Magazine Feature

Belief In Action

Explorations of faiths at school.

On the following pages, we offer two classroom units and two commentaries to help teachers foster an inclusive environment for students of all faiths -- or no faith at all.


A Pilgrimage to Atlanta

By Reid Chapman

"If you saw me at the mall, would you think I looked stupid?" A 12-year-old girl wearing the hijab, or head scarf, typical of a devout Muslim woman stood before a group of my 7th grade girls. Her frank question resonated with them.

After all, it's a question at the back of every early adolescent's mind, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender or -- as my students and I learned -- religion. Being "different" is particularly difficult for middle school students, who often struggle for homogeneity as a method of fitting in. Yet here was a girl who almost literally wore her religion on her sleeve. And she was curious to know how other 12-year-olds perceived her.

This was precisely the exchange I had imagined as I planned a unit of study on the world's major religions. My public school students live in Asheville, N.C., a community where a large Jewish population, a growing Muslim population and a smaller Buddhist population are beginning to rival Christian predominance. I hoped my students, who were predominantly of Christian and Jewish faiths, would come face-to-face with other cultures, acknowledge various traditions, and recognize their own customs as equally meaningful and unique.

We had arrived at Al-Farooq Masjid (mosque) and its madrassa (Qur'anic school), Dar-Un-Noor, in Atlanta, Ga., after weeks of studying the tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism and poring over stories that reflect the cultures from which these religions sprang. To meet North Carolina standards requiring that 7th grade social studies students learn about "the influence of religions, beliefs, and values of life" and be able to compare the major religions of the Eastern Hemisphere, I created a unit that would integrate language arts and social studies to examine religion.


Laying the Groundwork

Teaching about world religions in a public school classroom requires preparation and sensitivity. To ensure the success of the unit, I reached out into the community. Debi Miles, director of Asheville's Center for Diversity Education, worked tirelessly for this project, calling on local religious leaders and organizing the field trip to Atlanta. With grant money from the Asheville City Schools Foundation, I was able to purchase various religious texts.

I sought out local clergy to advise me on potentially challenging issues, clarify beliefs and help me select a story that most informs the reader about the religious tradition. I attended services at a nondenominational Christian church, meditation meetings at the Zen Center, and the feast at the local mosque during which Muslims break their Ramadan fast. The people I interacted with at these sites became important resources for my unit and opened my eyes to the rich religious tapestry of my city.

After some preliminary steps, I began the unit by examining with students the role of religion in people's lives. I asked questions such as "What purpose does religion serve? What does it do for individuals? What do they get out of it?" Participation in class discussions is never mandatory, but, through group questioning, most students eventually opened up.

I was impressed with their responses to the questions: a set of morals, answers to the unknown, a community of friends, hope, forgiveness. We also talked about agnosticism and atheism. I reminded students that not all people believe in religion but that some may turn to a secular group or ideology for many of the same reasons others turn to religion.

I pointed out that, as we study religions, we continually come across concepts that seem irrational because religious faith is based on belief in the unseen. I let them know up front that it was OK to doubt things. During our study, they did not have to believe anything, but they had to pay attention and attempt to understand what certain people believe and how they practice their beliefs.

With this foundation, we continued by examining the various religions one by one. Using our social studies books, encyclopedias and other resources, we collected a common set of data for each faith tradition. Students then chose two or more religions to study in depth, becoming class specialists on them.

From the religious texts I had gathered, we read the stories of Luqman (Qur'an), the Good Samaritan (Bible) and the parting of the Red Sea (Torah). From story collections, we read Jataka tales from the Buddhist tradition and the Hindu story of Shravan Kumar. In class discussions, we pointed out places where the text reminded us of the basic tenets of the religion and how it overlapped with other religions. We then examined these stories as works of literature.

I saw this as an excellent opportunity to explore the origin of religious allusions students might encounter in their study of literature, particularly that of Africa and Asia. Understanding religious stories introduces readers to central concepts of a culture and helps them better understand what motivates someone from that background. For example, the story of Shravan Kumar outlines the Hindu concept of duty to one's parents. We could then read Indian author Kamala Markandaya's novel Nectar in a Sieve, set in mid-20th-century India, in an entirely new light.

