In October 2018, my husband and I participated in the Road Scholar program Experience World Religions in Toronto. Why did we sign up? Robert picked it because of a lifelong interest in comparative religion. And I picked it because it sounded like a great lens through which to experience and learn about a favorite city.
Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world — with more than half of its residents born outside the city and home to 230 different nationalities. It’s the perfect place to gain exposure to and study world religions and improve your cultural literacy.
Through a mix of engaging interactive lectures and field trips, we discovered a framework for understanding religion, learned how specific religions fit into that framework and interacted with a diverse group of religious leaders and practitioners — people whom we might not otherwise have had a chance to meet.
We wanted to share just a few of our favorite moments!
The Hare Krishnas were a surprise because we went with stereotypical assumptions and not much knowledge. The head of the temple (the Walking Monk) was an interesting, deeply contemplative guy, kind and funny. Our earlier assumptions were erased. We came away with a lot of respect and a new understanding.
The Sikhs were welcoming, kind and all about service. They fed us a delicious meal, then thanked us for coming to eat with them. We were able to visit the room where their “last guru,” their books of worship, are lovingly kept when not in use – in guest beds with fancy covers.
On our field trip to a Muslim mosque, it was a delight to meet the Imam, who was funny and wise, a great leader. We were surprised to see men in the worship space who were preparing for Friday service by reading contemplatively. During the service, we observed people from all walks of life, literally standing shoulder to shoulder in unified worship.
We visited a Jewish temple for a Sabbath service, which was beautiful. The congregation had written their own prayer book with lots of annotations and footnotes, so it was easy to follow what was happening and to understand the background that the service was based on. They incorporated a lot of gorgeous music into their service. We even got to witness a Bat Mitzvah of a young girl, and witness how proud her family was of her. We were saddened to see the amount of security required to enter the building. But later we better understood the threat they were facing. After our return home, our entire group grieved when we heard about the Tree of Life temple shooting in Pittsburgh.
Before a Hindu service, we watched millennia-old worship traditions, including pouring milk over a ceremonial stone and making offerings to statues of deities. We learned that in these modern times, the offerings are often later given to the poor.
We attended an evangelical Mennonite church service, complete with thousands of worshippers in stadium seating, a high-tech video presentation, a full rock concert beforehand and a sermon that melded meditation and Bible study. After the service, our group had a private meeting with the pastor, who was well-educated, open to feedback, peace-loving, and fun to talk to.
The idea of many long lectures sounds a little dull, but in Brian Carwana’s hands, they were anything but. Brian is the executive director of Encounter World Religions Centre, an educational organization that promotes religious literacy and informed understanding of cultural diversity. The lectures were enlightening, funny, helpful, and we didn’t want them to end. There was a perfect balance of lectures and field trips.
The other Road Scholar participants, of course. brought so much to the experience. They were engaged, interested, interesting and happy to contribute to discussions.
What a privilege to participate in this program! Since our return home, we have been talking about our experience to any friend who will listen (and most of our friends are fascinated). We came away with a new enthusiasm for religions that we knew little about. We hope to continue visiting places of worship and making connections with religious people on our own.
We encourage you to sign up if you are curious about the world around you and want to learn more about your neighbors. Go with an open mind, leave with a full heart.
Click here to learn about Experience World Religions in Toronto.
About the Author
Liz Augustine and Robert Praetorius (Road Scholar Class of ’13) have been on 11 and eight programs, respectively. Highlights of their Road Scholar learning adventures include journeys to Cuba to meet dancers, artists and musicians; the wilds of New Mexico to explore Indian archaeological sites; and Los Angeles to visit museums started by wildly wealthy collectors. At home, Robert works in the computer industry and Liz is the adoptions coordinator of a local cat shelter. Their lives are ruled by their three cats.
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