RALEIGH -- For the past two years, Caitlin Jones had driven by a Hindu temple near her home in Morrisville, N.C., multiple times a day. This week, for the first time, she stepped inside the temple.
There, she and 24 other Campbell Divinity School students observed Hindus worship and listened as Hindu leaders answered their questions as part of an intensive one-week, three-credit-hours course -- Practicum in World Religions -- taught by George Braswell, senior professor of world religions at Campbell University and founder and director of the World Religions and Global Cultures Center.
For the course, 25 divinity students have spent their Spring Break this week reading about world religions, sitting in a series of lectures and seminars, preparing a paper and a group presentation about one of five world religions, and visiting different houses of worship in the Triangle area. In addition to visiting the Hindu temple, students have also toured and spoken with leaders of a Buddhist temple, a Greek Orthodox church, a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque.
“It has been a phenomenal opportunity,” said Jones, a Master of Divinity student who’ll graduate in May. “It’s not very often in your life, especially as a Christian in America, to have the opportunity to go into other places of worships for other religions and to have an open dialogue with people of other faiths about what they believe and what they feel is their place in this culture.”
On Thursday, the World Religions and Global Cultures Center, which organized the Practicum in World Religions, also hosted a luncheon at Hayes Barton Baptist Church, in Raleigh, attended by more than 90 individuals -- including the 25 divinity students -- from about a dozen religious communities, such as the Islamic Association of Raleigh, the Temple Beth Or and the Hindu Society of North Carolina.
The luncheon gave students the opportunity to engage even further with people of different faiths and served as an appreciation for the religious communities who have welcomed the students into their places of worship during the past week and who have partnered with the World Religions and Global Cultures Center since its founding in 2007.
One of the Campbell Divinity students who attended the luncheon as part of the Practicum in World Religions was Judson “Jay” Cook. “Just the experience of meeting with someone and putting a personality to another religion makes it more difficult to pigeonhole them or think of them in terms of only black and white,” said Cook, a Master of Divinity student and an assistant campus ministry pastor at Starting Point Church in Raleigh and Apex. “And, on top of that, to learn what they actually believe helps us build relationships.”
Building relationships across faiths is what Braswell said he had in mind when he started the Practicum in World Religions course more than 30 years ago and introduced it at Campbell in 2007.
Braswell, a native of Emporia, Va., spent parts of the 1960s and 1970s living in Iran as a missionary teaching English and world religions to Muslim clergy at the University of Tehran and to students at Damavand College. After he returned to the U.S. and began teaching at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, he “saw how much the world was changing,” he said. “I thought the American landscaping was changing with pluralism.”
So he proposed to develop a new course on world religions at Southeastern. With the help of a grant to develop the course, he spent six months in Washington, D.C., meeting with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other faiths while preparing the curriculum. His vision was “to integrate the academy of excellent teaching and learning in a theological institution with the churches and the ecological environments of all our religious pluralistic communities around the nation at the time,” he said.
The result was the Practicum in World Religions. Beginning in 1980, and for the next 15 years, he took about 50 to 60 students each year with him to Washington, D.C., for nine days to visit different houses of worship and meet with leaders of different faiths.
One day in 1996, Braswell said, he woke up and realized he didn’t have to take the students to D.C. anymore. “There are world religions right here in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill,” he told himself. Since then, his students have visited with and met with leaders of various faiths in the Triangle area.
When he joined Campbell in 2007, Braswell founded the World Religions and Global Cultures Center, which now organizes the Practicum in World Religions. The center also operates numerous other practicums for students, as well as programs such as seminars on world religions for local churches and short courses for teaching certificates related to specific religions -- all designed to serve as a resource for church leaders and individuals who are interested in learning about world religions, understanding other faiths and building relationships across faiths.
“Students and ministries in churches need to be aware of what is going on, but so many churches are so secluded. We send missionaries out to India, Japan and the Middle East, and that’s good. But the Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims are coming here, too,” Braswell said. “People of different faiths are all around. They are building their religious communities. They are in our schools. They are our doctors, our nurses. We need to understand who they are, what they believe, how they relate to people.
