by Paula Drewek
What begins a journey…particularly an interfaith journey? Well, I suppose it starts with doing something new, expanding your world in some way. For many of us, that often starts with college. I was plunged into a different world when I went to Stephens College in Columbia, MO. I came from Kokomo, Indiana, a largely Protestant, average American middle class community and Stephens offered a new and rather sophisticated world of girls from all over the U.S. In Kokomo I had two Jewish family friends, but no Catholic friends, and certainly no Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims or Buddhists.
But, as a Baha’i youth I was used to being in the minority, and, since Baha’is accept the spiritual foundations of all religions, I had reasons for learning about them. My college roommate for my first two years was Catholic. Boy did I learn Catholicism: Head covered when she went to mass, couldn’t go to services of other faiths, had to attend church every week, and there were books she wasn’t supposed to read. It seemed to me like a lot of “no’s.” But she was a devout Catholic so I accepted her differences and learned how Catholicism had shaped her life. (You know college roommates share just about everything). And she fasted with me when I started observing the Baha’i month of fasting. For that I was very grateful!
Stephens had a very active religious life program. It had previously been a Baptist college, so the religious roots went way back. I became very engaged with this program, singing in the Sunday choir, attending the 3x’s weekly religious services: Thursday night Vespers; Sunday night Evening Prayer; and Sunday morning services (interdenominational of course) and the “coffee conversations” afterwards. Back then “interdenominational” meant various shades and types of Christianity.
By my second year, I was president of the Burrall Cabinet, the campus religious life program. All of us were inspired by the guidance of Dean and Mrs. Hall and the fabulous campus speakers we had for Sunday services. I very much remember the eminent religious scholar Houston Smith sitting in the Dean’s living room, and engaging him personally when he shared some of his experiences of participating in research on the then new drug LSD. I loved my experiences at Stephens and the importance of religion was deeply engrained from that point forward. I was a Baha’i, but learned to associate and collaborate with other faiths from my experience at Stephens, and I learned about religion in general.
When I went to U.C. Berkeley, I widened my associations further by being the Baha’i representative on their Interfaith Council. My memories of what that experience contributed to my growing comfort and interest in interfaith are not entirely clear because that was the same year I met my future husband. We were married the following summer.
My next year of college was at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. There I had the chance to take a class in Comparative Religions…..using Houston Smith’s book, Religions of Man, of course. We all wondered what was the religion of our teacher; but he kept us guessing all term. I finally found out he was a Methodist. In Hawaii I encountered Buddhism since there was a large Oriental community. I later read Randall Furushima’s unpublished dissertation on his cross-cultural research project in Hawaii among Buddhists.
Interfaith engagement lay fallow for several years as I finished my master’s, took on a job and began having children. Being a wife and mother plus having a career is pretty-much full-time all the time.
Fast forward to 1972. Irving Panush, the liberal arts dean at Macomb Community College, wanted to start a class in Comparative Religions. None of the philosophy professors wanted it (I think they were mostly atheists), but I thought it would be interesting. My philosophy major and 1 class in world religions at U. Hawaii got me started. I used a lot of guest speakers that first couple years: Rabbi Rosenbaum, Rev. Moody Yap, and Mrs. Tagore, a librarian at Oakland University, and others. From them I learned how to think as a follower of the religions I was teaching….what the experience of being a practitioner of a given faith felt like. And I always tried to teach each faith as a follower would present it, not as a skeptic. There were plenty of religious skeptics; I would leave that tack to them.
I learned to love all the religions I taught and could see the strengths and some weaknesses of each through the comparative framework. I was particularly attracted to the Native American teachings and credit early contact with Native American elder and activist Thurman Baer and a Midiwiwin elder named David Smith with giving me valuable insights into these traditions. I learned to understand even more through my experience at pow-wows in Michigan and Ontario. It was clear to me that without the experience of other faith traditions, learning would be only superficial. One could learn the ideas of other faiths, but not what it felt like to be part of their communities. So experiencing the religions I taught became part of my courses in comparative religion and, later, Asian Religions. I changed the places we visited every few years. The result of nearly 40 years of visiting various religious communities in the Detroit Metro area is that I am comfortable being in and love the many religious traditions that call Detroit home.
