Monday, April 6, 2009

The Eye of the Beholder

Our Back Yard

About a year and a half ago, we moved from within the beltway around Washington, DC, to rural central Pennsylvania. Most of our neighbors here are Amish or Mennonite. We don't interact with the neighbors much, not because we haven't tried, but they go to different schools and their lives revolve around a different church so we just don't come in contact with one another much. Our nearest neighbor is about a quarter mile down our driveway.

The public school where our children are attending is about a 3 mile bus ride from our home. Our first real shock coming to this area was that the public school asked us to sign a release form so that our 4th grader could be sent for his 'religious education' at the Lutheran church during the middle of the school day once a week. The alternative to sending him to church was to let him sit in a classroom by himself for an hour. I had to meditate on this situation for a day.

In the community where we lived before, this practice could not have been tolerated. There were people from all over the world with many different religions going to the public schools. In fact, when I told my friend in Silver Spring, Maryland, about the practice of sending the kids for a religious education during school hours, she said that it was completely against the law and that she as a member of the ACLU would call someone for me right away. I asked her not to.

Of course we are outsiders here, and a fight is not how we had planned to spend our time in the countryside. If we were living in any other country for a year, I would relax and observe the customs and religions of that area without any difficulty. I would never tell them how they ought to live their lives. I have attended ceremonies and rituals of Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Jewish and other traditions. Somehow, although my husband and I are Christian (surprise to those of you who thought we were not), we found this particular proposition of a religious education in a Luthern church to be very threatening. I think that it was the real potential for my 4th grader to internalize religious doctrine that we hadn't been able to hear and consider first, and that we might not agree with. This disturbed us.

My experience with most religion is that it varies wildly depending on the particular culture of the area. There are enormous differences among Hindu and Buddhist sects and perhaps even more differences among Christian denominations such as Pentecostals, Baptists, Unitarians, Amish and Catholics. These Christian groups all trace their roots to the teachings of Christ, however, I have been in some churches that never mention Jesus Christ by name and others that have said you should not read the Bible for yourself lest ye be corrupted by the devil in your own mind.

Our solution was to submit a proposal that our son be released to me for that same hour once a week. When I went in to the school office, I could see that the principal was defensive and braced for trouble. He told me that 'release time' was all right because the children were being released to the church and the education was not happening on school property. He even said, "This is a very religious area." I chose not to argue about how demeaning a statement that was. Can you imagine a Buddhist who travels for years on pilgrimages, prostrating their body mile, after mile, after mile, with stones of prayers on their heads being considered not very religious? I think that the principal was relieved at our solution to have my son released to me, although he did say that I must submit a formal proposal to the school administrators of how I would spend my 4th grader's time, "Because, after all, it is the school day."

When I arrived at school to pick up my son, all of his classmates went in single file to the church looking back occasionally at my son and me as we went to the coffee shop, which was also the hair dresser's. My son said that it was a little embarrassing and that some of the kids were asking him about what we did together. The most difficult question to answer from my son was, "What are we?" What I told him is that we are 'Divinely Ecumenical.' We believe in everyone's right to practice their own religion so long as it is not hateful and does not harm others. We also believe strongly in the separation of religion and state.

Spending this time with my child was a luxury that I know most families could not have because most parents do not have a flexible work schedule, but I am very glad that we had that opportunity. I wish that same opportunity for every parent and child to explore their own beliefs and where they came from. Indeed our time together was a divine gift. We spent our time reading Gombrich's A Little History of the World which not only tells the history of the world, but it also gives a lovely introduction to every major religion as it comes up throughout history, from the Egyptian worship of Osiris and Isis to Islam. It was written in the early 20th century by a Jewish man living in pre-Nazi Germany. Mr. Gombrich was able to address each religion with great respect, pointing out the positive aspects of each. -A Wonderful read if you have the time.

At the coffee shop/hair dresser's, one of the beauticians came back to me one day and said, "We were talking about you the other day." That was not much of a surprise, considereing it was the only hairdresser's or coffee shop in a very small town and we were having our lessons in public. She continued, "We were wondering why it is that we are the only school in the area that sends our children to release time?" I didn't have an answer for her.

