By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – Truth-telling and inclusion have been the rallying theme of religious educators in their week-long annual conference as the antidote to the escalating challenges of poverty, marginalization, mental health, and the pandemic.
How do you heal and become whole again was that soul-searching question at the recently concluded 2021 annual meeting of the Religious Education Association (REA) on July 5-9, 2021. Religious educators, researchers, and students worldwide have stepped up on its responsibility to enlighten and encourage the youth to tell their truths and be part in solving the increasingly complex social and personal problems in the world.
Unbound by time and space, about 80 professors, religious practitioners, researchers, and students virtually gathered through Run the World technology, to share and reflect on their works with the theme: “Gender, Sexuality, and Wholeness: Religious Education for Confrontation and Healing.”
Towards Inclusivity and Wholeness
REA Program chair and president-elect Rev. Dr. Boyung Lee welcomed the participants who were scattered in six continents with the message of inclusivity and truth-telling as a way to healing and wholeness. In her welcome speech, she honored Denver, the place where she is currently staying as the land of Cheyenne and Ute peoples and the Chinese railroad workers who sacrificed to create the strength of what is now the USA.
Lee, the senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said that in order to heal and be whole again, humanity needs to acknowledge one another and their ancestors to be able to build the world together.
She emphasized that religious educators need to include everyone and must bravely confront systemic racism and the discrimination in order to sustain the healing processes of society.
REA is more than a hundred years old, founded in 1903 by William Rainey Harper, the first President of the University of Chicago. It has a diverse membership from the Baha’i, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and other traditions involved in all aspects of religious education.
It is the biggest organization of religious educators worldwide, leading in research into moral and religious development through conferences, workshops, and in-depth studies.
Dr. Jack Seymour of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, concurred with Dr. Lee’s call for REA to be the lead organization to promote inclusivity and justice.
At the plenary on the ‘Future of Research in Religious Education,’ Seymour noted that the great challenge for REA as a leader that would foster “an inclusive, expansive and a humanity that wants to build the world together” is the very landscape of education in the US itself.
In the southern states, for instance, he cited that 70 percent of education is either private or parochial, thereby creating a culture of isolation and exclusivity. That Seymour said, is a huge challenge.
Dr. Hosffman Ospino meanwhile expressed hope at the emergence of new voices, especially young immigrants in the US who are championing inclusion and diversity.
He said that REA has shifted the conversations towards the pressing concerns of the world and the US. Ospino is an associate professor of Theology and Religious Education at the Boston College of Theology and Ministry.
“I love to hear from the young people who are providing fresh insights and ideas into our society that would affect our scholarly work and scholarships.”
Truth-telling in the classroom: Digital Narratives of Faith
With the emergence of digital technology, truth-telling through digital stories in the classroom has become an effective method of learning and teaching Religious Education. It has also become a teacher’s way to spark the waning interest of students on religion as a course or subject.
Dr. Charles Chesnavage shared his experience of digital storytelling as narratives of faith among his students at the Mercy College and Unification Theological Seminary in New York City.
Chesnavage’s presentation at the panel ‘Catholic Community of Practice’ on July 5, 2021 was titled ‘Digital Stories as a Creative Assignment for Studying World Religions.’
In his classes last semester, Chesnavage asked his undergraduate and advanced studies students to produce a personal and experiential video of their stories of faith. Like a film festival of sorts, he awarded those works that excelled in clarity of message and technological artistry.
“As life happens around us, the students definitely capture (reflection and learning) aspects into their lives. Religious themes are expressed implicitly more than explicitly. They choose their role models mainly from their families and not really world leaders,” said Chesnavage.
The value of digital stories as a method of teaching and as a way to invoke and stir the interest of students toward Religious Education could not be underestimated.
“What is personal and experiential is universal, and what is universal is personal. The digital stories provide a multicultural, interreligious worldview dimension and a personal dimension,” said Chesnavage.
Citing the scholarly work of Bloom and Lambert, Chesnavage said that “artistic assignments are the highest level of learning and the relationship of the art and the brain promotes mental health, healing and activities that de-stress the mind, body and soul.”
Chesnavage provided themes for his students to choose in developing their digital stories such as birth, experiences in life and death, sickness and suffering, and holidays.
For his next year’s presentation, Chesnavage said that artistic creations such as poetry and visual arts would be featured. “Artistic creations are very popular among students,” he enthused.
Dr. Mary Hess, professor of Educational Leadership at the Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN and a key facilitator at the REA conferences, uses digital storytelling to give “voice” to her women students on intersectional and personal issues on women’s rights, gender, and racism.
In her published study on ‘Digital Storytelling: Empowering Feminist and Womanist Faith Formation among Women,’ Hess noted that digital storytelling gives students the opportunity “to learn how to use technology to make their own voice heard and the potential to use knowledge and experience, a potential way to foster agency.”
Renewing the Call for Justice
Issues on systemic racism and marginalization of races in the US call for a renewed action towards justice. For Dr. Carl Procario-Foley from the Iona College in New Rochelle, NY, a ‘constitutive action for justice’ compels religious educators to actively take part in the current justice movement.
At the session on “Renewing the Call for Justice,” Foley’s presentation titled “Justice in the World at 50: A call to action worthy of recovery looks back at the year 1971 where hunger and extreme social conditions prevailed that prompted the Synod of Bishops an active call to action.
The challenges in 2021, he said, are both similar and different, and yet require the renewed call for justice and also a personal reflection. Systemic injustice, for instance, continues to exist and must be confronted.
Quoting from the Synod of Bishops 1971 document, Foley said that action on behalf of justice is a “constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel,” with the operant word: action.
“If we call for justice, it also means you have to be just yourself. I believe we have to have a combination of activism and contemplation in acting against systemic racism,” he said.
Foley said that the current document “Open Wide our Hearts” by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops as lacking in boldness and for its failure to include the Black Lives Matter movement, white supremacy, and chattel slavery as contemporary challenges.
“To be able to confront it and heal it, we have to say it as it is. Systemic racism. White supremacy, and so on.” Foley explained that these structures marginalize people and do not provide them the opportunity to develop their fullest potential.
He noted that it was mainly fear among those in the religious academy that have caused for the watered down or silencing of voices against injustice.
Foley encouraged religious educators to open up conversations, truth-telling sessions, and forums that would articulate these issues as “activist approaches.” He added that contemplative approaches need to go hand in hand with activism. These include examination of conscience, intellectual humility, and changing lifestyles.#