A world of faith
Baker students create database of area's faith communities
Saturday, May 18, 2002
Baldwin - When you think of world religions, you don't naturally think about northeast Kansas.
But, in fact, they're well represented here.
That's what 80 students in a world religion course taught by Baker University professor George Wiley have learned in the past few months.
The students, who broke down into groups of three or four, scoured the region looking for communities of faith other than Christianity - such as Hindu and Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues, Baha'i groups and contemplative meditation centers.
The groups visited the sites, met the people there and observed their rituals. Students followed up their visits by writing brief profiles of each faith community they visited.
The assignment was inspired by Harvard University's Pluralism Project. The project, led by Diana Eck, a Harvard professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, is an effort to examine how the American religious landscape has diversified in the past 30 years.
The project has many affiliates, including a number of high schools and colleges across the country, who are providing snapshots of the religious diversity in their own regions. Wiley's students represent the only group from Kansas that is providing data for the Pluralism Project's Web site.
Wiley, who has served as Baker's Osborne Professor of Religion for the past 25 years, got the idea for taking part in the Pluralism Project while visiting Boston last fall during a sabbatical.
"I wanted to learn more about world religions. I discovered that Diana Eck's Web site included a directory of religious centers in Boston. I decided to spend a couple of weeks there and use that database to help me find mosques, temples and synagogues," Wiley said.
"I'm doing this in Boston, and I go by the Pluralism Project office at Harvard and say, 'This is so cool.' I was talking to a staff member there, and she said, 'Why don't you have your students back home produce a database like this (documenting world religions in northeast Kansas)?' It was like a revelation."
When Wiley returned to Baker, he enacted the idea with students in his spring semester World Religions course.
"Their job was to write up information about what each place is, a contact person, a history of the site, times of (religious) services, the demographics of the congregation," Wiley said.
Amanda Michel, 21, was one member of a group that visited the Hindu Temple & Cultural Center of Kansas City in Shawnee. Michel, who will be a senior this fall, is Catholic.
"My first impression (of the center) is that it was really different than anything I was used to. There was exorbitant amounts of incense and candles, and the (Hindu) priest chanted the liturgy in a totally different language. But everyone there was very welcoming and willing to answer any questions we had about the practices that were going on," she said.
"It was extremely valuable. If I wasn't at a liberal arts college, I wouldn't get that experience. I'm a business major, and (the visit) wouldn't have been something I would do for my major."
Many paths to God
The Baker University students found these religions in northeast Kansas: Buddism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Baha'i. No Chinese religions were recorded.
The research project documenting the world religions represented in northeast Kansas will be posted during the summer on Baker University's Web site, www.bakeru.edu.
Information from the Baker University student project will be added to the database being created by the Harvard University's Pluralism Project. Its Web site is www.fas.harvard.edu/~pluralism.
Jawad Niazi, 21, went with a group of four students who visited the Pure Mind Center for the Meditative Arts in Manhattan.
He met two members of a group that practices Zen meditation at the center, which is in a geodesic dome. Their tour guide, a woman who was introduced to them as Karma, made an impression on Niazi. The woman described herself as a Quaker who had studied Sufism — the mystical branch of Islam — and had found peace through silent meditation.
"Karma said a lot of faiths try and help a person deal with ego reduction, understanding that there is more (to reality) than just the self. I know it sounds like a simple statement, but that sort of put things in perspective for me," said Niazi, who is Muslim.
"We all look for something bigger than ourselves, something infinite. I'm just a student, but it was a really cool experience. We had a lot of fun."
Niazi, a Baker senior, is from Hutchinson.
Blake Glover, 20, was among a group of students who met with a few members of a Baha'i community in Topeka.
"It was really eye-opening. I've grown up in Baldwin, and I'd never even heard of Baha'i," said Glover, who will be a junior in the fall and is Methodist.
"Learning about the different religions and all the similarities ... there just isn't one superior religion. There are many different paths that you can choose to get to God. That's what I personally learned."
©Copyright 2002, The Lawrence Journal-World