Religious Literacy: It’s Personal

“Dad,” I stuttered nervously. “I think I’m Buddhist.” My father looked confused. “What kind of Christianity is that?” he responded.

It was not easy to explain to my devout Catholic father why I felt drawn to another faith at the age of 16. I wasn’t hurt by the church, or bored at mass, or even trying to rebel…I simply found a practice and philosophy that made sense to me in a confusing, ever-changing world. Spending my junior year of high school studying in Tokyo, Japan, I delved into the study of Buddhist philosophy and the practice of compassion after a spiritual encounter at a Buddhist Temple. When I returned from Japan, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path became central to my high school life, and still, they guide me in the work I do as higher education professional.

The good news about my father is that through our discussions and his willingness to learn, he has grown to embrace my faith and recognizes how essential my practice is to my work and success. He even organized an interfaith leadership conference for high school students, which warmed my heart. I feel lucky to have an open-minded father, and through my experience with him, I know that religious literacy is essential for both our society to flourish as a whole, and for individuals to feel welcome and included, that their identity matters. My dad showed me that I mattered to him by committing to learn about my faith and how the core elements of Buddhism guide me in my work and relationships.

Last week, Northeastern University students were on Spring Break, and many students traveled on Alternative Spring Break trips around the country and the world to learn, serve, and get away from homework. As the Director of the Global Citizenship Project, housed in Northeastern’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service, I decided it would be great to offer students unable to leave Boston a chance to “get away” and gain some religious literacy. Over the course of four days, we bused, rode public transit, and walked to nine different religious and spiritual sites. We observed worship, met community leaders, and took in the beauty and particularity of each sacred place.

Traveling to different sacred spaces with students is always a wonderful experience for me. I see them challenged with the discomfort of entering a new place and their struggle to remain respectful but curious. I see their eyes light up when they learn something surprising about a tradition that is not their own but that connects with their own convictions. But the most exciting part of these experiences is seeing students realize that their differences are an asset, that engaging with differences help us understand our own beliefs better.

Increasing religious literacy certainly includes deepening our knowledge of other faiths’ practices and rituals. Part of cultivating diversity means knowing what food to serve, how to dress, or where to sit. Yet I see a higher level of religious literacy not in the knowledge that we grow, but in the openness of our minds that we develop. Just as my students are learning to make connections between traditions and acknowledge particularities, my own father learned to view other faiths as members of the same team committed to love and justice. I am deeply thankful he committed to developing this state of mind, and that we can play for the same team.


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