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!

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Another day, another opportunity to talk about religious bigotry…

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the news articles and clips about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-yr-old engineering whiz whose homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb, causing his arrest when he brought it to school to show off to his teachers. If you haven’t, a good overview of the story and subsequent fallout is available from the Dallas Morning News.

It’s another chance to talk with students about profiling and misperceptions–how would this have been treated differently if Mohamed had a different religious background? Or gone to a school elsewhere in the nation, or in the world?

Mohamed’s thank you tweet to supporters is bittersweet–appreciative of the outreach he’s gotten (even President Obama invited him to the White House and encourage him to keep pursuing science) but cognizant of the challenges faced by Muslims in the world today:

Ahmed Mohamed's thank-you tweet

Ahmed Mohamed’s thank-you tweet

Hopefully the online support he’s recieved will translate into real-world encouragement and appreciation, especially since STEM is all the rage these days in the education world. I have a hard time know how to respond to Ahmed’s tweet–how to tell him there are many people who do really care about him, who want all young people to stay curious and inventive. I’d love to hear how high-school and middle-school students would respond to Mohamed’s tweet. How do they think they might respond if they were in his shoes–with an overwhelming sense of rejection, or a push for resilience?

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Good advice on Digital Literacy from EdSurge News

Last spring, I wrote about lessons in my World Religions class that veered away from simply being about religion and religious bias to thinking about how we read, interpret, and interact with what’s on the web. This article reminded me of some of those lessons and gave me some ideas to take it farther next time. Enjoy the excerpt below and keep reading at the link…

Twenty-five years ago, the term “literacy” was synonymous with the printed word. Today, that definition has evolved and being literate necessitates more than simply interacting with text. We must be digitally literate, too…

Source: Three Techniques for Teaching Digital Literacy | EdSurge News

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.

What Are the Limits of ‘Religious Liberty’? – The New York Times

What Are the Limits of ‘Religious Liberty’? – The New York Times.

Quick read on new questions of religious liberty that have developed in response to the gay rights movement. It seems to me that a shift is underway from citing religious liberty as a protection for action’s that affect one’s self (declining to attend public schools; claiming conscientious objector status) to name it as your reason to limit the rights of others (to purchase contraceptives). That shifts seems to move us away from the very intent of these laws to ensure freedom and protection for individuals.

This topic has always been an interesting talking point with students–I find that teenagers are highly preoccupied with infringements on their rights! I would be interested to hear their thoughts on what private companies can or cannot do.

When the Course Swerves…

Sometimes courses, or particular classes, take on their own particular theme or direction. This year’s unit on Islam made an unexpected shift to include a heavy dose of media literacy, partly because we had covered Islam through so many current events throughout the year already, and partly because the students and I both recognized it as being at the root of so many misunderstandings.

For the past few years I have assigned a project about Myths and Misconceptions in Islam where students take a belief about Islam that is incorrect or oversimplified and work to both explain the source of that misconception and the truth they would use to explain it. Noticing flaws in what previous years’ works had resulted in, I decided to pay a little more attention to the selection of resources as students researched their topics–and in so doing I think I unknowingly planted a seed that blossomed when they turned in their finished works.

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More proof: Dogs are Awesome

In one of those moments of life synergy and synchonicity, the podcast that popped up yesterday on my daily dogwalk was a great episode from Interfaith Voices. I’ve written about them before: Maureen Fiedler, the host, interviews a wide variety of religious leaders, scholars, and authors on relevant and current religious topics. Her questions are thoughtful and the show is always interesting. This time around, she interviewed Gerard Russell about the forgotten religions of the Middle East (which happens to be the subject of a new book he has written called Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms). They touched on the Druze, Alawites (who hold some fascinating, secretive beliefs), Yazidis, and Zoroastrians and the challenges each face in today’s world, particularly as a result of terrorism and conflict in the Middle East.

I was excited to hear more about Zoroastrians since they have been our current topic of discussion in class. The best fun fact? I’ve mentioned before that Zoroastrians see the world as taking part in a great battle between good and evil. Dogs, according to Zoroastrians, are most definitely fighters on the side of good: kind, virtuous, and loyal. Seems logical to me.

Just one of those benevolent, honorable, amazing creatures.

Just one of those benevolent, honorable, amazing creatures.

I encourage you to give the podcast a listen, and I will certainly be checking out Russell’s book.

Understanding the Responses to Charlie Hebdo, part 1

My World Religions class is an elective course, which gives us a chance to stray when the world provides us with “teachable moments.” As a result, this blog gets a chance to stray once in a while as well. Below is a summary of the lesson I developed about the Charlie Hebdo attacks–it’s long, so feel free to skip around (or bypass altogether!).

Rationale

In the responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the controversy a bit closer to home at Duke University just a week later, I saw an opportunity to connect my students with the news around them and also to get them thinking about how they could contribute to the conversations about these events. The terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the controversy at Duke over using the university bell-tower for a Muslim call to prayer were only loosely related by religion, but both events prompted a bewildering array of media commentary. In regards to Charlie Hebdo, I was somewhat fascinated as various hashtags, used to show solidarity, spread quickly across social media. When I read about the situation at Duke, I was appalled by some of the comments I saw posted. As I thought about how to implement discussions about these events in my own classroom, I realized that my goals were to build understanding of the variety of responses to said events and to help students develop their own opinions while navigating the sea of information and editorializing that is out there.

In the course of developing these lessons I also came across this blogpost by Emma Pierson on women’s comments on online media sites. To sum up briefly: women are far less likely to comment in online forums. Reading the post continued to make me think about the question of whether online forums are truly a meaningful place for debate and/or how we could make them into more thoughtful centers for discussion. So much of my students’ worlds are online now—how can we get them to think critically not only about big media, produced and delivered by such giants Fox News and the New York Times, but little media too: the comments and tweets that they write, read, and repost oh-so-regularly? Pierson rightfully links the reluctance to contribute online to a reluctance to speak in classrooms during childhood and adolescence, and suggests advocating for “speaking up as an act of leadership:  a way to advance a cause worth caring about.” Pierson’s follow-up recommendations include not only encouraging women to speak up more, but for men to “talk less.” While I did not overtly discuss the gender dynamics of this in my classroom (we’ll save that for another lesson!), I think the concept of thinking more carefully before engaging in discussions, both online and in real life, would benefit many of my students, while others could certainly be encouraged to let go of fears about the imperfections of their contributions. Reading Pierson’s piece shifted my lesson to include direct and explicit conversations about the tone and format of our debates about complex issues.

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