Lubbock campus offers course on world religions

LUBBOCK - At a school like Wayland Baptist University, few are surprised to see a Christian world view worked into the academic experience. But many may be surprised to know that Islam, Buddhism and other religions have a presence too.

In Dr. Jay Givens' World Religions class, offered through the Division of Religion and Philosophy at Wayland's campus in Lubbock, they're front and center.

"I told the students that I wanted them to have a basic understanding of the major world religions. In the 21 st century, it'll be crucial to know about these things," said Givens, assistant professor of religion at the Lubbock campus. "I also wanted them to find ways to share a witness to people in other religions, a way that is genuine and not canned."

Givens said the course, which is offered as a religion and philosophy elective, was not specifically required of any of the students. Although most were religion majors, both undergraduate and graduate, some were not religion majors at all. The students enrolled came from a variety of religious backgrounds and beliefs as well.

The course covered the major world religions, Givens said, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as some smaller groups like Baha'i, Jainism and some Native American religions. The class also covered a few forms of Christianity that are less familiar in the Western world, including the Mar Thoma church and the Coptic Orthodox church. Students learned about the groups' basic belief systems and practices during class lectures and discussions.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the class was the field trips. Givens planned visits to four congregations in Lubbock, requiring students to attend only one and offering extra credit for attendance at other trips. Several students attended two or even three worship services as a group.

"When you study religion in a textbook, what you get is often dry, and many times you only get what the thinkers of the religion have said. You don't get what the average person thinks and what the practice is like," Givens explained. "The field trips allowed us to see the religion being practiced."

The field trips involved visits to Emanuel Mar Thoma Church, St. George Coptic Orthodox Church, Congregation Shaareth Israel (a Jewish synagogue) and the Islamic Center of the South Plains. On each trip, students would attend a worship service then ask questions of the clergy or laity from the congregations. Student David Miller, a priest in the Orthodox Church of Canada, was asked to participate in the service at Emanuel Mar Thoma Church since his church and the Mar Thoma church are in fellowship. The Mar Thoma church, Givens explained, is a Christian church originating in India, allegedly founded by the Apostle [j1]   Thomas, which consists of a unique blend of Indian culture, Syrian Orthodox liturgy and Anglican missionary fervor.

The Coptic Orthodox church, a Christian church from Egypt, meets once a month in the local Greek Orthodox building, when a priest from out of town visits. The rest of the month, Givens said the members meet in a home for Sunday School. After the service, Wayland students were invited to share in the community's fellowship meal, where questions were raised from both sides.

At the Jewish synagogue, the group visited with Dr. Anne Epstein, a local physician and a Torah reader at the congregation, who gave a tour of the facility after the service. The Muslim imam (religious leader), Mohamed El-Moctar, answered questions of the group for more than an hour after Friday prayers before asking questions of his own for a book he is writing.

Guest speakers from the Baha'i and Buddhist traditions also visited the Wayland classes to add another dimension.

"I think the students were able to find out that these folks are real people with the same concerns they have and they can talk to them and share their beliefs," Givens said, looking back over the class.

Gloria Wellington agrees. A graduate student at WBU-Lubbock who is working toward a Master of Divinity degree under the new partnership with Logsdon Seminary, Wellington said the class opened her eyes and her mind.

"I learned that every religion has things in it - practices and teachings - that are good and can help you to grow as a person," said Wellington, who was raised Southern Baptist and attends City View Christian Fellowship. "In my thinking, if you don't have Jesus Christ you're missing the best thing, and I still believe that. But the class helped me to be more sensitive to people that are not of the same faith that I am and be more open-minded. I never knew enough about other religions to talk about them, and now I feel more comfortable with it."

Wellington found a few surprises on the field trips she attended, including a feeling of kinship at the Coptic Orthodox service.

"I was pleasantly surprised at how much they revere and love the Lord. The entire service was like a reenactment of worship during Old Testament times. It was awesome for me," she said. "This was a great experience for me and one of the best classes I've taken."

Miller, who graduates in January [j2]   with his Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education degree in religion, said he took the class in order to learn more about other religions, especially in knowing how to witness to them when he eventually becomes a chaplain, perhaps in the U.S. Army.

"We as Christians don't know enough about other religions. It's hard to witness to people when you don't know anything about their religion," Miller said. "The synagogue field trip was very interesting, to see the link we have with Judaism. The mosque was very interesting as well, and the people were very different from what you expect, based on what you hear in the media. I wish we could expose more Christians to that kind of experience and moderate some of the discord that's going on."

Miller attended three field trips and said he found the Coptic Orthodox experience and the guest speaker on Tibetan Buddhism [j3]   most useful.