Neighboring Faith Communities: A Process Guide
A curriculum for grades 6-8
Compiled by Dan Harper, v. 0.8.3
Copyright (c) 2014-2016 Dan Harper
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Chapter 2: PROCESS GUIDE
Above: Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, Protestant Christian Nondenominational, Mountain View, California
A. Initial meetings
1. At the first class meeting, we do basic group-building exercises, and we ask the young people to brainstorm a list of other faith communities they would like to visit. Most items on the list will probably be fairly broad and generic, such as “Buddhist” or “Muslim.” Sometimes class members will brainstorm ideas that are somewhat more specific, such as “that temple down the street from us,” or “that church we visited last year with friendly people and good snacks.” More rarely, a class participant will mention a faith community by name.
2. During the following week, the teachers will develop a more specific list of faith communities based on this brainstormed list, using Internet search engines to come up with possible visits. E.g., if the class came up with the idea of visiting a Buddhist faith community, the teachers will track down nearby Buddhist temples and churches.
Alternatively, the teachers may simply generate a list of prospective visits that they then present to the class. This may often be a better alternative, especially when the class simply does not know much about the other faith communities that are in the immediate area, or where the class can only think of returning to those faith communities they went to the previous year (especially the ones with good snacks).
Most classes will be able to schedule about 6-10 visits in a typical congregational year. We want the young people to be able to vote on which visits they would like to make, and we would like to have several back-up possibilities in case it proves impossible to schedule a visit to a preferred faith community. Therefore, the teachers will want to generate a list of about 12 specific faith communities that meet on Sunday mornings and are within reasonable driving distance.
We have found that the young people need a little bit of information about each of the dozen faith communities in order to be able to make a good decision on where to visit. So we have tried to come up with a one- or two-sentence description of each faith community, telling why we might want to visit that faith community. One way to do this is to make a handout of the list to distribute in class. To see a sample handout, click here.
When generating the list, it makes sense to try to come up with a mix that includes some or all of the following:
— liberal congregations (Quakers, UCC churches, etc.)
— mainline Protestant churches and fairly liberal Jewish congregations
— more conservative Christian and Jewish faith communities
— ethnic congregations, including non-Anglophone congregations (churches in the Black church tradition, etc.)
— non-Western religions
3. We bring this list of about 12 faith communities, with brief descriptions, to a class meeting. We go over the list with the young people, and answer questions as best we can (we also acknowledge it when we don’t know the answers — we want the the young people to know that this is a learning process for us, too). A laptop with an LCD projector (or equivalent) on which Web sites of faith communities can be displayed can sometimes help in this process; note that the appearance of a Web site usually says little about the faith community itself, while photos or videos of worship services and of the building(s) can provide useful information for making decisions.
We try go to another Unitarian Universalist congregation for our first visit. We have a limited number of nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations that we can realistically drive to on a Sunday morning. So we will talk with the young people about which nearby UU congregation they want to visit this year — preferably not the same one as last year.
Depending on the class, the teachers may want to have the class vote on their top choices. Here’s one voting process: Write down each of the 12 or so faith communities on a big piece of paper, and then give each young person three Post-It notes. Each Post-It note represents a vote. They may spend all their votes on the one faith community they really want to visit, or vote once for each of three faith communities, or put two votes on one faith community and one vote on another. (If you have fewer than five young people, it works better if you give them each more than three votes — maybe four or five). Let adult teachers vote, too! Then tally the votes. If the goal is to visit six congregations, and the class already chose a nearby UU congregation to visit, then the teachers will say that they will start out trying to arrange visits for the top five vote-getters. Note that sometime it proves impossible to arrange a visit! — so retain the complete list of votes, so you can use the next highest vote-getters if necessary.
4. Next, we schedule the visits. Visiting the nearby UU congregation is pretty easy — someone just has to email the minister and/or the Director of Religious Education, and say we will be attending the service on such-and-such a Sunday.
