Friday, April 8, 2011

Separation of Church & State, Freedom of Religion

Thursday, 4-7-11

Though I went to school today and spent time with my students I taught no classes. Today the entire school went to the Catholic Church to have a special mass remembering a former teacher and director of the boy’s school in Berlín. He died 30 days ago and Catholics here have mass 30 days after a person has died to remember them. His name was José Humberto Serpas. His wife was a teacher at the girl’s school next door to the boy’s school for a long time so they are both well known in the community.

I went to school at my usual time (7:15am) thinking we’d be leaving earlier for mass. But once I got to school I realized that the mass wasn’t until 9am. So I went to my fifth grade section A class to ask if I could walk to the mass with them. The teacher, Maria Roxana, said yes and sounded excited that I wanted to go with her class. The kids had formación at 7:30 that lasted for a half hour. Then they all returned to class and I got to watch the teacher teach math for 15 minutes. It was fun to observe a class. I really haven’t ever had the opportunity to observe a class because I teach during each period in the morning. It was good to know that I’m not the only one that struggles to keep the kid’s attention.

When bell rang at 8:15am signaling the end of first period I realized that I was scheduled to teach during the second period in 5B. For some reason my brain hadn’t been functioning this morning and I thought we were going to leave during the first period. Once I realized we would have a little time for second period I told Roxana that I needed to go teach. She wanted me to stay and went to ask the director when we were all leaving. She returned and told me we were leaving at 8:45am for the church so there wouldn’t be much time to teach.

Then she told me that several teachers weren’t going to be in school tomorrow. Only four teachers were going to be here. I looked at my schedule and figured out that only two of my normally scheduled classes would be held. Hmmmm. So I went to talk to the teacher of 5B to ask if I could teach tomorrow instead of teaching only 20 minutes today. That was fine with her. Good. Then I asked the 1A teacher if I could teach tomorrow even though I’m not scheduled. She also said yes. Good, good. I told you, scheduling here is crazy. I’ve learned that you really have to go with the flow and expect almost daily changes to the schedule and/or class times. Also, I finally figured out what happened to the teacher in grade 3 section B. She was the one I saw on my first day and I haven’t seen her since. Roxana told me that she had surgery of some kind and is recovering.

After the 10-minute in between class break was over I encountered another difficulty. This one was bigger. Some of the kids did not want to go to the mass. The teacher told them that the whole school was going to the mass and said not going is not an option. One boy in particular really did not want to go and got his backpack to leave. The teacher walked him outside the classroom and talked with him. I’m not sure what she said but he didn’t come back. The bell rang and it was time for second period.

Around 8:45am the bell rang to dismiss classes to walk to the mass. About five kids tried to stay in the room because they didn’t want to go. The teacher told me that the problem was that the kids’ fathers didn’t go to church and didn’t want their sons to go. Now, I have no idea whether this is true or not, I’m just explaining what I was told. This could very well be true. I know there are a lot of struggles in the community and in the country concerning religion. The Catholics and Evangelicals really bump heads here. (Side note: Here, if you’re not Catholic, you’re Evangelical.) And like in every country, there are some people here who choose not to be a part of any religious group.

I told the kids that I wasn’t Catholic but that I would be attending the mass. They asked if I was a Christian and I said yes. A couple kids that originally wanted to stay behind decided to go. But the others still wanted to stay. The teacher practically had to drag them out of the room and locked the door behind her. So the reason the kids didn’t want to go could have been that the kids weren’t Catholic, they weren’t religious, or just didn’t like going to church. I’m not sure and they didn’t really want to talk about it.

We all left the school in a group just like the other classes. The church is only a few blocks away from the school so we got there quickly. We found a place where we could all sit together. The teacher and I herded the kids into the pews and positioned ourselves amongst the kids. At one point before the service a couple kids were goofing off and looked like they were going to go running around at any second. I got up and told them that they didn’t have to pay attention during the mass if they didn’t want to but that they needed to be respectful of the deceased and his family.

I am now going to describe what mass was like. Afterwards I will talk about my feelings regarding the entire situation (there’s so much to say). The mass started around 9:15am. Both the boy’s and girl’s schools were in attendance. Like I said, José and his wife were teachers at those schools for a long time. Father Santos was the priest who said the mass. There were lots of fresh flowers at the front of the church and a painting of the deceased as well. A group of women (nuns, I think) were on the left side of the church and José’s family was dressed in black on the right side. There were only two musicians who sang for this special mass and both were very talented.

The mass followed the same process as any other mass. One of the microphones was going on and off for a while until someone went up to the front and got the reader a different microphone. The homily itself was shorter than usual. The priest spoke of José, the Easter season, and our relationship with God. Afterwards there was offering, shaking hands as a sign of peace, and communion. I got up to take communion as I always do here. Several of my students watched me and said hi as I walked to the front. When I returned to my seat several students decided to get up and take communion themselves. I knew they were Catholic because they knew when to stand, kneel, make the sign of the cross, etc. I’m glad my taking communion allowed them to feel free to also take communion. (After the mass several other kids asked me what it was like taking communion.)

Toward the end of the mass all the teachers from the two schools went forward to sing at the front of the church. After that a man whom I assume is José’s son got up to speak briefly. He said, “Buenos días” to which a couple of my kids responded “Good morning” (in English). That made me smile and a couple other kids around us also smiled. I was awfully proud of them. José’s son spoke about his father and what his father had done in life. Then the widow also got up to speak about her late husband. Father Santos ended the service and mass was over around 10:45am. In total it lasted about 1 ½ hours.

