences abroad, and it has taken me until now to recognize this quiet truth waiting patiently to be discovered. This timeless knowledge has taught me that religion and culture have forever been interconnected and that studying religion as something outside of its context, is to understand a religion that doesn’t exist in reality.
As America continues to wrestle with the racial and religious tensions in its cities, many citizens continue to draw wisdom from religious and cultural authorities. I watched an impassioned Imam Talib speak to his members about the, “troubled and troubling times” facing America. I witnessed Rev. Forbes grab his microphone from the pulpit and join congregants on the floor to address the “troubling times” facing their communities. Both spoke of the need for authentic peace and continual prayer. Both publically welcomed our group in front of their communities and shook our hands in solidarity as we left. Though the outfits, prayers, and scriptures were different, the overall message of their sermons was the same. It has become clear that the simplicities and complexities of religion are inextricably linked to the culture and context of its practitioners.
People ask me tough questions all the time on religion, and I’m usually a bit hesitant in answering. I don’t know exactly when someone becomes an expert, but surely I am nowhere close. As my still limited perspective improves incrementally, my appreciation for the wide range of religious and cultural expression increases exponentially. Human beings have the capacity for so much good, yet remain the cause of so much suffering. This special time I have spent in Harlem has reminded me to continually seek friendship in diverse settings and stand in solidarity with anyone seeking peace and justice. The ancient Sufi poet Rumi says, “Beyond our differences is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Sounds like a great place to start.
July 22nd, 2016, Butler Library, Columbia University