Student's Experience at World Religions Conference Leads to Valuable Classroom Lessons
Nebraska Wesleyan University junior Sarah Hunter grew up devoted in her faith. She was actively involved in an Omaha church were her uncle pastored.
“Growing up, I interacted with like-minded individuals sharing common beliefs,” the political science major recalled.
One of her first college classes was an Archway Seminar for first-year students that explored religious sects. Hunter realized an abundance of spiritual diversity and shared her desire to learn more with religion professor Rita Lester.
Lester encouraged Hunter to attend the Encounter World Religions Conference in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Lester previously attended the conference and knew Hunter would grow from the experience too.
Participants in the Encounter World Religions Conference spend one week studying 11 religions through lectures, visits to spiritual sanctuaries, and participation in religious practices.
"I saw an experience of a lifetime where I could experience things I have been learning about in the classroom,” Hunter said of Lester’s recommendation to attend the conference.
Once in Toronto, Hunter was met with vast diversity in people, religions, and experiences. Toronto is home to a range of spiritual sanctuaries such as temples and synagogues that stem from a variety of religious backgrounds including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.
"At NWU I have been exposed to many different viewpoints—it is amazing," said Hunter. "However, it is not near the diversity I experienced in Toronto."
Each day the conference director spoke to attendees about a specific religion and its pertaining sanctuaries before participants ventured out to explore and experience those very sites.
Each religion proved different, but common among all was the genuine kindness found in every individual Hunter met. Whether it be sharing a moon rock to transfer feelings of happiness to one another or giving up a scarf so that others can kneel on the ground to pray in comfort, strangers—and eventual friends—offered Hunter sincere generosity and compassion.
"Without a single word, name, exchange, or thank you, a woman gave me her scarf,” Hunter recalled. “When a stranger demonstrates that kindness, you never forget it. I can never forget it. Experiencing that level of love is indescribable."
"Prior to the conference I would try to place religions in boxes and categories," she said. "When in reality, each one is different on how they live religion. People are unique and experiencing and embracing those differences is what makes diversity persevere."
Hunter was eager to find ways to integrate her experiences and newfound knowledge with NWU students.
She did not have to search long to figure out how to do so.
Hunter teamed with Lester to lead a new Archway Seminar this fall, titled "Religions: New and Old." Through the course Hunter hopes to instill in first-year students a theme from the conference — that diversity in religion and culture can be found anywhere and everywhere, and to welcome those differences when found.
"I want to introduce students to a more diverse culture than what is necessarily available here," she said. "If you wander around the city you will find a variety of cultures and religions you don’t necessarily see everyday. I want students to embrace differences, and look for curiosity within those differences."
—Story by Quinn Hullett, public relations intern.