We also honed our literary analysis skills by identifying devices such as similes and metaphors. We observed the use of repetition in the Exodus story, which marks it as an ancient oral tale, and examined personification in the Jataka tales, which reflects the Buddhist belief that all living creatures have souls.

For the last phase of the unit, I wanted to give my students the opportunity to learn, as I had done, about religions through visiting various houses of worship. And, after studying the politics of places like Kashmir and Jerusalem, I also wanted them to see how large congregations interact with each other within a larger community. These requirements pointed us to Atlanta.


Up Close and Personal

Since the city was five hours away, Debi Miles and I decided to charter a bus. My teaching partner, Tisa Futch, three parents and 25 students joined us for the 15-hour day trip. The first stops on our pilgrimage were Ebenezer Baptist Church (Dr. Martin Luther King's home church, now under the care of the National Park Service) and the Temple, a Reform synagogue that was bombed in 1958 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. These sites gave us a sample of how religious institutions often have to grapple with worldly issues.

We also visited a Hindu temple and the Al-Farooq Masjid. It was at the latter, and its Dar-Un-Noor School, that my students had their most meaningful experience.

Upon arrival at the mosque, our group of parents and students was split up according to gender. Debi and I had told the students to expect this. One of our host teachers, in traditional Muslim dress, gave a brief talk about the school and answered some of our students' questions. She then guided our girls through the school, while the boys waited for a male guide.

When our boys rejoined the girls, they had an opportunity to ask the Dar-Un-Noor students questions. After a rather awkward beginning, my middle-schoolers learned why the Muslim students were separated by gender and why the girls covered their bodies as they did. Although they had heard many of these Muslim teachings in class, being confronted with the reality of how such customs might impact their own lives gave them pause. It all became real to them.

After about half an hour, the students of Dar-Un-Noor began querying the Asheville students. One of the girls seemed particularly anxious to ask a question but couldn't quite summon the courage to do so. Noting this, Debi Miles called over several of our female students, who joined a group of Muslim girls in a tight circle. Then the Dar-Un-Noor student asked the pointed question, "If you saw me at the mall, would you think I looked stupid or something like that? Would you not like me because of how I was dressed?"

A quiet fell over the group, as the Asheville girls processed the daring question that seemed to cut to the heart of all the issues we had talked about. Then one of my girls replied: "Well, no -- I would think that that was just how you were, what your culture was like. I would think it was how your parents raised you, to dress like that. I wouldn't think it was bad, and I would respect you for it. Just like I hope you would see that my parents raised me to be like this and that would be OK, too."

Appearance is a powerful motivator to a 13-year-old. Early adolescents struggle to fit into what they perceive as "normal." In my school we have a fair number of Jehovah's Witnesses. Because they don't observe holidays or participate in the electoral process, these students are often seen as "different" by their peers, even though their families and religious communities help them affirm their identity. This lack of understanding can lead to contempt or, taken to the extreme, to situations such as the bombings of Atlanta's churches and synagogues in the 1950s.

The opportunity for open dialogue at the mosque offered my students a means of understanding another culture and the importance of not seeing one group's way as right and another as wrong. Here we had a safe setting to honestly discuss issues of religious diversity. Rather than trip over our own perceptions and suspicions, we got a chance to see face-to-face how these students addressed their faith and "otherness."

In our followup discussions, students overwhelmingly cited our visit to the madrassa as the highlight of the trip.

"I didn't just learn about religions and what the people believe," said one student. "I learned something a little more in depth: Nobody likes to be different. Most of the people we met—not saw but met—would be considered different from the majority of U.S. citizens. The Muslim teenagers were just like me and my friends. I realized that what I used to think of as a strict religion—and horrible rules to abide by—is just a way of life for some people."

