Thank you, Zac, for sending this!
In our suburban, mostly white, mostly Christian city in southwestern Indiana, our private high school has longed for opportunities to interact with the rest of the world. We welcome the chance to study different cultures, political systems, and religions in meaningful ways. While we have a handful of Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students in our school, none of them happened to enroll in our World Religions class this semester. Those enrolled in the class came from highly similar Midwestern Christian backgrounds. So what are a bunch of mostly white, mostly Christian, suburbanites supposed to do to get a better understanding of those different religious faiths?
About a year ago, I learned of a fascinating man named Samir Selmanovic. Pastor Samir is the author of the book: It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian. He is also a founder of Faith House Manhattan, an interfaith community at the growing edge of a movement to do more than just tolerate and respect those of differing faiths. This movement aims to humbly approach the other in an effort to learn and not just to share one’s own beliefs.
With a book subtitle like that, and an obviously unique way of approaching different religions, my interest was piqued. This belief that others have more to teach us than we have to teach them resonated with me. This ended up setting the tone for our class philosophy, and we decided to contact Samir for help.
We wanted to better know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of someone who follows Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism. We literally wanted to share of their soles. We asked Samir if he could help us to locate some shoes from his friends to help us to physically experience this in our classroom.
We would be spending a certain amount of time on each religion in our class, with guest speakers to boot. As a sort of final project for each religion, I wanted each student to prepare a short presentation, imagining what a day in the life of an other might be like. The idea was to experience true empathy for those of differing faiths, and not just detached knowledge about those faiths.
Samir was very warm to the idea. He responded promptly and graciously, ignoring our offer to pay to ship these shoes to us from New York City. He remarked offhandedly that paying to ship the shoes “would be rewarding for the giver to do”. Samir’s philosophies were becoming more captivating with every step. Out of the blue, I received a non-descript, cardboard box from Samir. It happened to be right before our World Religions class, so I brought it in to open in front of the rest of the class. The students were thrilled and intrigued by the shoes, many of them commenting on how “normal” they looked. We were now prepared to put flesh into these shoes and put flesh onto the beliefs we were studying.
As the students gave their presentations, I was struck by how natural it was for them to step into the role of an other. With all of the fervor in the media regarding terrorism by Islamic militants, and the Park 51 project near Ground Zero in New York City, I expected that the students might have a particularly difficult time relating to Islam in an authentic, personal, empathetic manner. Quite the contrary was true. The students all seemed to express an awareness of the hostility towards Islam, and demonstrated how they (their character) relied on God and their community of faith to stand strong. The same was true of Judaism and Hinduism. Each student commented on how many similarities between beliefs there ended up being.
In the end, we felt a sense of a journey’s inauguration because of our experience. While we are not experts in the faiths that millions of our fellow humans live and breathe every day, we are certainly much less ignorant. We are sincerely thankful to Samir and Faith House Manhattan for their munificence. I hope that our small steps together have produced a hunger to taste more of the rich bounty of truth and beauty that seems to be everywhere, in everything, and not just in our Christian tradition.
With warmest regards,
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