I am really not opposed to religious education. In fact, I think that it is necessary in order to make sense of the world. I only hope that it is well balanced and in historical context with a discussion of both the good and bad aspects of religions. However, "fair and balanced" is in the eye of the beholder.


  1. To think, the most "interesting" story comes from the "homeland" an American, I thought too "that's against the LAW", as a human I'm bewildered. Public school right? Hmmm. You are an excellent parent. I wish I could take your class with your son! Must look for that book!

  2. First i would like to say THAT is your backyard?? oh my, a definite drawback to living near the sea is close proximity neighbors. Oh, I love people, but I love wide open spaces.
    I think you did the best thing you could have done with your child, it's the imposed beliefs that i have trouble with too. I love what you are teaching him, It's why Life of Pi is one of my favorite books. Now, I'll go look up yours. It sounds perfect.
    x lori

  3. What a great post! Your son is lucky that you are so fair minded and thoughtful. I'm positive he benefitted from your decision. And it's always good to have hair stylists on your side, too.

    My friend who is a life-long pagan was freaked out when her son wanted to go to Catholic high school - up till then he had attended a very liberal private school in San Francisco.

    As it turns out, though, his Catholic education has been very enlightening. He was old enough when he went there not to internalize the dogma. It has been expansive for him, and he has been able to continue studying with people he has known all his life (most of his best friends went to the Catholic high school, too.)

    It is against the law (what they're doing where you are) and I think it is so gracious of you to realize that battling against it would not be in anybody's best interests. You rock. Bravo!

  4. I think an introduction to every major religion and possibly its historic context would form a very good basis for all children.
    You did the best you could do for your child, considering the situation you were in.

  5. What a wonderful story Butternut and you have my admiration for dealing with it as you did.

    Although Ireland has changed a lot since the dominance of one religion (Catholic) of my childhood, there are still places and occasions where children and parents have to deal with this sort of thing.

    By the way - what age is a 4th grader?

  6. Hi Tulsa, I want to be in your class too. I am forgetting all of my Japanese.

    Hi Lori Ann, keep visiting my son's site and you will see our front yard and side yards as well. Our ocean view is alphalpha. I love the Life of Pi too! I will have a book someday, when the publisher fairy dances on my doorstep.

    Hey Reya, the Rock to your Roll! You inspire in so many ways.

    Merci, Merisi

    Dear Siobhan, 4th grade is about 10 years old. Thanks for pointing that out for the international visitors. It is a big difference giving religious education to someone who is 10 vs. perhaps 15 years of age.

  7. I see your point. This would have been a very difficult position. I don't think I am very comfortable with class time being spent on religious training, simply because it is such a personal choice. You handled it very well.

  8. It would have been great if the students could have been sent to more than one place for learning about religious training. I remember at school we learned about different kinds of churches and although my school was attached to a chapel, I never felt that I was not free to choose my own path. I too have attended services and teachings in different places, Hindu & Sikh temples, a wide variety of churches and budhist monestry. I have heard from fellow students that in India some private school campus have a temple, a mosque and a church on the grounds so the students are free to go where they need to for religious purpose. But everyone treats each other & their beliefs with same respect..... I think that sounds wonderful :-)

  9. I praise you for your strength. Being
    "Divinely Ecumenical", seems so much more loving than dogmatic separation. Is it at all understood by the "authorities" that time spent with the mother doesn't need a seal of approval? How about doing art, or poetry?

  10. I suppose some religion is better than no religion, when it comes to schooling. We live in an ever increasingly secular world so maybe it would be good to embrace what is offered. When we grown older, we all make changes depending on how we find the world that we live in.
    Blessings, Star

  11. Wow, I did not know this was happening either.

    I would have done the same.

    Out here, everyone talks about where they go to church. In fact there seems to be more churches than people. And, although they all claim to be christian, I always ask: Why don't you go to so and sos church? And the reply is always the same, we don't think like they do.

    How bizarre is that, all christian and can't go to the same church.

    One story that is fascinating: There's a lady in town who had a small Tea shop. There was some talk a few years ago about gays in her christian church. She went to the Brethren church where everyone is accepted and people stopped going to her shop. She finally closed it, due to the bs people kept talking about.

