While attending a workshop at the JCC on teaching the Holocaust, Beth Seldin Dotan said “Gary, you’ve got to meet the Director of Project Interfaith, Beth Katz”. And thus began a terrific relationship between Project Interfaith, Beth and me (which has expanded to include her husband, Jesse and my wife, Paula.) I have served on the Advisory Board for almost five years now and have been involved in several educator workshops on religious diversity issues in public schools.
In May, 2009, I retired from the Bellevue Public Schools after 32 years in the classroom and was hired as an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Program at UNO. I was also hired as the Social Studies Department Chair at Omaha Central High School (Beth’s alma mater, but I won’t reveal which graduating classJ). In my role as Department Chair, I was able to implement into the curriculum at Central High an Introduction to World Religions course that I had created at Bellevue West.
The course is divided into six segments; Religious Responses, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. If time permits, other spiritual paths are explored, such as Baha’i, Native American spirituality, Sikhism or perhaps Jainism. The opening unit, Religious Responses, focuses on the important role that religion plays in human existence. We discuss the common elements found in a variety of spiritualities (ritual, symbolism, scriptures etc.) and then we use that base of knowledge to delve into the specific faiths of the next five units.
I think that the students would say that the one concept that I continually “harp on” is the need for religious literacy. I firmly believe that the best way to overcome prejudice toward and stereotyping of religious communities is to learn something about those communities. We here at Central High are extremely fortunate to have a great deal of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity present in our hallways and classrooms. My class roster includes Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and non-believers as well as a wide variety of Christian traditions. Needless to say, our class discussions can be very interesting! People have a tendency to fear what they don’t understand, and my objective in this class is to provide some understanding and appreciation of people with “other” religious beliefs. I can’t, and don’t espouse any one tradition; I tell the students that they certainly don’t have to believe what others believe, but they must respect the other person’s beliefs and their right to believe what they do. I am happy to say that the students are responding well to this concept. As these young people move on to college, jobs, the military, whatever their futures may hold, they inevitably will be working and living in a more religiously pluralistic society. I have had several students come up to me when they were home from college during a break and say, “I am so glad that I took your class. In my dorm are a number of ____ (fill in the religious path), and I actually understand why they …” So now, instead of fearing those “other” students, they can develop meaningful, positive relationships with them.
The course has a standard textbook (“Living Religions” by Mary Pat Fisher), but we also utilize multiple supplemental resources as well. One of my colleagues jokingly (I hope) told me one day how easy it must be to teach the course; “…all you have to do is open up the newspaper.” On some occasions, he may be correct. Every Monday in USA Today newspaper there is an editorial piece entitled “On Religion”. Prominent scholars in the field of religious studies (Stephen Prothero, Eboo Patel, Oliver Thomas, Tom Krattenmaker among many others) contribute their thoughts on the current issues involving religious diversity and the role of religion in our everyday lives. It’s a great way to start the week and get the kids involved in some very thought-provoking discussions. Another resource that we like to use, although not of great academic value, is Beliefnet (www.Beliefnet.com). The students can surf through this site and learn more about various faiths and also have some fun. There are jokes and funny bumper stickers relevant to specific faiths, articles about celebrities’ faiths, and lots of interesting quizzes; everything from the religiosity of The Simpsons to Belief-O-Matic, a survey that will match student beliefs with the beliefs of different spiritual paths. On a more academic note, the “Virtual Religion Index” (http://virtualreligion.net) from Rutgers University and “Religious Tolerance.org” (http://www.religioustolerance.org) are two very helpful sites.
I am enjoying my experience at Central High a great deal. The students are motivated and engaged and very enthusiastic about the course. One of the elements of the class that they all seem to enjoy are the field trips. I believe that it is imperative that the class get out and meet members of the various religious communities present in the metro area. We have visited the Jewish Community Center, the Millard Islamic Center and the Hindu Temple of Nebraska. When going on a field trip is not possible, we have guest speakers come in and present to the students. Guests have included Dr. Paul Williams from the Department of Philosophy and Religion at UNO, the Reverend Father Chris Margolitis from the Greater Omaha Greek Orthodox Church and Valdene Mintzmeyer from the Heartland Temple- Zen Center of Nebraska.
The mission of Project Interfaith (Project Interfaith grows understanding, respect and relationships among people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures) and the objective of the Introduction to World Religions fit hand in hand. We are both striving to alleviate the fear of the unknown “other” through education and appreciation. I have been enriched both personally and professionally through my relationship with Project Interfaith and can only hope that perhaps I have made some small contribution to promote the acceptance of, and respect for the religious diversity that is increasingly a part of our great American society.
Gary Groff is a long time Nebraskan who earned his B.S. in History at Westminster College (Mo.) in 1975 and his M.A. in Secondary Developmental Reading at the University of Northern Colorado in 1977. Gary’s areas of academic interest include the comparative study of the world’s religions and the study of the spiritual beliefs of America’s Founding Fathers.
Gary established a Title I Reading program in the Goodland (KS.) school district while teaching at Goodland Senior High School. In 1979, he moved to Bellevue, Nebraska and began a 30 year teaching career. During the last 12 years of that career, Gary developed and implemented a Comparative World Religions course for the Bellevue Public Schools. That course is now a permanent addition to the Social Studies curriculum at both Bellevue high schools. While teaching at Bellevue West, Gary also earned a graduate minor in religious studies at UNO. Upon retirement from BPS in May of 2009, Gary was hired as an adjunct instructor in the Religious Studies program at UNO. He currently serves as the department chair of the Social Studies department at Omaha Central High School where he has implemented the first World Religions course for Omaha Public Schools. In his “free” time, Gary enjoys following NU football (a season ticket holder since 1968!) reading, fishing and traveling with his wife, Paula. He also enjoys spending as much time as possible with his two grandchildren.