Taking Religious Education Out of the Classroom: Service Learning as an Effective Contextual Pedagogy

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 6, 2004-2005 - Pages 125-142

As one who has been called to teach within our faith community, I have a critical concern to create the means whereby my students can begin to grapple with meaning and sacredness while, at the same time, feel interdependent and interconnected with others—both those who are like us and those who are unlike us. The question comes down to how best to do that. What can I do as a religious educator to challenge my students to develop a “multidimensional hermeneutics through which both centers and margins can be challenged and trans­formed?” as Boyoung Lee asks. (Moore 2004, 295) How can I help religious education be more than the act of “transmitting a heritage” and become a process of “learning, living, and growing within a community which must relate to larger and larger communities until it encompasses the entire world”? (Thompson 1988, 19) Or, as Paolo Freire saw it, how can we as educators create the environment “by which people deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world”? (Brelsford 2001, 323) These questions have led me to consider what clues service learning holds for the field of religious education in general and for myself as a specific educator. In this regard, we will examine what is service learning and how it can pedagogically address the needs of religious education.


What is Service Learning?

Randolph Crump Miller once offered tremendous insight when he stated that the “clue” to religious education is theology and theological interpretation that enables us to interpret our experiences. Another clue to effective religious education is the experience itself—experiencing one’s own truth in relationship to other lived truths. As Cate Siejk understood it, the changes within today’s society require a new perspective of religious education. For Siejk, “An age characterized by confusion and the devaluing of orthodox Christianity” requires “a pedagogy that enables people to understand for themselves and to commit to the concrete living of Christian meaning and values.” (Siejk 1999, 155) Certainly religious education has looked more and more to experiential education as an arena of promising methodologies. At the same time, educational theory has informed our work as religious educators through such methodologies as role-play, dialogue, discussion, interactive learning, and case studies. But there is one methodology that is not well-utilized, it seems, in our field. This methodology is service learning.

At its heart, service learning is essentially experiential education par excellence. Students engaged in service learning programs are challenged to wrestle with their own perceptions, viewpoints, stereotypes, prejudices and attitudes through continual reflective activities, while working together on a service project that meets a real community need. The lessons learned and the objectives achieved will vary due to the context of the project and the particular issues being addressed through the program and the reflection sessions. Character development, interfaith religious education, ethnic conflict resolution, religious education as a process of liberation, the individual in community, gender roles, and personal growth and development are just a few of the issues for which service learning can be utilized for effective teaching and learning.

When people hear the term “service learning,” they often think of community service projects and volunteer programs. However, these are not the same as service learning programs. Nor is the learning in a simple community service project the same as what is gained in service learning. An act of service in and of itself is “good” and can be a powerful learning experience. However, if nothing more is done with the experience, it can, and often does, fade into the backwaters of the student’s memory, with the probable result of having learned little or nothing at all. Why? There is no anchoring action or component in the project that anchors the experience to a learning task. That is the limitation of straightforward “service projects” or “community service work.” These programs have no clear anchor or learning component. Consequently, any learning that takes place is contingent on the student’s experience of feeling good or feeling satisfied by the act of service. Because that feeling is not easily sustained, it fades into his or her memory as a “nice experience.”

Service learning is different, however, because there are two dynamics at work in a service-learning program. First is the service act itself. Through that selfless act, our attitudes, emotions, and feelings are gradually awakened and stimulated. We experience what Thomas Lickona calls “moral feeling.” (Lickona 1991) The service activity triggers moral feeling which in turn opens us up to begin to experience the holy. It also creates a fertile seedbed for a sense of humility that allows us to see and learn those things that we may have been too closed and set in our ways to see before. This then sets the stage for the second dynamic of service learning: reflection.