A thirst for difference and diversity (which is actually central to my Baha’i Faith) grew from these early experiences teaching and visiting all kinds of religious communities with my students. I suppose the lack of training in the Asian religions and the paucity of their communities here during the 70’s and 80’s (except for the Hare Krishnas) contributed to my desire to seize the opportunity of a research fellowship offered by CASID (Center for advanced Study in International Development) at MSU in 1986. My colleague Susan Calkins and I became CASID fellows and spent lots of time on the East Lansing campus learning about international development and crafting our own particular projects. Mine was to develop a bibliography to teach Eastern religions which I completed by the end of that summer.
Naturally, this was followed by developing a course in Asian Religions and Culture for Macomb Community College that year. It was accepted and I began delving more deeply into traditions very foreign to my personal background (Hawaii excepted).
The late 80’s saw increasing interest in the Far East owing to America’s involvement in the Viet Nam War. Culturally, we were confronted with our own ignorance of the Eastern Cultures, so it was satisfying to me to develop an understanding of the traditions of India, China and Japan. Granted, that’s not Vietnam, but the Theravada Buddhist Tradition came later in my education. But I was ready to visit those cultures and learn first-hand how their religions functioned and how people worshiped.
Travel to the East became the next part of my journey to embrace difference. I left for India in 1993 to do cross-cultural interviews for my Ph.D. dissertation. I had taken classes in sociology and psychology of religion at the University of Ottawa which helped prepare me for this adventure and to do a research design focused on cross-cultural comparison.
The Hinduism I learned from books and from many visits to the Hare Krishna Temple in Detroit was only a very small piece of the pie. I planned my first month in India as a guide at the Baha’i House of Worship in New Delhi. This gave me connections, support and an overview of India. Little did I know that the religions of the world would pass through this house of worship (as many as 50,000 a day) and my colleagues would come from places as far away as Russia, Australia, and South Africa. I could not have wished for a better cross-cultural experience! Through my interviews I learned of the personal experiences of Baha’is who came from Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Zoroastrian traditions. And with many visits to temples, mosques, and shrines, and service at a women’s development institute focusing on rural, village women, I had a lot to temper my book-learnin’. My immersion in Indian life left me with a desire to revisit many times to nurture connections, add to my knowledge and offer my service to many educational institutions within India.
A colleague offered me the chance to visit Japan with her and reconnect with her “Japanese son,” as she called her former exchange student, and his family during the 1990’s where our visits to Buddhist and Shinto shrines (always with my movie camera) added personal experience of those religions. I remember singing the popular tune, “S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous” as I filmed the Great Buddha of Kamakura. Oh, and we got to try the Japanese bath as well.
My chance for immersion in China came with a Fulbright scholarship with Midwest Institute for International Education in 2005, the year I retired from teaching. I embarked on a month of travel and visit in China with a group of colleagues from many community colleges in the Midwest. We focused on their educational system, but had a rich cultural and religious experience as well. Once again, our special projects were fueled by the many experiences we shared and the wonderful people we met. Mine was on Kuan Yin, Chinese Savioress.
In order to truly appreciate, and to begin understanding, and loving the religious traditions of others, I think one needs both book learning about and direct experience of them. And the experience has to include making friends with persons of other faiths. Each one offers a different perspective. I’m grateful to have that experience now, particularly as a Baha’i respondent on the TV show Interfaith Odyssey since 2001. We panelists feel like family. We’ve known and shared for so many years that we now treasure the differences in our perspectives as much as the commonalities.
This and my many other experiences with Detroit’s rich interfaith community, and its many “fellows,” keeps alive my love of interfaith, of other faiths, and of the respect and love we share for one another. We can’t be all alike and I appreciate the differences God has bestowed on this great human community. WISDOM, the women’s interfaith group I was invited to join in 2006 is my special favorite—a group of women of different faith backgrounds sharing sisterhood and the goals of education and service to the community. And now I have the opportunity to spend some time in Russia, a country steeped in the Orthodox Christian tradition with its gorgeous churches, icons and folk crafts. The journey is never over!