The other visits can be more complicated. It is wise to contact someone in advance, to make sure the faith community is OK with us visiting, and to make sure that we are coming on a day that works well for that faith community. More than once, we have discovered that we would not be exactly welcomed a given faith community, because they don’t return our emails or calls, or they keep putting us off, or they sound very ambivalent about us. When that happens, we tell the young people that that visit is not going to work out — and then we might talk a little bit about why some faith communities might not want us to visit them. We also have to make sure that we really can schedule a visit — if the service lasts 3-4 hours, will it be OK for us to arrive late or leave early?
It works best if one person can do all the work of scheduling the visits. Such a person should be very organized, and they should have excellent social skills since they will representing your UU congregation when they contact other faith communities.
When scheduling the visits, we have found that it works best for the young people if we begin with one or two visits to faith communities that are culturally more familiar. We like to start with a visit to another UU congregation because we can focus on the logistics of making a field trip without having to worry about dress codes, language barriers, radically different values, etc. Ideally, the second visit will be to a Christian or Jewish faith community that is somewhat similar to our congregations, e.g., a UCC church, a Quaker meeting, a mainline Protestant church, a liberal Jewish temple, etc. Then we save the more challenging visits for later in the year — so it’s best if the visit to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple where the whole service is in Vietnamese comes later in the year.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the purpose of these visits is NOT to tell other faith communities how much better Unitarian Universalism is than their religion. The purpose of these visits is NOT to enforce our own beliefs on others. Thus, we are NOT going to harangue another faith community on the second-class status of women in their community, and we are NOT going to challenge members of another faith community because they are not welcoming to BGLQT persons. And we ARE going to conform to standards of dress and behavior expected in other congregations; and if someone feels they cannot conform to another faith community’s standards, they should avoid going on that visit.
B. Making the visits
We spend three weeks on each faith community.
1. In the first week, we learn basic facts the young people need to know before visiting the faith community, emphasizing what the young people are likely to experience, and what etiquette they should abide by during the visit.
The book How To Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, the basic textbook for our class, gives essential information like what to wear (and what not to wear), what to expect, etc.
The teachers can read aloud to the young people key bits of information from this book, and then answer questions. Teachers can coach young people on dress codes, and answer questions about specific items of clothing (e.g., “No, spaghetti straps would not be acceptable at this faith community”).
Teachers help the young people understand that when we make these visits, we are guests, and as guests we strive to stick to the standards of the faith community, even if we disagree with those standards. For example, some faith communities will ask that males and females sit separately from each other, and while we would feel that is acceptable for our own congregation, we will abide by the standards of that faith community when we are there.
2. The second week is the visit to the faith community.
The logistics of the visits require careful attention to detail. The teachers (or the logistics coordinator) should plan to send out an email to all families associated with the class, informing them what time they should meet. Attach a permission form to the email, preferably with the street address of the visit, and the time you expect to depart from your own congregation’s parking lot, and the time you expect to be back. It is also wise to include any dress requirements in the email to parents, so they can remind their child to dress appropriately. The email should also ask for volunteers to help drive.
As families arrive on the morning of the visit, one teacher checks in each young person, and makes sure there is a signed permission form for each young person. The other teacher engages the class in conversation about what they might expect, and what to look for when they arrive at the place they’re going to visit. If there’s time, it’s very nice to light a flaming chalice and do check-in. This helps center everyone. Then split up into cars, and drive to the place you’re visiting. ideally, you will have made a contact at the
3. The third week is a chance to talk about what we saw and heard on the visit. One good way to guide discussions about a field trip is the “What, So What, Now What” method of processing experiences:
a. Start with “What” questions — these are questions about specific facts and about sensory observations, and might take up about a third of your time:
Who was present? and whom did you get to talk with?
What was the building like? and where did you sit?
What happened in the service? and in what order did things happen?
What art did you see? and what music did you hear?