Reflection is the heart of service learning. It is the place where learning takes place in a service-learning program. Reflection is an intentional and guided activity that takes place before, during and after the service activity. It is where educators have the greatest opportunity to facilitate real growth and learning. As Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles point out, “Learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection, not simply through being able to recount what has been learned through reading and lecture.” (Eyler 1999, 7) Through the reflection periods, participants are encouraged and challenged to reflect on and evaluate their deepest held beliefs, address their personal perceptions and stereotypes, and generally question what they hold to be true. This is also where they connect theory to a lived experience. They do this personally, socially in relationship with the other participants in the project, and contextually. As the Vanderbilt Study on National Service indicated: “In practice it is critical reflection… that provides the transformative link between the action of serving and the ideas and understanding of learning.” (Winings 2002, 110)

This is why, in my opinion, service learning holds so much promise for sound religious education practice. The student’s reflections on his or her service experience become filled with the energy and spirit of the project. This generates an environment of love, humility and faith that Paolo Freire sees as being so important for true dialogue and understanding. (Fleischer 2000, 220) Yet, the learning goes way beyond just environment and feeling. It allows the student to experience what Ronald Cram calls a “mindful transcend­ence” and to “socially locate” him/herself within a particular community at a particular time and in a particular context. (Cram 2001, 167) In essence, reflection in service learning challenges and supports each person in confronting their own perceptions while trying to hear each other and understand each other’s perspective, maybe for the first time. It allows all participants to be in the kind of relationship that Katherine Turpin described in her analysis of a multicultural future:

To be in relationship across cultural boundaries requires wrestling with real differences about important issues, addressing differences of power and privilege, and struggling to hear one another when people speak in different languages and metaphors, and express diverse values and ways of being. (Moore 2004, 299)

Service learning also addresses the lack of connectedness that was the focus of Norma C. Everist’s article a few years ago. There is no better way to “meet the peoples of God in the many arenas of their daily, public lives, and help each other speak about beliefs in those terms” and to “become a multilingual learning community, meeting God in new ways” than through service learning. (Everist 2001, 309)

I would like to look more deeply at some of the key components of an effective service learning program and how they connect to the areas that have I outlined above. Then I will offer two active and diverse service-learning programs as a way of highlighting the need for religious educators to utilize this methodology in their coursework. A few testimonies will be included so that the richness of service learning can be experienced through the students’ eyes.


Elements of an Effective Service Learning Program

Project Site and Contexts

A standard service-learning program involves creating a project that meets a real and specific need in the community. Once the type of project is identified, it becomes a question of determining the student participants and then organizing them into smaller groups or teams. In creating the project, it is important to keep in mind that besides filling a felt need within that community, the project should be such that the partici­pants can see that they are making a contribution through their work. The care we take in selecting the project is important when considering that students will be “participating meaningfully and consciously and actively in the ongoing processes that shape their own present context,” as Freire would describe it. (Brelsford 2001, 311) The younger the participant, the more important it becomes that they be able to see some level of accomplishment by the time they finish their time on the project.

This may seem like a small point, but it is actually quite important. If the students are working on a project that seems like window-dressing or is simply a cosmetic change in the community, their disappointment will affect their experience and limit the overall learning that takes place.

For example, on one of the early service learning programs that I developed for mid-range teenagers, the project site was not well organized and the work assignments seemed trivial to the teens. And to some degree they were trivial. After arriving at the project site, we learned that the equipment and building supplies were not there and probably would not arrive at all. So, instead of preparing a foundation for a new school building, one group had the task of taking boulders out of a fenced off area to prepare it for the crew that would come later to pour concrete for a basketball court. The other group had an equally boring task of literally sifting through two large piles of crushed rock so that the fine-grained rock and powder that resulted could become concrete. Of course we had another more exciting job that came a few days later, but in essence, the damage was done. The teens had a difficult time in feeling that they were doing something of value and in reflecting about their work. Thus, a bad or ill-prepared project can have a profound impact on the level of reflection of the students and therefore, the level of learning. However, by working together with the different levels of community leadership, it should not be difficult to find a project that meets the requirements of an effective service-learning program.

The value of the project site is intimately tied to the issue of contextualization. Though the reflection component is the main learning aspect in service learning, the particular project is the context for learning. One project in the Dominican Republic highlighted the role of context particularly well. The project brought together Haitian and Dominican college students to restore a 4-room school building in one of the poorest communities just outside of Santa Domingo. For the Haitians, just entering the country was a challenge, not to mention working side-by-side with the Dominicans.