Another observed, "I learned to expect different ideas and different ways of doing things for each religion. I observed that no matter what religion, race or culture you are, everyone has feelings." Lessons such as these cast a whole new light on how we view "others."

This new light also allows us personal revelations. I heard about some of these from my students as they attended and took part in confirmations and bar and bat mitzvahs throughout the rest of the year. The desire for comfort with oneself and one's peers can be a compelling concern for an early adolescent. It can also be the urge that sends a pilgrim down a path.

Reid Chapman teaches language arts and social studies at Asheville Middle School in Asheville, N.C.


The Prayer Quilt

It was December and the holidays were upon us. At Cary Academy, an independent 6-12 school in Raleigh, N.C., students were observing religious holidays such as Christmas, Ramadan and Hannukah in their homes, and a holiday spirit permeated the campus. So I took this opportunity to explore the world's religions and the role of prayer with my 9th grade art students. The unit involved researching and understanding sacred texts from around the world and creating an interactive prayer quilt that would act as a carrier for our hopes and dreams into the new millennium.

I began our exploration of sacred texts by reading a collection of prayers and prose from various cultural and religious backgrounds, such as a Tewa pueblo prayer, an ancient Hawaiian chant and readings from the Muslim mystic Rumi. After I read a simple prayer of gratitude, one student said, "I like that -- it's neutral." This comment made me realize that, by examining prayers objectively, students could see them as vehicles for expressing universal human concerns.

The Muslim teenagers were just like me and my friends. I realized that what I used to think of as a strict religion—and horrible rules to abide by—is just a way of life for some people.

I accompanied the class to the Media Center to help them research various religions, encouraging them to look at traditions outside their own heritage. I also asked them to find sacred text or prayers that resonated with their personal feelings, focusing on the words themselves, regardless of religious context. Each student copied several examples of text, making notes of the source, culture and religion.

After completing the research, students read their chosen text or prayer to the class. They had to explain why they had selected that passage and the meaning they found in it. Some comments were simple statements such as, "It sounds like what my father taught me."

But one student, who normally presented a toughguy facade, read a compassionate Buddhist text. He said that he felt the world should be more gentle. I clearly saw the person beyond the mask at that moment: an individual being touched by a religious tradition different from the one he had known.

Next, students created nine-inch squares of handmade paper and wrote their selected texts onto them using markers and any decorative finish they chose. The idea was to embellish the words with the loving attention given to illuminated manuscripts. We placed the finished prayer/text sheets on the wall of the school hallway.

Our second activity was to make a prayer quilt for display on campus. Many world religions use fabric in association with prayer -- Tibetan prayer flags, Christian vestments and christening gowns, Jewish Torah covers and Islamic prayer rugs, for example. Our quilt was a variation on that theme.

In the classroom, we discussed synonyms for prayer, such as "intention," "blessing," "desire" and "hope." Then we tied these ideas into our resolutions and dreams for the new year and millennium -- for ourselves and for each other.

Next, each student made a four-inch pocket from donated fabric scraps. After school, three students and I bound and dyed two yards of cotton fabric to create a tie-dye foundation for the pockets. Back in class, students attached their pockets -- all 70 of them -- to the fabric with a glue gun. On leftover scraps of handmade paper, they wrote personal prayers, blessings and hopes -- inspired by their research or of their own creation -- and inserted them into their quilt pockets.

When the quilt was finished, we hung it in the hallway next to our collection of sacred prose. On a nearby table, we placed permanent markers, small strips of colored fabric and safety pins so faculty and other students could attach their personal prayers. Our prayer quilt and sacred prose became a unifying element in the school, bringing together the hopes and dreams of many people.

At first I was hesitant to approach the subject of prayer in a school setting. I was concerned that parents or administrators would voice concerns about addressing such a controversial area. However, by working from a historical and literary angle and by integrating art, everyone, including staff and parents, found the experience to be a positive one.

The students enjoyed watching the project come together and were proud of the end result. One 9th grader even asked if they could make another one! More importantly, it gave students a format to speak from their hearts in a safe manner and to reflect on the beauty that can be found in diversity.