What smells did you encounter? and did you taste anything?
and so on
b. After you’ve spent some time on “What” questions, turn to “So What” questions — i.e., how your visit made you feel, what you felt was most important about the specific things you observed and experienced. This might take up about half your time. Some questions to ask:
What was your favorite part of the visit? and least favorite?
What did you find exciting and fun? and what was boring?
What was your strongest feeling during the visit?
and so on
c. Finally, spend some time on “Now What” questions. These include questions that help place things in perspective, questions that help teens compare and contrast with other visits — these are questions that help us understand, for this faith community, what is most important in terms of the emotional, material, and social dimensions of religion. Some questions you might ask (and see more questions below):
How did the music make you feel?
And why do you think they want you to feel that way?
What beautiful objects did you see?
And why do you think those beautiful objects were used?
Who were the most important people?
And why were they important?
and so on
The worksheet below, based on the rubric, can help guide the teens in asking “Now What” questions.
C. Basic class structure
The basic class structure we use at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is pretty straightforward, and is outlined below (other congregations may wish to vary details of this class structure). On field trip days, we try to light a chalice and have check-in before we go, but only if time allows.
1. Every class opens by lighting a flaming chalice, followed by check-in time. Total time for this portion of class: about 15 minutes.
For check-in, there are three jars of water on the table: one labeled with a happy face, one labeled with a sad face, and one labeled with a question mark. Everyone gets three marbles to drop in the jars. Before you drop your marbles in the jars, say your name.
When you drop a marble in the jar with a happy face, you can say something good that happened to you in the past week: “I’m happy because….” When you drop a marble in the jar with the sad face, you can say something bad that happened in the past week: “I’m sad because….” And when you drop a marble in the jar with the question mark you can say something that you wonder about: “I wonder — ”
2. The middle part of the class consists of the activity or activities for the day. This might consist of:
— preparing for a visit the following session
— going on a visit
— debriefing after a visit that happened the previous session
— doing group bonding activities
— having a discussion on a topic that came up during a visit
Preparing for a visit: To prepare for a visit, the teachers should read over the relevant section in How To Be a Perfect Stranger. In particular, they should identify things that the young people will need to know. We try especially to let the young people know:
— what the dress code will be;
— where and how they will be expected to sit (in pews in mainline Protestant churches; on the floor in a Sikh gurdwara; stand the whole time in a Russian Orthodox church; girls separate from boys in an Orthodox Jewish temple; etc.)
— what, if anything, they will be expected to do (take or not take communion in Christian churches; eat the pudding in a Sikh gurdwara; sing, pray, genuflect, etc.)
We also help the young people strategize about how they will behave in the case of long periods of quiet meditation (e.g., at a Quaker meeting, at a Buddhist temple). And we talk about how they should behave during the social hour afterwards (e.g., don’t grab too much food, wait until others have eaten, etc.). Sometimes, it can be useful to look at a faith community’s Web site, to see if they have video snippets of services to see how people are behaving, photos showing what people are wearing, etc.
Debriefing after a visit: A great way to handle debriefing is to have a teacher who did not go on the visit begin the discussion, asking the young people WHAT questions, questions of fact: So what happened when you got there? What did you see when you went in to the place of worship? What happened first? What happened next?
After a reasonably clear description of the service emerges, you can go on to the next step, asking “So What” questions, questions of feeling and judging: So how did the service make you feel? What did you like about this faith community? What didn’t you like? How are they like us? How are they different? (See more about debriefing below.)
3. Every class should end with a closing circle. Stand in a circle. Hold hands. Go around the circle, and everyone says one thing they learned today. Then everyone says the unison benediction together:
Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.
We print out the unison benediction and post it on the wall: Unison Benediction (PDF for posting).