The Haitian young men and women were stopped at the border of the Dominican Republic and forced to wait more than eight hours until the border authorities decided that their papers were in order. Darker-skinned Haitians were questioned more harshly than lighter-skinned Haitians, who could pass for Dominicans. Thus the stage was set for a tense beginning. Language was the next barrier. The initial reflection sessions were quite challenging, and communication became a combination of translation and pantomime. The Haitians felt an underlying resentment and anger because of their border incident and contemporary history, which flavored their communication. The Dominicans, on the other hand, were more accepting and happy in the beginning and seemed eager to start the project. Only a few of the Dominicans were critical or suspicious of the Haitians.

The first day of work was especially difficult, as the Haitians waited to see what kind of jobs they were given in comparison to those of the Dominicans. Tensions eased up considerably once they were assured that they were given equal tasks, or that positions would frequently be changed if one of the Haitians were asked to do a particularly dirty job while a Dominican was given a “nice” job. But what helped set the stage for a real breakthrough in the reflection periods came after the project was finished and everyone could see the end result. The Haitian participants could witness tears of joy and gratitude in each of the Dominican children who would be using that school. Hugs, kisses and small gifts of gratitude they received from grateful Dominican parents transformed them.

It was this particular context that set the stage for this learning to take place. It challenged the Haitian participants to reflect anew as to their presuppositions concerning the Dominican people as well as their understanding of themselves. I doubt that a different type of context would have had as powerful an ending as experienced in this project.

For educators concerned about context, we have to say that service learning provides religious educators with the most complete range of contexts possible. What do I mean by this? Karen Tye’s succinct text, The Basics of Christian Education, offers valuable insight into the diversity of context as she reminds us that it is not simply the “place” in which we teach. Context necessarily challenges us to consider the hidden contexts of a place, the inner contexts that our students carry with them, and the theoretical contexts toward which we teach. As Tye expresses it, context “includes attitudes, emotions, relationships, cultural qualities, and many other factors that shape the environment.” (Tye 2000, 30) Staying in the classroom limits the types of contexts that we can address and the degree of contextualization that can take place. But in service learning those limitations need not be present.

Consider the Dominican project discussed previously. We have the physical context of the poor, rural Dominican villagers. We also have the larger context of Hispaniola and all that it means historically and emotionally to both the Dominicans and the Haitians. There are the inner contexts of the two cultures and nationalities as well as the individual contexts of each participant. For example, several of the Haitians were from poor communities themselves, while one young woman was the daughter of the former President of the legislative body and grew up in Pétitionville, an historically wealthy section of Port-au-Prince. Many of the Haitians were college students, but some of them were not and did not hope to be. Denominationally most of the Haitians were Evangelical Christians, though possibly some of them grew up in homes that also practiced indigen­ous expressions of faith and possibly magic. The Dominicans similarly represent­ed diverse contexts, with an added context of representing Catholic Christianity. A smaller sub-group was a group of Japanese students from the University of Bridgeport, many of whom were Unificationists. This group often acted as a mediating force in the project, thus adding another dimension of context.

There was also the context of the living quarters, a small but nice facility where the men slept in three large rooms and the women slept in four rooms scattered around the property. The main meeting area was a small amphitheater-like structure with a gazebo nearby that was reached by crossing a small but quaint footbridge over a small pond. There was a swimming pool and two other small meeting areas—one in the living room of the main house and the other by the pool. The pool brought the participants together in a joyful spirit while the amphitheater was where many of the large group reflection activities took place, including a closing “bridge-of-peace” ceremony. Each area of the property evoked a different feeling in the participants. In fact, the pool meeting area was utilized intentionally for a more serious conflict-resolution reflection activity because of the warm and joyful feelings it evoked in the participants. At that point in the project, the program directors wanted to challenge the participants’ stereotypes and self-perceptions more directly, and felt that it would be more conducive to learning if the sessions were conducted in this “warmer” context.

These diverse contexts and diverse contextualizations allowed the “crossing-over” and “border exchanges” that took place—culturally, ethnically, religiously, emotionally and personally. All in all, context played a critical role in the program and was an essential component of the learning and changes that took place.

