Saturday, October 27, 2007

Schooling the seminarians

Last night, I spent almost four hours teaching a class to graduate students from a local theological school (not Catholic), Some will go into traditional ministry, some will go into counseling, some will go into social work. All are approaching their work with a decidedly Christian spin.

I teach this class three times a year, and actually, I like it a lot. It's just really intense. This group tends to have challenging questions and they see things from a perspective I don't usually visit myself.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about teaching this class is that the students really grapple with issues related to faith. They don't just swallow doctrine undigested. They look at the realities of faith in practical application. They ask good questions. I suppose this is in part fueled by the fact that these are graduate students and that they are also theologians, not a Bible study group. In fact, in the years I've been doing this, I've heard them quote authors, philosophers, social historians, and great theologians, but I have never heard them quote even one line of scripture. It's comforting to me that they are always encouraged to keep asking questions.
My class focuses on refugee resettlement and how the incredibly complex issues inherent to this population are likely to present in the students' professional practice. Last night, I brought six adult refugees with me. All arrived in the U.S. within the last six months. They told their stories in a room that went still and silent. As I made the critical points in my presentation, I asked each newcomer to expand on my thoughts based on his or her own experience. Frankly, the presentation kicked ass, if I do say so myself.

And that brings me back to the issue of God. One of the students asked me if refugees continue to practice their faith in this country. I explained that, in fact, the refugees are encouraged to do so. They are told in orientation that every religion is represented in the U.S. and therefore, there is place for everyone. Just as their religion will be respected, they need to respect the other religions practiced here. I also explained that one thing we know from research is that when the displaced and resettled were asked what helped them survive the ordeal, almost universally, the answer was, "my God and my faith."

At the end of the evening, the professor asked that one his students lead the group in a prayer. I should know this is coming, but it always takes me by surprise. I wasn't sure how my group would react. Four are Muslim, one is Buddhist, and the other is Catholic. I scanned the room and saw that all of them had bowed their heads respectfully and were humbly engaged in prayer themselves. Although I no longer pray, I am gracious enough to bow my head and be patient and still during that moment.

The student who led the prayer thanked the good Lord for bringing such a valuable and insightful class to the group. He prayed that our newcomers would continue to embrace the hope and strength that helped them survive thus far, and that they would still be supported in the second part of their challenging new life. Then he prayed for me. He thanked God that I had found the work I do and that He had infused me with the wisdom and skill of a talented teacher. He prayed that I would continue to receive God's guidance and support to keep doing this important work. He asked God to always give me the strength and compassion it must take to do my job. The prayer ended with an enthusiastic "Amen."

I stood there for a second, shuffling my leftover handouts. I didn't know how to react. I'm not sure what to make of this kind of thing, and I'm really not used to hearing someone pray for me. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in the power of energy, good and bad, especially in the collective. If 24 people can gather their positive energy and channel it toward me, then I do think that I will be infused with...something. Something benevolent that requires no commitment to any deity. That works.

1 comment:

Spilling Ink said...

Perhaps collective positive energy IS a god-like presence of a sort. Nothing wrong with that. I think it's good that the newcomers are being encouraged to understand that there is a place for everyone and that the beliefs of one group cannot negate the beliefs of another. Too bad the folks who have lived here all of their lives can't see things this way.