Maureen Fiedler is my hero.

I’ve talked about her radio show before, Interfaith Voices, which is wonderful and informative. But today as I listened to a recent podcast, I heard her challenge Ben Carson and Donald Trump on their bigotry, and was just inspired again by her intelligence, feistiness, and open-minded approach to religion and religious issues. Nuns are awesome, aren’t they? Truly, I admire her independence, her thoughtfulness, and her curiosity about the world and I always learn from her show.

Read her editorial here: No religious test for public office | National Catholic Reporter History nerds will note an allusion to my favorite Abraham Lincoln speech and a great rundown of religion in politics.

Enjoy!

Preservation with Purpose

Since moving to Pittsburgh, I’ve been thinking a lot about historic preservation. Everything here is old–from the house we bought to the streets to the infrastructure (see: falling apart Greenfield Bridge. Thanks for the press CBS!). And there are an enormous number of former churches and religious buildings that have been both preserved and repurposed, in a way that I had not seen much of in the South. This makes sense, right? In the Triangle, the population is growing rapidly and there’s lots of space, so you see storefront churches and megachurches and new religious buildings all of the time. Pittsburgh, while it may be currently on the rise, has suffered from population loss and as congregations dwindle, folks must decide what to do with the buildings they once used.

In our neighborhood alone, Highland Park, there are several examples of religious buildings that have been repurposed, many of them former synagogues.

This is perhaps one of the most impressive buildings, now used as a charter school by the Urban League of Pittsburgh.

Former Congregation B’Nai Israel, now a charter school.

As you can see, there have been almost no changes to the exterior. This picture is from the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other synagogues in the neighborhood have been put into private use. The one below, Torath Chaim, was the last to close in Highland Park and is now in use as an artist’s studio. This Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article shows some interior pictures from more recent years, while some from 1980 are available at the Rauh Jewish Archives of the Heinz History Center.

The former Torath Chaim in 2015.

The former Torath Chaim in 2015.

Others in the area are now, as far as I can tell, private homes.

Former Machsikei Hadas synagogue, now private home (?).

Former Machsikei
Hadas synagogue, now private home (?).

And of course, there is the Union Project a former church now realized as community space for art classes, yoga, gallery shows, and more.

Stained glass window of the Union Project.

Stained glass window of the Union Project.

Highland Park is one of many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh where these transformations are taking place. Neu Kirche is a Northside gallery slated to open soon, housed in a former Methodist Church. There are hotels, restaurants/breweries, and even the Altar Bar and Mr. Small’s Funhouse, where you can catch some decidedly unholy [musical] acts. Depending on where you live, seeking out this type of reuse could be an interesting class activity. What does it say about population changes or religious communities in the area? About changing values within the urban landscape?

Using the built environment like this also encourages students to really consider the meaning and symbolism in the buildings themselves. Does a congregation, in any religion, need a building to create space for worship? Or can the community itself create that space. Judaism answers this with a hard and fast rule–all you need is ten adult Jews to make a space fit for public worship–nothing is said about the state of the building. In other religions, there may be no set number, but the facility is often secondary to the people that would use it. (Are there exceptions to this in certain faiths?)

Generally, I like these examples of creative reuse. In most cases, they allow the buildings to continue to serve as community meeting places and often act as shelters for new projects and new ideas.  But, this could also be a point of discussion among students. Is it right to use old religious buildings for certain purposes (a bar, for example)? Is commercial development in these formerly sacred spaces in poor taste?

Some additional resources I found regarding reusing religious spaces:

  • Partners for Sacred Spaces is an organization dedicated to helping congregations determine what to do with their buildings and how to best preserve them
  • Repurposing Dying Churches by Ministry Matters argues for using development or repurposing as a way to save buildings and congregations–some spaces can be used part-time for worship and part-time for other activities
  • Hagia Sophia, the original example of repurposing. Might be useful in making the point to students that this is not necessarily a new idea.
  • fancy modern architecture version that is just beautiful to look at.
  • And an opposing point of view, if you want to discuss why some people might be against the redevelopment of sacred spaces.

I call that a success!

As I was grading final exams, I came across this.

Question 1

Question 1

Question 2

Question 2

Not the best student, and in fact, a student who in his original journal post stated that he would be working to try to help me accept Christianity this year. Glad that I’ve helped him grow more accepting too.

#summersalmosthere

On Field Trips and Flexibility

I know…it’s been forever since I’ve written. Spring break and lots of life have gotten in the way, and I apologize.

Class, however, has been marching on. We have made it through our Christianity unit, which always feels like a challenge to me. It’s challenging because there are always a few students who have been raised on the Bible and know its passages far better than I do. It’s also challenging because it’s one of those religions that students think they know everything about before we get started. And because trying to expand students’ notions of Christianity (or expose them to divisions within it) can push some buttons for the firm believers in my classroom in a way that investigating a religion that they are less attached to does not.