Participants, Partnerships and Networks

A service-learning program is about the participants. For religious educators, the primary participants will be our students. Nevertheless, a project does not need to be confined to one class. Depending on what is to be learned from the experience, other participants can be invited to join the project. Several courses could come together to do a project. Alternatively, students can work with residents of the community in which the project is situated or with an organized group of participants from the community. Special religious groups can be invited to join in the project if inter-religious understanding or challenging religious misperceptions is part of the lesson. There are no restrictions on who can participate other than the size of the project, the budget and the program objectives.

Involvement of the local community is highly encouraged, especially as projects should be addressing real needs. This means that the community will need to know what its needs are before engaging a project. Beyond this, local residents can contribute to and complete the learning cycle with the participants. They provide an element of the contextualization that takes place in the project because, more than likely, the students will be interfacing with them at some point. Consider also the issue we may be addressing as religious educators. If we engage in the effort to see our students experience a “lived Christian faith,” as Thomas Groome sees it, then what better way to do that than by working together in partnership with the local community during the service learning program. The local community, through the project, provides a real context, a context of flesh and blood with which the participants must live and interact during this period of time. A lived faith, then, is no longer a theoretical construct that is discussed in the classroom. It becomes a “shared praxis” in the best sense of the phrase. (Groome 1980)

While it isn’t a necessity, involving the local community in the reflection sessions can be quite cathartic and insightful for the students. It is also possible that the community in which the project is conducted is similar to that of the students. Including the community in the reflection allows the students to gain a greater perspective of both themselves and their own community.

Service learning is particularly valuable in projects that are interfaith in nature. Taking a lesson from the Catholic theologian Hans Küng, a service learning program involving multiple faith expressions takes participants out of their own faith community and brings them face-to-face with the “other” while living and working in a third community. (Küng 1993) While working in this third community—the objective context—each participant is encouraged and challenged to look at who they are, what they represent and what they believe in relationship to others, while practicing the ethic of living for the greater good. The combination of a fresh or objective context outside the participating students’ faith communities and the opening up of their moral feelings through the act of service creates a formula for success in interreligious understanding and harmony. A project of the Religious Youth Service (RYS) that took place in the countryside of Italy, for example, allowed the Palestinian and Israeli participants to address some of the issues that they faced and the resentments that they harbored because they were out of their own contexts. By the end of the project, the participants from these two faith communities were already tearfully planning similar projects because they felt that these would be the most effective way to bring healing and reconciliation to their region.

What motivated the Palestinian participants and the Israeli participants to embrace as brothers and sisters under God, thus shedding years of anger and resentment? It was the combination of situating the service-learning project in a totally different, unrelated community that had real needs, plus the actions of service and reflection. The Italian community served, in effect, to de-center the conversation. As Katherine Turpin expresses it, “Rather than working from a paradigm of inclusion, bringing people from the margins to the center, multicultural efforts need to dismantle the very idea of the center and to engage in collaborative planning and leadership at every turn.” (Moore 2004, 208) The community in which the project is conducted has the potential to play that role.


Once the project and the students are set, the second most important feature, the reflection period, becomes a clear focus of the program. Reflection allows students to question, challenge, and to generally look back on our experiences in the project in order to help “shape our future, actions, goals, and beliefs.” (Goldsmith 1995, 1) In terms of religious education, it can also be seen as “present action in light of the Christian Story and its Vision toward the end of lived Christian faith.” (Groome 1980, 184) Through the questioning process of reflection, students begin to see what they may not have seen before or see more clearly than they did before. Reflection gives shape and voice to their experiences. At the same time, it isn’t just about the student’s personal experience. It is also about what each student experienced in relationship with others—other participants and people from the project community.

Participants should know clearly what is expected of them in the reflection sessions, as this helps them prepare. The length of the project often dictates the number and frequency of reflection sessions. The longer the project, the more opportunities there are for reflection. While the shorter projects do not need a lot of reflection time, the longer projects do if the participants are going to fully explore what it is that they are learning. For these longer projects, this might mean a reflection period before the project begins, during the project, and at the conclusion of the project.

