Religious Studies extends beyond classroom

What is one of Richmond’s best-kept secrets? Cliff Edwards, associate professor of religious studies identified religious diversity as one because many people seem unaware of the city’s religious diversity.

But Virginia Commonwealth University’s Religious Studies Program intends to change that, he said, by challenging students to see today’s world from a different perspective – first by understanding its religions – all right here in Richmond.

“I tell people it’s the best kept secret in Richmond,” Edwards said. “Most people have no idea that they can find five or six Buddhist congregations in Richmond, three or four Muslim sectors or (that) they can find a huge Hindu sector.”

Unknown to many people, he said, a growing number of Sikhs also exist in the city.

Mark Wood, coordinator of religious studies in the School of World Studies, emphasized VCU’s religious program’s role in engaging students with humanity.

“If you want to understand what a human being is, (then) essential to that is the study of religion,” he said. “To not study religion is to fail to appreciate human beings.”

The religious program offers courses in a wide range of religions and religious topics and encourages faculty, students and others to think outside the box, Wood said, noting that’s a phrase he uses reluctantly, referring to it as banal. Yet, he said, that phrase fits the program’s mission.

For students who learn one version of Christianity growing up, Wood said, studying about other religions can have very powerful and liberating consequences.

Maggie Ray, a junior studying religion and psychology, said the religious courses have strengthened her beliefs and helped her grow.

“It challenged my faith a lot,” said Ray, president of Chi Alpha, a student Christian organization. “It made me question a lot of things.”

Like Ray, who is one of 12 students majoring in religious studies this semester – the largest number in the program’s history – the others are endeavoring to think outside the box.

Danny Mathews, an adjunct professor of religious studies, said thinking outside the box involves dispelling stereotypes associated with various religions.

“Most of our impressions of the various religions we see and encounter are based on our prejudices that (are) rarely based on facts and actual interactions with members of the religions,” he said.

Mellisa Jenkins, a criminal justice major, said she became more interested in studying other religions after completing a course in Western religions.

After finishing the course, Jenkins changed her minor from business to religious studies – a move she said will help her reach her goal of working for the FBI:

“I want to be an investigative computer analyst-and they do a lot of research. Understanding religion helps more with research.”

On the other hand, Jenkins said the School of World Studies should offer several concentrations in specific religions as majors instead of only one as it now does.

Edwards said the program allows students to customize their majors and independent studies.

“We’re very student-centered. We work intensively with students and their interests,” he said. “Religious studies has 20 independent studies going each year…where we set up an individual research project for each of those students and meet with them individually each week.

“Students are able to tailor their religious studies major to a religion or religious studies topic of their choice. The assumption is that everyone will get some course that shows the variety of religions.”

Moreover, the program’s courses typically extend beyond the boundaries of classroom walls.

Wood described religious courses as providing a “space for students to wonder,” because these give students an opportunity to have their minds stimulated so their reflective and creative abilities are drawn on and supported.

For instance, Edwards teaches a course titled “Religious Diversity in Richmond” in which students visit with religious groups in the city, meet group members, document their history, including how they arrived in Richmond and their goals.

The outcome, Edwards said, will be a comprehensive Web site displaying Richmond’s rich religious culture to others.

“All the world’s religions are here in Richmond now, and so understanding one another is crucial to the future of Richmond,” he said.

Similar to Edwards, Mathews, the adjunct professor, takes advantage of the city’s religious climate when designing his courses.

“I consider Richmond as a large classroom,” he said, explaining that he often takes his courses out of the classroom and into the community.

“I usually arrange for a field trip or two each semester, invite representatives from local religious communities as guest speakers and require students to visit local places of worship,” he said.

To Matthews, VCU’s community represents a microcosm of the world’s religions.

“You can’t walk a block in VCU without seeing a place of religion in Richmond,” he said. “The Cathedral of (the) Sacred Heart is located in the middle of the campus. The Landmark Theater, formerly called The Mosque, reflects Islamic architecture. Next to that is an Episcopal church.”

These places of worship, he said, serve as daily reminders to students that religion remains an integral aspect of society.

Jenkins, a religious studies minor, said the cultural mix of VCU students is just one reason to study religion.

“The campus is so diverse,” she said. “I think it’s good to have diverse religions taught on campus. It makes us open-minded about other religions.”

The program uses the term globalization to define the melding of people from all types of backgrounds in Richmond. Globalization, Wood said, adds relevancy to the study of religions.

“Given the diversity of students on campus,” he said, “no matter what background you come from, and increasingly through family relations, you will be side-by-side with someone of a different background.”

Wood said he has noticed that young people are developing a curiosity about the world and other people’s lives.

“What I’ve noticed in the past years is the general interest in spirituality,” he said, adding that he has also noticed a genuine interest in the study of Islam following Sept. 11. Still, Edwards said that while Sept. 11 may have served as a catalyst to religious awareness, it was not wholly responsible for getting students interested in world religions.

“I think they will be interested in religion apart from 9/11,” he said, “because human spirituality has become a big thing among everyone from teenagers to old adults.”

Ray, a religious studies student, said she too observed an increase in the number of people seeking answers and engaging in dialogue in the wake of the terror attacks.

“There was a lot more conversation about (divine purpose) – just asking questions about ‘Why?'” she said. “To be asking questions is what we need to be doing. It’s not all about accepting blindly.”

In the Religious Studies Program’s early years, Edwards said, only five students a year graduated as religious studies majors. Thirty years ago, the university did not even offer such a program.

That all changed when Edwards joined the university’s faculty in 1975, after he suggested the program to the dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences and organized a few scattered religious courses into a program that will graduate more than 100 students next semester.

“Our only limitation is the number of students we can get into classes and number we have professors for,” said Edwards, who also implemented a religious studies curriculum at Randolph-Macon College in the early ’70s.

Although VCU does not offer a religious studies graduate program, Edwards said several of his former students majored in and obtained graduate degrees in schools throughout the world. A study now being conducted will determine whether the School of World Studies will offer a graduate program in religious studies.

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