Jane Dalton conducts workshops integrating art, culture and spirituality into the classroom.


The Activist Spirit

"One of the key elements of all religions," says Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, "is that they tend to engender compassion for others less fortunate. You look around the world and see people who are in pain and need, and you want to respond." Rabbi Schwarz is founder of the E Pluribus Unum project, which brings together students of varying religions to learn about the social justice teachings of their faiths and others.

Judaism, for example, embraces the principle of tikkun olam (Hebrew: "repairing the world"). Whenever individuals act in a way that brings about healing or comfort to others, they are engaging in acts of tikkun. The founders of other world religions -- Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Bahá' Ulláh -- all made social welfare a central theme of their teachings.

Throughout history -- and notably in modern times -- faith has often moved believers to social activism. Many 19th-century Abolitionists who campaigned to end slavery in the United States cited religious motivations for their work. In the 1930s, Catholic laywoman Dorothy Day devoted her life to social action on behalf of the poor and displaced in New York City and elsewhere. She launched the Catholic Worker Movement and established "hospitality houses" where homeless or transient people could find a meal and bed and be treated with dignity.

"By fighting for better conditions," Day said, "by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor and of the destitute … we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world."

Mahatma Gandhi's belief in the Hindu principle ahimsa parajo dharmah (Hindi: "Nonviolence is the highest virtue") fueled a nonviolent social revolution that mobilized a nation and brought down British rule in India in 1948. His philosophy, in turn, would later influence the peaceful civil disobedience of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless other activists worldwide.

In southwest Georgia during the time of Gandhi's campaign, a White preacher named Clarence Jordan provoked the ire of his White Christian neighbors by sharing meals with Black people and paying them the same wages he paid Whites who worked on his farm. For this, Jordan was threatened, kicked out of his Southern Baptist church and faced with financial ruin -- all by other Whites angry with him for daring to challenge their time-honored beliefs that Blacks were inferior. It was Jordan's faith, too, that sustained him during the difficult years of forming and running Koinonia Farms, an interracial community in the heart of the segregated South, near Americus, Ga.

More recently, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa invoked the courage of people of faith to help end racial apartheid. Buddhist principles of equality and individual dignity underlie the movement for democratic reform in Burma, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Chris Morton, New York State director of American Atheists Inc., affirms that non-believers, too, are often committed to promoting social justice. He cites a description of Atheists that was presented as testimony in the 1963 Murray v. Curlett U.S. Supreme Court case, which prohibited prayer in public schools:

An Atheist seeks to know himself and his fellow rather than to know a god. An Atheist understands that a hospital must be built instead of a church. An Atheist knows that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand, love and accept all of mankind. He wants an ethical way of life.


The Challenges of Commitment

Faith-based work for social change can, of course, raise vexing issues. It has sometimes meant that certain people -- those of other faiths or beliefs, for example, or women and gays -- are excluded or feel excluded from participation in programs sponsored by religious organizations.

"The challenge is that most religions are almost by definition triumphalist," says Rabbi Schwarz. "They believe they have the Truth. For many religions, a large part of the practice of faith is to 'spread the word.' So in the kind of society where religion is promoting tolerance, justice and world peace, each religion needs to hold in check its historical proclivity for oppressing or ostracizing those who don't embrace its beliefs."

That tendency can manifest in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Activists in the extremist wing of the antiabortion movement, for example, have cited Biblical mandates for vilifying and even killing those who disagree with their stance. Some male religious leaders, while preaching and marching for the poor and oppressed, have upheld patriarchal values by refusing to share leadership with women.

Some Jews have wanted to become involved with Habitat for Humanity (co-founded by Clarence Jordan), which builds houses for and with people who are poor. But, for all but the most liberal Jews, Habitat's strong emphasis on Christianity can make it uncomfortable for them to participate, Schwarz says. Likewise, interfaith groups sometimes schedule activities on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

At times, the distinction blurs between faith-based social activism and outright missionary proselytizing. According to author and world religions scholar Huston Smith, conservative branches of religion tend to tie social action work with the desire to convert the people they are helping. In the past, some missionaries aggressively sought converts through material inducements, such as offering food and shelter. Raised in China by Methodist missionary parents, Smith remembers talking about "rice Christians," Chinese who converted to Christianity, at least in part, because they hoped to receive the benefits of Western material aid.