    We had the same problem in our coffeehouse: The country club types pointing fingers at everyone but themselves, but that's another story ; (

  12. My first thought: how the puppy would love that field!

    Very perplexing for your son. On Long Island or in NYC your dilemma would be unheard of and wildly illegal.
    I taught at a school with children of many backgrounds and during the winter, unlike some districts, we had Santas AND menorahs and talked about winter solstice etc. on the principle that let's ALL celebrate.
    I think you are doing the right thing.
    Our children went to church and I even taught Sunday school - but that was our choice. Hm.....
    Happy Easter! from a very happy Church of England relic, love the hymns, psalms, language buildings, history etc. Have failed to make a 'leap of faith'.As you know spent 2 years in a Muslim country very happily and just back from visiting Hindu and Jain temples.
    I say that there are many paths but don't FORCE anyone down a particular one.

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  14. Very interesting Post!!

    I have lived and studied in a society where religious training is part of the education system from the first grade untill even in college. So much so in fact that I think you can call it the epithemy of religious training in schools. I am against it of course and I can never argue against the fact that teaching religion has its effects on people, particularly on young children.

    However, from my experience and what I have seen among family and friends, at the end of the day it all depends on how the parents treat their children. If they fail to provide a secure atmosphere at home, children tend to find security in some other community, which sometimes happen to be a religious cult, either encouraged by school authorities or friends (whoever provides more security).

    On the other hand, children who are raised in secure home environment tend to go after their parents, which does not always mean following the same religion as theirs, but rather their approach to the concept of religion in general.

    But here I have a question from you. What is your personal approach in teaching about your religion to your son. I mean, of course you prefer that he follows the same "church" as yours, but how strongly would you insist on raising him to? What would be your reaction if your sons comes to you one day and say he wants to follow something totally different, say buddhism, or no religion at all?

  15. Dear Citizen,


    I agree with you that parents providing a secure atmosphere at home has the greatest effect on a child's ability to establish a quality sense of self.

    In general, we go to church, we talk about what is in the bible with more emphasis on the new testament (about Jesus) than the old. We talk about the history of how certain texts came to be included in the bible and others did not, the politics of the church and how it developed, and about other religions. We give thanks to god every night before we go to bed.

    If my children learn only, 'treat others with the same compassion as you would treat yourself,' I am satisfied. I am not as worried about the particular religion that they may adopt in the future as long as it is not harmful to themselves or to others.
    I have great faith that they will make good choices for themselves.

    My own mother was agnostic. Her experience of her church was that it was a gossip factory, and not very kind. But she was never without a sense of God. She is the one who encouraged me to go with my friends to their services to see what religion I might like. I would be sad if my children chose not to believe in God at all, because I would think that they had missed the beauty and mystery of life altogether. It would be sad for me in the same way that I am sad for someone who is born without a sense of sight or hearing. However, I would be fine if my children did not want to belong to a specific religion.

    Although Christianity on the whole believes that there is only one way to heaven,through Jesus, we as a family do not believe that God made the world incomplete. He would not leave any child out of heaven merely because they were born in the 'wrong' place and had never heard of the bible before. In this respect, we just trust that God knows what he is doing and our job is only to love and help one another without judgement.


    *You are welcome to write to me at if you need more specific details.

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  17. very unusual. I assume you originally Muslim. soalnya views of language and said that your clothes wisely. Religion invites us have been more wise and discerning in the face all the problems.

    Religion always precede and humanitarian needs of people. But if religion may once restrain embraces. Justeru religious people who deliver more advanced and beradap.

    as in the religion of my anut. Islam provides a broad range of knowledge. even be in his various sources of knowledge. So conclusion, people can not be separated from religion. religion and vice versa can not be separated from life. that is a slave, a perfect people.

  18. Dear Butternut,

    Thank you very much for caring so much and giving me a more than thorough reply. I really appreciate it. And thank you for visiting my blog. :)

    I must add I was impressed by your reply as there are not so many people who think and act like you. I admire your approach. :)

  19. What a wonderful slice of life set in a pocket of strong religious beliefs. You go girl!

  20. I don't expect that my comment will be noticed, coming so late but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed your post.