Regardless the length of the project, a good standard is to schedule a minimum of two reflection sessions: before the project begins and again after the project is finished. The pre-project reflection time prepares the students for their experience. It may ask some initial questions anticipating possible issues for the student to consider. The post-reflection period brings the different learning points or threads together.

While journal writing and verbal sharing are often used as reflection methods, reflection should not be confined to these forms. Just as we know that diversity of teaching methods in the classroom is important to match the diversity of learning styles, so too should the methods of reflection vary so that all the students are challenged to reflect deeply on their experience. Art, music, journals, letters, poetry, small group discussion, and special activities can and should be utilized to encourage deep reflection.

While there are no hard and fast rules for the reflection component of a service-learning project, Eyler and Giles posit four principles to observe for effective reflection. It needs to be: continuous, connected, challenging, and contextualized. (Eyler 1996, 16) Reflection is something that needs to be carried out continu­ous­ly throughout the project – from beginning to end – if students are to develop a habit of reflecting on their experience. Naturally, reflection must also be connective. Connecting students’ theoretical work from the classroom to their experiences in the project is what unleashes the power and dynamism of service learning. It is a search for that “ah hah!” moment. We can also understand that reflection needs to challenge our students. It needs to stretch their thinking, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs. Reflection sessions should dare to ask those questions that we are afraid to give voice to: “Is violence the only way to deal with our grudges?” “Where is this self-righteousness coming from?” “Who am I to say that it should be done this way?” And of course reflection needs to be contextualized. What will help this particular group at this particular time and in this particular setting reflect more deeply and powerfully? When these principles are addressed, the reflection sessions will trigger the learning that needs to take place.


Two Examples of Service Learning Programs

Of the numerous service learning organizations, the two I am most familiar with are Service For Peace (SFP), is a secularly-based leadership training program that targets adolescents and young adults primarily, and the Religious Youth Service (RYS), a religiously-based organization bringing together older teens and young adults from among the world’s faiths in order to achieve inter-faith harmony and understanding through the practice of service to others.

Service For Peace

Service For Peace is a fairly new service-learning organization. As stated on their website, “Service For Peace prepares conscientious people to take on the role of peacemakers. A Peacemaker is one who can work with the populations to address critical issues and offer real solutions.”[1] Organizers feel that this is best done through the vehicle of service learning. SFP was launched in the summer of 2002 with a program called “Summer of Service.” The organization gathered more than 300 teens and young adults in Washington, D.C. for a series of service learning projects conducted in and around the metropolitan D.C. region. Projects included cleaning up public schools, cleaning and planting in public parks, tutoring, working with sports leagues and numerous other projects.

The following summer, SFP expanded its Summer of Service program, attracting over 1,000 teens and young adults in projects scattered in cities from Miami to Portland, Maine. The organization partnered with the Points of Light Foundation, the YMCA, Americorps, and various churches and organizations in many project sites. Throughout the programs, all participants reflected on their experiences. Some participant reflections from those summers:

I was so glad to meet a group of kids who weren’t apathetic to the world, and who were willing to work to change things.

I learned that doing just a little thing can mean a lot. Like picking up trash, people were like “I can’t believe you’re doing this during your summer vacation!” They were really happy and surprised.

I was amazed by the camaraderie of the different cultures and the diversity. Everyone worked together and they got the job done.

SFP launched statewide chapters. The Florida chapter in particular developed a synergistic relationship with a large university in Miami-Dade County. This relationship has developed a program within a program, so to speak, devoted to service learning on two levels: the university students are involved in a tutoring program with at-risk teens, while the teens are involved in a service learning program devoted to leadership skills within their communities. Time will tell how effective this will be in addressing some very serious social issues in that city.

By the end of 2003, it became clear that SFP might be beneficial in some international hotspots. Therefore, after a great deal of investigation, SFP launched a project in Israel that took place between July and August of 2004. Participants came from the international SFP chapters with a particular focus on SFP-Japan, SFP-USA, and SFP-Europe. Though the focus was not religious education, so to speak, the very nature of the project and the context of the project make it a good example for us to consider.

