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April 26, 2017

As chaplain at a secular school, I am often asked the question, “where do you find religion at your school?” I welcome this question because it gives me the opportunity to challenge societal assumptions that religion exists only in a pre-assigned sacred place such as a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, with designated people doing ritualized activities. Especially at a high school, I don’t find religion limited in these ways.

This past Sunday, I attended a student-led diversity summit workshop that looked at the potential for interfaith groups to speak to the environmental crisis we are facing today. As I participated in a substantive conversation led by two members of the Interfaith Student Council about how groups of people with differing worldviews can join together to agonize over our common predicament of global warming and climate change, I thought to myself, ‘this is where religion is at a secular school.’ Religion is in this inquiry to know about difficult issues that have, and will profoundly affect the wellbeing of humanity. Religion is in the process of becoming vulnerable to the pain that many around the world experience daily, and yet, religion is also in the process of daring to tackle these problems with a sense of hope that our lived realities can be different. Religion is in the idealism of these teenagers’ hearts and minds.

Of course, a quick retort might be that, in fact, what I have described is spirituality, not religion. Maybe… But religion is the human container for the vast spiritual mysteries that are experienced in communities. Religion is the historical memory of how those mysteries have been talked about in communities, and it is also the confession about how it has been abused for the power of some over others. Religion is often the way people live out their spiritualities, for good or for bad; religion is the imperfect human effort to actualize ideas, truths, and dreams. If students are bringing their lived realities, their families’ realities, their communities’ realities to the table to talk about the lack of water in Yemen, the increasing number of heat waves in California, and what all this means for a shared and peaceful future, then we are talking about religion, an embodied reality in the lives of these students.

I was proud of the two students who led the workshop I attended. They reminded us that religion permeates our learning; it is in our academic and emotional questions, our neighbors’ struggles, our common vision for a better tomorrow, and in our willingness to be a part of bringing that vision to life. A step beyond our assumptions allows us to see much religion today at our secular school founded by Protestant evangelist D.L.Moody.  

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