Awareness & Understanding of Different Belief Systems

Awareness & Understanding of Different Belief Systems
Posted on 10/06/2017
Buddhist Temple

In an age when differing belief systems seem to be clashing more than ever and polarizing the world, Hope Bumgarner, SHS World Area Instructor, has been working with her students to create awareness and understanding.  For the past several years, she has sought volunteers beyond the borders of Spencer to provide first-hand knowledge of different cultures and religions during the Belief Systems unit of her World Area class.  Mrs. Bumgarner has formed relationships with several people from different religions, and they correspond with the students via technology.  Wanting to take the connections and relationships to a more intimate level, Mrs. Bumgarner spent time last year in Sioux City, visiting churches, temples and synagogues, meeting with their leaders in hopes of providing a field trip for her students.  After careful planning, and with support from the Spencer Community School Foundation, as well as her newly hired social studies colleague, Chris Phillips, the experience came to fruition.  With a limited number of seats available, students applied to attend the field trip to Sioux City, which included stops at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Beth Shalom Congregation and Pho Mon Buddhist Temple.  SHS Art Instructor, Marie-Louise Kierscht, accompanied the students too, providing background information about the art students would experience at each location, including the symbolism and how art is used to convey information.

To truly depict the impact of the day, student volunteers were asked to write reflections from their experience, and here is what three different students had to say about Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Beth Shalom Congregation and Pho Mon Buddhist Temple respectively.

As a Catholic, I was once not familiar with other denominations of Christianity. However, as a result of this trip, I have grown in reverence and intrigue for a branch of Christianity that I would have never gotten the opportunity to learn about until now. I know that I will now regard other religions with a deeper interest and curiosity than I have previously. This opportunity has enhanced my World Area classes global-awareness of people of different faiths.  In conclusion, this experience with my World Area class has shifted my perspective by allowing me to gain a deeper knowledge about the beliefs that shape us as humans. This experience has helped my peers and I to see the diversity of religions represented in the American experience. The better we understand the similarities and differences of the many faiths practiced in the world, the better equipped we will be to understand our fellow citizens and find ways to peacefully coexist.

Very, very few words can be used to truly describe our journey to the Beth Shalom Congregation on Monday. It was an almost miraculous adventure for just myself personally, and with so many others to experience it with, I truly do believe that it was a resounding success as an educational step toward understanding Judaism. We danced, sang hymns, spoke Hebrew phrases, and even tried matzos shared by our gracious hosts. We learned of the various Jewish holidays, spoke and even saw the representations of Kosher foods and preparation, and got to view the sacred scroll of the Torah and the book of Rabbinic Law, the Talmud. We most certainly did many physical activities, but I do feel like the connection was more personal, spiritual if you will. For me alone, as a Hasidic-born Jew who by unlucky circumstance has never entered a Synagogue until that grand Monday afternoon. It was almost like I had returned to a place lost, but extremely familiar to me. The sight of the building alone made me happier than I thought possible! Not only to me, but judging from the laughter and joyous expressions from my peers, I feel that the congregation has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us all. It was an unforgettable learning experience, fueled by a passion and charisma that not many ordinary ‘field trips’ can even dream of offering. I do personally thank both our teachers and the Beth Shalom Congregation for allowing us their time, and I solemnly believe that thanks is shared by all of us who attended.

Before visiting the Buddhist Temple, I was like almost everyone in Spencer High School- completely unaware of what Buddhism was all about. Sure, I knew they had Buddhas, but I really didn't know any more than that. So when we visited the Pho Mon Buddhist Temple, I was really overwhelmed in the best way possible. Out in the front they had gardens with Buddhas everywhere; small ones, large ones, ones with hair, and some without. We were told that there were many types of Buddhas, and I was taken aback. I had never realized that before, but as we were being talked to, they told us that each Buddha had a different purpose. When we were taken inside, there was an instant wave of calmness that hit each and every one of us. There were mats lying on the ground with cushions on top of them. We were told that was where they meditated. It was all intriguing; so many sights and colors whirling around us. Things we'd never seen before were everywhere, and we took it all in with open arms. Two of the most important points that the woman went over were these: Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. It is a way of life to practice Buddhism, but you do not worship the Buddha, you only follow the lessons he practiced. Second, was about the Buddhist belief in rebirth. She said, "So do not be afraid, it is the end of this life, not the soul." I thought this was very important because it gave me a better understanding of how they believed we went on- life after life, body after body. This was definitely a memorable day, and I strongly believe that trips like these should keep happening. We, as a human race, become more understanding when we are brought into these peoples' lives and their traditions to experience how they live. I don't doubt that, one day, understanding is going to overpower the ignorance in our society, and this is an important step to get us there.

On the bus ride home, Mrs. Bumgarner asked the students if they felt the experience was worthwhile and would be beneficial to provide again next year, to which the students responded with a resounding, “Yes!”  With language barriers and other potential glitches, Mrs. Bumgarner’s nerves heightened prior to each stop, but as the tours unfolded as planned, she was thrilled with the day, and shared, “The Sioux City field trip to the three religious centers was an awesome experience for both students and teachers.  The students did an outstanding job listening and were able to really grasp the importance of understanding different belief systems, which was my goal.”  She added that the next day, the students did a wonderful job explaining to their peers what they saw, experienced and learned at each of the locations.  Mrs. Bumgarner ended by saying, “I hope to be able to take even more students.  It is one thing to tell students about these different faiths, but it is so much more meaningful when they get to experience it first-hand.   The teachers utilized the two-hour bus ride home to jot down notes and discussed how to bring this opportunity to all World Area students in the future.  Until then, shalom!