President Bush's faith-based initiative may highlight this tension. The initiative proposes to give federal funds to religious organizations that tackle social problems, such as homelessness and drug addiction, while avoiding religious proselytizing. The question remains how the system will address, for example, a recovery program that considers faith in Jesus essential for overcoming drug dependency.

Yet, as President Bush's initiative indicates, faith-based groups are often on the front line in seeking solutions to some of society's most intractable problems. Across the U.S. and around the world, interfaith groups are working to fight racism and promote equity.

The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America was founded in 1984 to link Baptists involved in justice and peace issues. The Rev. Ken Sehested, its executive director, says that Baptists in this country have a special burden to end racism because of the denomination's historical support of slavery and segregation. He believes that while religion has the power to destroy communities, it can also help to build them.

"Religion helps people imagine a different future," Sehested says. "The Bible talks about a new heaven and earth, … of lions and lambs lying down together. That's the key to any organizing project [for social justice] -- getting people's imaginations reshaped in ways that will encourage them to take risks for this new heaven, for this beloved earth."

Susan Parker is a freelance writer based in Greenbelt, Md.

The Right of Unbelief

Mahatma Gandhi taught that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." For many of us, that is all the creed we need. I am a moral and ethical person, which means that I live my life according to a coherent set of values. I am also an Atheist.


Atheism is often considered an extreme way of thinking -- the total rejection of religious faith and, often, a total trust in scientific reasoning. There is, in addition to Atheism, a whole spectrum of disbelief: Agnostics, for example, aren't sure about gods and don't like organized religion; Skeptics seek proof for everything; Humanists put people first, loving them, looking after them and rejecting the idea that a god can do this for them; Deists love nature and regard it as a "force" that permeates everything and follows natural "laws"; Free Thinkers insist on their right to freedom of thought and expression without the encumbrance of dogma. Each of these philosophies offers its adherents a framework for leading ethical lives -- and Atheism does, too.


As an Atheist, it is my understanding that, because there is no afterlife, I must make the most of my life and help others to do the same. For me personally, that means that I (along with other human beings) am a caretaker of all living things on Earth, who also have but one life. Therefore, I actively protect not only human beings and their rights but other living things and their rights, too. To say that my Atheism makes me devoid of values and hostile to others in our society -- as many believers throughout history have done -- is simply false. My Atheistic principles make me value all life here and now.


It is important to know that Atheistic thought is not new and that the ethics, values and philosophy of Atheism have shaped some of our most influential minds. From the Golden Age of Ancient Greece through the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Rationalism and modern scientific thought, Atheists and other non-believers have been responsible for some of the greatest advances made by humankind.


Believers often choose to ignore or hide the historical role of unbelief -- for example, the fact that not one of the first six U.S. presidents was an orthodox Christian, or that such pivotal figures as Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln were Deists who expressed doubt that Christ was divine.


Teachers and schools must begin to de-stigmatize Atheistic thought and non-belief by recognizing the enormous debt our modern society owes to their promulgators, including the recognition of individuality, the logic of scientific reasoning, the growth of democracy and an ethic that respects all living things. Atheists are often depicted as dangerous and destructive in our society, but history proves the fallacy of this negative stereotype. It is time to recognize the contributions and courage of non-believers, who have often faced derision, exclusion and even violence for what they insisted was right.


Today, Atheist children in many schools are met head-on by intolerance. As one young teenager put it: "I live in Asheville, North Carolina. I attend a public high school. I'm not a Christian. I try to keep that to myself, as in my White, Christian school it's an 'abomination.'" Until we expand our respect for "religious diversity" to include those who don't believe, we cannot claim to honor the "equal dignity and rights" of all persons.

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