The family was handing out memorial cards and one of my students got one for me. This is what it said:

“En memoria de José Humberto Serpas. Muchas lágrimas nos ha costado admitir que ya no estás fisicamente con nosotros. Seguimos el camino de la vida con aparente alegría, sin embargo el corazón es difícil de engañar, nuestro amor se fué contigo, no importa la distancia, la muerte no podrá arrebatarnos lo que eternamente tendremos: el eco de tu voz, tu sonrisa y el inolvidable recuerdo de tu amor.”

“In memory of José Humberto Serpas. Many tears it has cost us admit that you are no longer physically with us. We follow the path of life with apparent joy, but the heart is hard to fool, our love went with you, no matter the distance, death can never take away what we have: the echo of your voice, your smile, and unforgettable memories of your love.”

I admit that during a lot of the mass I was watching the kids and did my best to make sure they weren’t talking (too loudly or too much) and sitting relatively still. I say relatively because I think it’s impossible for any kid to sit perfectly still during a 1 ½ hour mass. I pulled a couple kids off the kneelers when they stood on them and had to shush some kids a couple times. I know it was a long time for them to be sitting. There are some times when I’m not sure I’m going to make it through the usual 1 hour and 15 minute mass.

Now to the more interesting and controversial part. Cecilia later told me that the children at school whose teachers are attending an event or service at church are free to say that they don’t want to go to church. But by the way the teachers were acting you’d never know it. They did not make not going seem like an option. At the time I was thinking about the separation of church and state and that it must not exist. I still have no idea if such as law really exists in El Salvador. If it does exist I’m guessing, like many laws in this country, it’s not really enforced. Whatever the case is here I seriously doubt that something like this would happen in the States. By that I mean the teachers dragging the kids to church. If something like that happened in the States people would flip out.

I was very surprised to find myself annoyed at the kids who didn’t want to go to church and the ones who were being disrespectful when we were at church. I was especially irritated by the boy who was told by the director during the service that he could leave. He walked out with a smile on his face like he’d just won some sort of grand prize. Like this struggle between him and the teacher was a contest. I wanted him to wipe that snug look off his face. I felt anger inside me and I didn’t know where it was coming from.

During the mass and the rest of the day I was thinking about why I was so annoyed by the kids who didn’t want to go to church. I have never felt the need to convert people to Christianity and I didn’t really feel that desire today either. The kind of mission trips that my church goes on and the kind Our Sister Parish sponsors are not trips where we convert people. It’s a Presbyterian organization but the people we work with are Catholic, Evangelical, and sometimes not religious. I am not Catholic so it’s not like they were personally offending my religious background. Plus I have a lot of problems with the teachings of the Catholic Church in general. So I don’t know why I was so irritated that the kids. I just couldn’t figure it out.

Most importantly, I am a huge proponent of freedom of religion and believe that every individual is owed that right. When I see people or religious groups in the States who are mistreated because of their religion I become infuriated. When people are discriminated against because they have chosen a different faith I am enraged. I firmly believe that we as a country need to work on ensuring that people maintain their right to choose their religion and do so without fear of persecution by the general public.

Especially in the wake of 9/11, there have been a whole lot of extremists in the States doing and saying all sort of horrible things about people who are Muslim. The Quran burning springs instantly to mind. I feel physically sick and a penetrating sadness just thinking about what happened. Unfortunately, those who are not extremists but are average people who say and write discriminating things about other religions are just as destructive. That kind of narrow-mindedness and revulsion only serves to instigate hate and violence.

Quite frankly, I am embarrassed by that kind of behavior when it happens in the US. I can’t believe that a country that wrote freedom of religion into the first amendment seems to conveniently forget that it exists when life gets difficult. It makes me want to tell people I’m Canadian. People in the US have a lot of things to be proud of, but right now I’m not sure religious freedom is one of those things. Sure, we may give more religious freedoms than other countries but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for better.

All of what I’ve just said applies to myself as well. I really want to be a good role model for the boys at school and being a good role model means not judging the different religious viewpoints of the children and their parents. I need to be more understanding of the kids who didn’t want to go to church. I need to do a better job of practicing what I preach. I am embarrassed that I felt so angry and am glad that I did my best not to show it. I need to remember that not everyone shares my viewpoint because many times that slips my mind.

My own personal perspective has always been one of wanting to get to know other religions and experience what services, prayers, and special occasions are like for people who aren’t Presbyterian. When I was younger I decided I wanted to convert to Judaism. Then I wanted to become Catholic. Then I decided I liked being Presbyterian. Now I’m here and still Presbyterian but really enjoy going to mass. I love many of the Catholic events that I’ve been able to be a part of. In the States I’ve visited synagogues, temples, and mosques and do my best to be respectful when I am there. When people come to the door talking about religion I always listen to what they have to say. I like to understand where other people are coming from.

I want to finish this blog by saying that this experience has made me think more critically about separation of church and state, religious freedom, and Christianity. I will be reflecting upon this experience for many years to come. My personal belief is that we are all brothers and sisters of God. I believe there are many paths to God and we have so many different religions because God reaches out to people in different ways.

**Note: Even though I'm not Catholic I have been invited by the priests here to take communion in the Catholic Church.


Kevin Pokorny said...

Alisha, I appreciate the struggle you shared about your own religious views and trying to determine the source of your emotions. That means to me that you take your faith seriously. I concur with your last two sentences. The difficulty is that each person chooses their path in life in relationship with God, or another supreme being or no God. It was a blessing reading your blog. I'm glad you hung in there with the struggle rather than dismiss it. I wish I was there with you to talk about it.

Peace to you.

Matt said...

What a fascinating discussion topic you have brought up. It is interesting to think about how the separation, or not, of church and state is in other countries.