As a result, while I do spend some time reviewing the core beliefs of Christianity and analyzing passages from the New Testament (I especially like the Sermon on the Mount for the way it helps differentiate between “old ways” and Jesus’s teachings), I allocate most of the unit to understanding the historical development of the religion (helped by useful Eduportal videos like this one) and looking at its diversity. It’s my hope that students end the unit with the firm grasp of the concepts that all Christians share, but an understanding that all Christians are not like the ones they know.

I have a couple of strategies for doing this. We spend a few days looking at Mormons, and I ask the students to answer for themselves the question of whether Mormons are Christian or not. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints says, unequivocally, yes. (See the most recent shift in their logo, below). 

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 But others question if a group that adds new books to the Christian canon can truly fit in. I have found the PBS video on the Mormons to be an excellent supplement here, and a more sober approach than the South Park episodes and broadway musicals that my students tend to be more familar with.

We also spend some time looking at other Christian groups: the Amish, Christan Scientists, Quakers, Christadelphians, and more. Again, we focus on the defining beliefs of Christians: monotheism, belief in Jesus as a savior, an emphasis on love, forgiveness, hope, and grace, and the practices of baptism and communion. Then I ask students to consider what makes each group different and unique.

We ended the unit with a sort of transitional field trip–a trip to a mosque and a church. This year we visited Jaamat Ibad Ar-Rahman and Resurrection United Methodist Church. Chosen both for proximity, their welcoming attitude, and the variety of experiences they provide, I found this year’s pairing to work especially well. Jaamat Ibad Ar-Rahman is in a small, low building that was clearly never intended to be a mosque. In fact, it shares a parking lot with a store-front church. For many of my students, this is a different kind of religious building than they have been to, in that there is absolutely no fancy architecture–the emphasis is solely on the creation of a community space for worship and study. The students were shown to the library and listened to a presentation by a member of the congregation. This was interesting too–the imam, Mowlid Ali, is very young, somewhat quiet, and had to leave early to lead Friday prayers in a neighboring city. His colleague was an older gentleman who was very chatty and eager to share his understanding of Islam. The contrast between the two men was almost comical–but again I appreciate that the students had an opportunity to hear from two voices. 

Following that, we visited the church where Reverend Alan Felton shared with the students about Methodism, a denomination we had not encountererd yet. I thought the kids were fading a little–we had arrived late and lunch was waiting–but was impressed by how they perked up with questions about the Eucharist and the little ways in which the ceremony differed from some of their own experiences. It was clear as they asked about the things that they saw that they were building a comparison in their heads. 

It was a fitting and pleasant end to a unit that I always have a little trepidation about teaching. Today, on the way in to work, I heard a piece on NPR that helped me articulate my approach to teaching this section on Christianity, and really to how I hope to approach much of my teachings. The snippet was about Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, a Catholic who has been teaching about Islam to students in both Catholic and Muslim universities. He states at one point, when addressing a room of devout Muslims: “I said to the students ‘I’m not here to teach you anything — I’m here to help you to learn, and to understand your own religion better.” Like Fitzgerald (although I am sure his expertise in the field of religious studies is far far greater than mine), I recognize that it does me no good to try to teach my students what they may already know, but rather to lead them to questions and ideas they may not have encountered yet, to give them opportunities for new experiences, and tools for engaging with them. Hopefully, with this unit, I did at least a little of that. 

Spring Rites

The Vernal Equinox has come and past, and although I hear it is still snowing a few states north of here, the buds and blooms around in NC. This year I tried out two new spring rituals–some self-education that will perhaps spill over into the classroom someday.

Homemade hamantaschen.

Homemade hamantaschen.

The first was an attempt at hamantaschen, the traditional cookie of Purim. Celebrated on March 4th and 5th this year, Purim marks when Queen Esther defeated Haman’s plot to kill the Jews of Persia. Apparently what originated as a fairly minor holiday has now developed into something more meaningful, a marker of how so many times throughout history the Jewish people have survived and thrived despite persecution. The celebration itself is joyful–in Jerusalem there is a carnival aspect as people dress up in costume, use noise-makers, and drink and feast. The cookies are meant to represent Haman’s tri-cornered hat. I used the recipe found on Judaism 101 (a wonderful general resource for information on the religion, from an Orthodox perspective), but there are many online. One of my favorite cooking blogs, Smitten Kitchen, has a few different versions–more options to try next year!

Right around this time in my classes, my students were presenting projects on different rituals and holidays in Judaism. Many of them kept showing Sesame Street video clips dealing with Jewish topics that they found online. I had no idea where they came from, but when reading about Purim I found the source: Shalom Sesame. An American version of an Israeli version of Sesame Street, the show aimed to introduce Judaism to kids unfamiliar with Hebrew, the show has a number of famous guest stars and your favorite traditional Sesame Street characters. Apparently, Cookie Monster LOVES hamantaschen!! The clip below was great inspiration for my baking.

The other ritual I took part in was far more spiritual, for me, but was also very much a physical practice. I read that a local Methodist church was setting up a labyrinth during the Lenten season and was opening it up to the public. I’ve always been curious about walking labyrinths: how has the tradition survived since the Middle Ages? What does it represent? How does the physical movement encourage reflection and prayer?

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