There were twenty-one students from eight countries on the project, including some Israeli Jews and Arabs. The purpose of the project was to understand the Arab-Jewish conflict first-hand, and to become leaders capable of helping offer solutions to such conflicts. The projects included working with children in summer camps, aiding young children in an orphanage, working with senior citizens in an elder care facility, and cleaning up an archeological site, beach, and park. As a feature of the program, the participants stayed in Jewish homes—the first time that the community welcomed Palestinian youth into their homes in the extremely conservative Jewish city of Beit Shemesh. During the project, the participants were also able to visit such sites as the Dead Sea, the Negev Desert, Bethlehem, Haifa and Jerusalem.

All of the participants were deeply affected by the project, including the Arab and Jewish students. Each participant faced different issues and had different learning points. While many of the deeper reflective thoughts came during different sessions and were not always conducted in written form, the following comments do give a taste of some of the changes that took place in the hearts and minds of a few of the participants as they wrote down some of the final thoughts after the program was finished. Zvi Raviv, an Israeli participant, wrote:

The first day in Beit-Shemesh included work with children. Usually children don’t internalize prejudices—while working with them I felt how I left the world of grown-ups, in which I have to constantly care about things as image, and cover myself with cynicism. Working with the children helped me. Later on that day, when we went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, I tried to explain to the participants of my group that the Nazis weren’t only against Jewish people, but against universal values as civil and religious rights—if we believe in those values, we should act together against prejudice and intolerance.

While working with children I noticed how curious they are about other cultures—they showed great interest in the Japanese culture, and since there is a great influence of the Latin-American culture in Israel, seeing how much the Arab and Jewish children wanted to learn Spanish was fascinating.

While we were visiting the desert, a monk called Phrejek joined us. He works for humanitarian causes in Palestine. He showed us what real commitment to a goal is, and explained to us the philosophical meaning of life in the desert. In the desert we had a presentation of the main characteristics of the monotheistic religions that started in the Middle East, and it made me feel great respect towards other religions.

Tareq Ghaith, a Palestinian, spoke about what it felt like to be a Palestinian and the concern that he had that the killing stop so that Israelis and Palestinians could live in love and peace. The service-learning project was especially profound for Tareq because he was asked to homestay with an Israeli family in Beit-Shemesh. As a village of staunch conservative and orthodox Jewish families, this would be the last place that a Palestinian would want to stay. Yet the team stayed there for several days, Tareq included. On the first night, the Israeli families spoke about themselves. One mother in particular talked about her son who was a soldier in the Israeli army. During her testimony, Tareq prayed to God that he not be placed with that family. As luck would have it, he found himself asked to live with that very same family. It was a most profound experience for Tareq. As he shared with the group, “I talked with this family all night about the occupation in Palestine, the wall, bombs and many things, and then I felt better. Finally, I left Beit-Shemesh with love for this family, and a hope to see them again.”

On the last night, the entire team came together for reflection with the families with which they home-stayed. One volunteer, Katherine Andrews from the United States, was moved as she watched how Tareq and the Israeli mother with whom he stayed seemed to have bonded profoundly:

On our last night in Beit Shemesh, I could see how well [Tareq] had managed to bond with his Jewish family despite their underlying political differences. I stood next to the Arab in a circle in the community center as we prepared to learn traditional local dances. As his host mother approached us and motioned for me to let her stand beside him, she pointed toward him and said, “My son,” as the two reached for one another’s hand. This friendship epitomizes how personal attachments among humans can supersede divisions along ideological lines.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict can never feel as distant to us camp members as it might have before visiting the region and getting to know its people. We have memories of real conversations, real accounts, and real images from which to draw upon in any future discussion of the Middle East struggle for peace. And the increased understanding we gained about this particular conflict is valuable towards grasping other global conflicts.

It is also important to keep in mind that some of the more profound changes often come after the project has concluded and the students have returned home. This factor alone should tell us that service-learning programs tied to regular courses offer a far stronger context for learning and growth compared to the programs of organizations. Regular teachers interacting with their students over a longer period are there to encourage this long-term reflective process and to securely anchor any changes.

Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service (RYS) was created to foster inter-religious, intercultural, and interracial understanding and development. Since its founding in 1986, RYS has conducted several hundred projects and has been the inspiration for student clubs around the world. The initial projects were chosen to address some key issues and problems within the interfaith world. Participants were recommended by leaders within their faith communities, as individuals with the maturity to reflect deeply and the willingness to change their perceptions and stereotypes. As stated on its website,[2] the goals of the RYS program are:

· To encourage, promote and contribute to meaningful dialogue between young people who represent the religions of the world.

· To contribute to a deeper understanding of common values that can serve as a basis for world peace studies.

· To provide a setting within which inter-religious, intercultural, and interracial experiences combine to allow insights from dialogue to be immediately applied and tested in purposeful interaction.

· To serve and work for communities in need, and in so doing, to model a vision of the possibilities for harmony and accomplishment among the world’s diverse cultures.

· To develop skills in leadership for peace in religious youth from around the world.

· To provide an experience in which individual youth have the opportunity to develop spiritually and to cultivate a worldwide perspective of the human condition.

The very first project site was the Philippines. There were approximately 60 participants representing many of the world’s faiths. They ranged in age from 18 to 32 and represented diverse degree programs from liberal arts to electrical engineering and medicine. They were divided into three project sites, with each site targeting real needs in the Philippines. The one project with which I was most familiar took place in a small town called Cavite. Cavite was an interesting site because it was physically divided by a small river, with Christians on one side of the river and Muslims on the other side. The Christians were the poorer of the two communities, and most of the social and civic services were located on the Muslim side.

Lack of a bridge spanning the river did not present a problem for residents of Cavite during the dry season. During each monsoon season, however, the river swelled over its banks and flooded the Christian side of the village. The Christian children could not attend school, and disease often ran rampant in the Christian side of the town because medical personnel could not reach them. The RYS participants would build a simple concrete bridge over the river, allowing the families to have access to schools, doctors, hospitals, work, and services in both rainy and dry seasons.

During the day, the participants worked on the bridge, with pre-med students working side-by-side with art history majors and business majors. In the late afternoon after cleaning up from the project, participants learned about the local culture or their own faiths or the faiths of other participants. Reflection sessions allowed them to look at diverse issues and concerns such as: What can I do about poverty? What does my faith mean when it says that all people are children of God? Do Muslims really believe in violence? Do Buddhists believe in God? What should my relationship be to those I consider as “the other?” Powerful questions indeed for these young adults to consider.

By the end of the Cavite project changes were noticeable—both in the village among the residents of Cavite and within the hearts and minds of the participants. To this day the “Bridge of Love” (as they dubbed it) stands as a testimony of that change.

Subsequent projects have addressed relations between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Orthodox/Muslim/Catholic relationships in Croatia and Serbia, Muslim/Ethnic Albanian/Orthodox issues in Albania, Muslim/Tamil/Hindu conflicts in Sri Lanka, Jewish and Muslim relations in the Middle East, Aborigine/Maori/Christian concerns in Oceania, and tensions between Dominicans and Haitians in the Dominican Republic, to name just a few. Though the participants may change, the focus is the same. Utilizing service learning as a methodology, the program challenges participants to examine their own personal and faith perspectives and to re-examine those perspectives in relationship to others—whoever those “others” may be.


Concluding Remarks

As religious educators, we are learning and developing in terms of what we do. We have come a long way from the mostly didactic and transmissive heritage of religious education that often did not recognize the multiple communities in which we live and find our being. In our classrooms, we can talk about contextualizing and about finding our essential identity within a religiously plural community. We can also examine our understanding of what our faith calls us to do or be. But at the end of the day, many of the methods that we choose to use will be limited in their ability to situate our students in real life. Hence, I feel that we must consider such pedagogical tools as service learning to complement what we do in religious education.