D. Other class sessions
Other class sessions have included the following:
1. Games and fun: It is good to have periodic classes devoted to group bonding and fun. Play games and have some group initiatives for team building. You can find a collection of games online here: < http://kj6zwr.org/games/ >. Or consult books like The New Games Book for games, the Project Adventure books for initiatives and group problem-solving activities, etc.
2. Guest speakers: One year, early in the year, we had a guest come talk to us about feminism, and how important feminism is for Unitarian Universalists. This helped set the stage for understanding other faith communities we visited: how did a given faith community treat males and females? Were males and females equal, or were men given higher status than women?
3. Related topics: Sometimes topics of interest arise in the course of making visits. One year, the young people got very curious about Mormonism. Based on the young people’s questions, the teachers researched and prepared a short presentation on the Mormons, which led to a fascinating discussion. That discussion in turn led to a class session talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses, another Restorationist Christian group.
Note that in some cases you will not be able to schedule visits to a faith community, perhaps because they meet at an inconvenient time, perhaps because they are so small they would not welcome you, or perhaps for other reasons. In such cases, you can devote a class session to these faith communities. Remember, though, to emphasize:
— the emotional dimension of religion
— the material dimension of religion
— the social dimension of religion
Use the Neighboring Faith Communities rubric to help you create your lesson plan. You can use online resources, such as videos and photo collections, to show the teens music, lively arts, art, and architecture associated with that religious tradition, thus engaging them in the emotional and material dimensions of the religious tradition. Sometimes we have also brought in a visitor, an adherent of that faith tradition, to talk with the teens, thus engaging them (a little) in the social dimension of the tradition.
E. Logistics checklist for visits
1. A month before the visit:
___ Make initial contact with the faith community you’d like to visit
___ Gently and respectfully find out if you will be welcome, and if the date you’ve chosen is a good time to visit
___ Find a contact person there, preferably someone who will be able to greet you when you arrive, and help you navigate etiquette issues (and perhaps serve as translator for you)
2. A week before the visit:
___ Send email to all families, giving departure time, and time you expect to return
___ Attach a permission slip to the above email, with departure time, return time, and street address of the visit typed into the permission form (see next page for a sample form)
___ Arrange for enough drivers to be able to ferry all young people and adults to the place you’re going to visit
3. The day of the visit:
___ Have extra copies of the permission form available, for those who forget to bring them, along with clipboards and pens
___ Have a 3-ring binder with an attendance sheet, and check off the young people as they arrive
___ Put permission forms into the 3-ring binder, and make sure the binder goes with the teachers (or with the logistics coordinator) on the trip
Current UUCPA permission form is online here.
Handout 1: Timeline of Christian Churches and Significant People
This handout may be used in an introductory class when you talk about the vast diversity of Christian groups. The handout is a vastly simplified chart intended to give a broad overview of the historical relationships between some of the major Christian groups in the world today. Intended to be used by Unitarian Universalists, it also shows approximately where the Unitarians and Universalists came from. But you should be aware that in reality, the relationships are far more complicated than those shown here.
To give one example, Universalism arose independently in several different places, and from several different sources, in the eighteenth century: Richard Clarke, an Episcopalian minsiter, began preaching Unviersalism mid-century; former English Methodist minister James Relly became preaching Universalism about the same time; Universalism arose in a number of formerly Baptist churches in central New England c. 1770; etc. So did Universalism arise from the Anglican tradition, Methodism, or from Baptist churches? There is no simple answer. Take this chart, then, as a very rough guide to Christian diversity. By looking at this chart, you can see that Assyrian Orthodox Christians split from Chalcedonian Christians a very long time ago, and therefore we can expect that Universalists are more similar to Mormons than are Assyrian Orthodox Christians (in fact, Joseph Smith, Sr., father of the founder of Mormonism, was a Universalist when he was young).
This chart also has names of a few significant individuals who are associated with the Christian groups listed on the chart.
Handout 2: World Religions and Significant People
This handout is designed to show some very basic relationships between various world religions, with approximate age of each religion for the sake of comparison.