07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Religion in the Public Schools: A Story about Civics in the Bronx and Queens

Why should students at a predominantly Latino public High School in the South Bronx learn about religion? And what happens when fifty of these students take a field trip to visit Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in Queens? As it turns out, the result is a mixture of controlled chaos, curiosity, and civic engagement.

Joshua Adland is just now finishing his first year teaching Global History at Explorations Academy, a small 350-student high school on Boston Road in the Bronx. As part of the New York State curriculum in his subject, Adland is required to give an overview of belief systems in the world, and at the end of the course, there is often at least one question on New York's Global History Regents Exam that relates to religion. Though public schools are required to be a secular space in America, how one defines secularism has been a work in progress from this nation's beginning. As any student of history knows, religion has played a central role in shaping world events. Thus, to study the culture and history of the world, one must take a look at religion, however non-religiously it is done. Adland teaches his small belief systems unit in the larger Global History course, and "students like it." he says. "They find it interesting." Why? "They hear about their religion, but don't know about others. They are basically all Christians, from different backgrounds, so they can relate."

After providing some of the basics, Adland decided that his general explanations were not enough--or rather, they were too academic. In the world's most religiously diverse city, his students should actually have the opportunity to meet people from other faiths and see where they congregate. Through a little help from Ralf Timarchi, the Interfaith Center of New York's education coordinator, he developed a field trip to a meet Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists--all a subway ride away in Queens. Sikhs? They would have to wait for another day. The Interfaith Center--a non-profit that has for twelve years frequently taught about religion by using the city itself as a classroom--often collaborates with judges, social workers, and school teachers, who have a desire to understand the diversity of the populations they serve.

And so, on a sunny Thursday morning a few weeks ago, the students arrived at school enthusiastically awaiting their field trip. Gathering in front of the school, Adland and his fellow teachers, all in their early twenties and addressing one another by last name, split up the group and reiterated guidelines for the day. Then they began the difficult task of steering their group through the subways. On the #7 train which crosses Queens above ground, many peered out as if glimpsing a foreign country, having rarely, if ever, left the Bronx. Had they met Hindus or Muslims before? It seemed they had not, though they liked the idea.

Teaching about religion is part of Adland's job, but perhaps there is something more to it. "I'm from Kentucky and I'm Jewish," he explained. "I know what it means to be different, and why it's important for people to know something about those who are different." For Adland and many of us who teach about religion in secular contexts, it seems that education about religion is not a religious activity, but instead a critical way for different groups to learn about each other, while acknowledging their own identity.

Rev. Alfonso Wyatt, vice president of the Fund for the City of New York, and a former school teacher added another context. "When I was growing up in Queens, there was only English in my high school. But when I went back for a visit, there were over a hundred languages, and who knows how many religions. Students and yes, teachers, need to know something about this."

"I know my religion isn't the only one," Caitlyn, one of Adland's students, said while on the train. "I like Muslims and Jews, they pray a lot." Adland said that the students were interested in the five pillars of Islam, but found some concepts, like reincarnation, a little baffling. One student, the son of a Pentecostal minister, was eager to debate other faiths. "I'll show them why they're wrong," he said, as others playfully rolled their eyes behind him.

The group got off in downtown Flushing, a bustling Chinatown, and went to a Hindu Mandir, a Pakistani based Mosque, and then a Chinese Buddhist temple. At the Hindu temple, several didn't want to take their shoes off, but once they did, and came inside, they were silent, watching a white bearded priest chant and wash the god Ganesha with milk. When it came time for questions, people asked why so many gods existed in this religion, to which their host replied, "Because God comes in many forms for many different people." Students also asked why no shoes were allowed in the Mandir, and they were told it was, "to show respect."

At the mosque, girls put on headscarves and took pictures of one another. Some put their sweatshirt hoods on, which the Imam said would suffice. The Imam went on to explain that Muslims washed before they prayed, that they believed in Jesus, but saw him as a profit not God, and that they respected women, but thought men and women were better separated during prayer.

At the Buddhist temple students knelt in the Chinese style pews as a guide answered questions about Chinese calligraphy, and Timarchi told the story of the Buddha. Then they ate lunch: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because, the guide explained, as Buddhists do not believe in killing animals.

In a class discussion the next day, Adland said the students enjoyed the trip. "It was important for them. An epic journey," he said. The Hindu temple was "pretty mind blowing." The Buddhist temple "was really nice. Kneeling, for them, was cool." Students said it was "interesting and weird and good to connect to others." Most, he said, found the rules such as covering heads, taking off shoes, not eating meat funny, and yet also an important way to respect the space of their hosts. "This came up again and again," Adland said. "Respect, meaning respecting others." Encountering religious difference, then, became an important way to learn, and learn respect.

The idea of interfaith interaction is often thought of as an intellectual enterprise or spiritual exploration, and the interest in interfaith programming is still something experienced more often by those on the high end of the economic and educational ladder. Yet here in the Bronx a high school class -where a high percentage of students live in households on public assistance, and where not all will go to college--had an important experience about American civic life through an interfaith lens.

A public school seems an ideal location for just such an experiment: a place where children learn basic educational skills that prepare them for the workforce, but also civic skills, which imply understanding and working with those that are different from ones own family--thus preparing them to be, for lack of a better term, good citizens. What can be more important than that?