“So, through the center and the practicum,” he added, “we are trying to prepare students to be sensitized to not only understand these people but to also be able to communicate our faith to them.”
That’s what Jones said she is taking away from her experience in the Practicum in World Religions this week. “It has been an eye-opening experience, and it’s opening up conversations for us,” she said. “I think being comfortable with other religions is important. That doesn’t mean you agree with or affirm certain beliefs, but having the kind of relationship where we can disagree and still be in community together and have relationships is a real asset to ministry.”
In their own words
Below is a look at what some of the Campbell Divinity School students and leaders of various faiths said Thursday during an appreciation luncheon about what they’ve learned from the Practicum in World Religions or from George Braswell, who began the course and who founded the World Religions and Global Cultures Center at Campbell University in 2007.
Elder Steve Bodhaine, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
“Even though we may have differences in doctrinal tenants and our faith traditions and cultures may be different, there are many common causes that bring us together in the spirit of unity. We can unite together in a wonderful community of service and help lift the poor and the needy and the infirm. It’s wonderful to unite and to build the moral character of our nation and to help young people develop. And the work that Dr. Braswell had done these many years is worthy of grand applause. We’re delighted to participate in these wonderful practicums. It shows what can be accomplished when men and women of faith lay aside differences and lay hold to that which is common.”
Caitlin Jones, Master of Divinity student who’ll graduate in May 2013
“I live very close to a Hindu Temple and I drive by it every day multiple times. The practicum allowed me to go inside and see how people come in and worship. I saw their devotion to their religion and their desire to have God speak into their lives and be an active part of their lives. That’s something I saw throughout the different religions -- that desire for God to be active in their lives. In a lot of those religions, I also noticed they spoke of their need to earn that. While I can appreciate that for them, I am so grateful as Christians that we have been given that as a gift. I think I took that for granted. This experience had made me appreciative of the fact that I can accept love and forgiveness and know there is a living God in my life.”
U. Selcuk Celimli ’97, vice president of Turkish American Divan Center who has worked with the World Religions and Global Cultures Center for four years
“I am impressed with Dr. Braswell. The [Turkish American Divan Center] that we have is trying to do the same thing that he is: We want to benefit the community and bring faith groups together. Our center is about building bridges between communities. He has a very honorable goal, and I hope we reach that goal. We can with everybody’s help. We can’t do it alone.”
Kimberly Whitted, Master of Divinity student and intern at the World Religions and Global Cultures Center
“You don’t have to go very far to meet someone from a different faith. What happened to help me really appreciate that is to listen to Dr. Braswell and his stories. . . . What caught my attention is that he called everybody ‘my friend.’ You really got the understanding that he has built these relationships -- and relationships are what it’s all about. You can’t reach anyone or share with anyone unless you have those relationships. . . . Just to see Dr. Braswell in action, you learn a lot -- the most important of which is that being genuine and being yourself is all you really need [to build relationships].”
The Rev. Mike Eddinger, pastor of Westwood Baptist Church in Cary
“I believe very strongly in what the World Religions and Global Cultures Center does, because I’ve seen it change me and open my eyes and broaden my horizons. And I see it happening in our local church. I know the educational opportunities that the center provides for our local congregations are making a difference. About 200 to 250 of the members in our church have been exposed through seminars, through open discussions and through the practicum experience. I’m also grateful for the places of worship [who have welcomed us and the students]. You open up your places of worships. You greet us with warmth and hospitality as we come into those places. And, above all, you listen to our questions and are willing to sit down and engage us in conversation -- all to our betterment and all to learn better about our neighbors. And that’s what we are -- we are local congregations trying to learn better about how to love our neighbors.”
Photo: George Braswell, senior professor of world religions at the Campbell Divinity School and founder of World Religions and Global Cultures Center
Article by Cherry Crayton, digital content coordinator