Toinette Eugene offers some valuable food for thought in her article in the Spring 2002 issue of the Religious Education Journal. Addressing the challenges of living in a culture of disbelief, she suggests that, as most people “find themselves in multiple worlds of reference,” religious education must “utilize this form of contextualization” and make it a part of our “process and praxis.” (Eugene 2002, 184) Ultimately, Eugene sees this as redefining religious education to mean a “religious pedagogy” that presents students with “a configuration of textual, verbal, and visual practices that seek to engage the ways in which they engage their social and cultural environment.” (Eugene 2002, 188)

Service learning is a pedagogy that sees contextualization as central to its effectiveness; it allows students to engage the environment fully. Norma Thompson once taught that religious education “should not devalue the process of growing up in a faith community,” but also provide the means or the context for individuals of one faith to relate to those of another, going beyond dialogue to recognize “the issues and problems which separate human beings.” (Thompson 1988, 21) This is precisely the strength of service learning pedagogically.

Certainly the interplay of the multiple contexts at work in a service learning program and the reflection that students are led to do while in these diverse contexts makes service learning a valuable methodology for our field. Students’ perceptions of who they are, while situated in a particular time, in a particular setting, and with particular others, will be challenged in such a program. The questions they raise and the conclusions they reach may very well change, in a constructive sense, from what they held before beginning our courses. As a religious educator, I certainly hope so. And hopefully they will be able to reflect, as one participant of a SFP project in Miami shared:

Working with a diverse group of people really made me grow as a human being as well. I learned the true meaning of compassion, cooperation and attentiveness. I’ve learned to put the needs of others before my own, and because of this new knowledge the chains of intolerance and selfishness are quickly dissolving all around me.


References and Related Readings

Brelsford, Theodore. 2001. Educating for Formative Participation in Communities of Faith. Religious Education 96:310-325.

Cram, Ronald. 2001. The Future of Christian Religious Education in an Era of Shrinking Transcendence. Religious Education 96:164-174.

Dykstra, Craig. 1999. Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Kentucky: Geneva Press.

Eugene, Toinette M. 2002. Live by the Word and Keep on Walking. Religious Education 97:178-191

Everist, Norma Cook. 2001. Connecting the Learning Community and Vocation in the Public World. Religious Education 96:294-309.

Eyler, Janet and Dwight E. Giles, Jr. 1999. Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eyler, Janet, Giles, Dwight E., Jr. and Schmiede, A. 1996. A Practitioner’s Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning: Student Voices and Reflections. Nashville: Vanderbilt University.

Fleischer, Barbara J. 2000. Practical Theology and Transformative Learning: Partnership for Christian Religious Education. Forging a Better Religious Education in the Third Millennium. Birmingham, AL: REP.

Gerics, Joseph. 1991. From Orthodoxy to Orthopraxis: Community Service as Noblesse Oblige and as Solidarity with the Poor. Religious Education 86: 250-264.

Goldsmith, Suzanne. 1995. Journal Reflection: A Resource Guide for Community Service Leaders and Educators Engaged in Service Learning. Washington, D.C.: American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities.

Groome, Thomas. 1980. Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hammer, Rhonda, Douglas Kellner. 2000. Multimedia Pedagogy and Multicultural Education for the New Millennium. Religious Education 95:475-491.

Kung, Hans. 1993. Global Responsibility. New York: Continuum.

Lickona, Thomas. 1991. Educating for Character. New York: Bantam Books.

Moore, Mary Elizabeth, et al. 2004. Realities, Visions, and Promises of a Multicultural Future. Religious Education 99:287-315.

Ng, Greeg Wenh-In. 2002. Contextualization of Religious Education in an Age of Disbelief. Religious Education 92:192-203.

Schein, Jeffrey. 1991. Moral Thought and Moral Action: Toward an Agenda for Future Research in Jewish Education. Religious Education 86:234-249.

Siejk, Cate. 1999. Learning to Love the Questions: Religious Education in an Age of Unbelief. Religious Education 94:155-171.

Thompson, Norma. 1988. Religious Pluralism and Religious Education. Birmingham, AL: REP.

Tye, Karen. 2000. The Basics of Christian Education. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

Veverka, Fayette B. 2002. Practicing Faith: Negotiating Identity and Difference in a Religiously Pluralistic World. Religious Education 99:38-55.

Winings, Kathy. 2002. Building Character through Service Learning. Chapel Hill: Character Education Publishing.