They're Just Like Us

One of the most important lessons I took from this experience was that religion does have so many positive things about it. ... We hear of senseless violence, abuse, and war that surrounds religion every day. ... But religion has brought our world some peace and a sense of belonging to so many people."

Those sentiments are from a student's paper in my Religion and Media class at Elon University. The core course assignment requires students to visit a house of worship outside their personal faith and report on the experience. They must also interview church leaders and congregation members, research the tradition or denomination and report on media use during services.

Here's a conclusion from another student's paper:

"As a young adult, I had doubt and discomfort when posed with the question of religion. ... This assignment allowed me to re-evaluate the status of religion in my own life and better respect the religions of which I am ignorant."

Today's college students were toddlers or just starting school when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred. They have come of age in a time of ISIS, religious assaults on abortion providers, moral protests concerning gay marriage and stories of Catholic priests and pedophilia.

Headlines blare daily about states passing so-called religious freedom bills that permit various forms of discrimination, such as North Carolina's contentious HB2. "Freedom" in this context has mixed meanings, depending upon which side of the fence you're on.

Despite many being raised in religious families and some even attending faith-based schools for a dozen years prior to starting college, the millennial generation often views religious people with suspicion and as inherently intolerant.

"Millennials (young adults born between 1981 and 1996) are much less likely than older Americans to pray or attend church regularly or to consider religion an important part of their lives," according to the Pew Center's Religious Landscape Study.

Millennials typically distrust institutions, and church is just one more institution.

Students in the class attended services of their choosing at 33 different Christian churches, Islamic mosques, Jewish synagogues and Hindu and Buddhist temples over the course of several weeks this spring.

The assignment forced them to interact with people they feared, avoided or just never thought much about. Faith communities throughout central North Carolina hosted the students, who were warmly welcomed, hugged, fed and always invited to return.

Some of the sermons and worship styles threw students off balance, and there were language barriers - even when the language being spoken was English. Let's just say areas of theological disagreement arose.

Despite these issues, or perhaps because of them, results were highly encouraging. The students quoted above were not anomalies - the entire class expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to get out of their religious comfort zones. Once they met the "other" face-to-face, fear and prejudice vanished.

Guest speakers also visited us throughout the semester. Among them were four Mormon missionaries, two elders and two sisters. They were funny and bright, and the same ages as my students.

The class marveled at the missionaries' discipline in perpetually studying the Bible and Book of Mormon, shunning television and other electronic entertainment, and using the Internet only on those rare occasions when they could email or Skype with their families. When the hour was up all too soon, we gave them a round of applause.

A few days later as class was about to begin, some of the students enthusiastically told me of running into the missionaries at Pelican's SnoBalls, where they were ordering shaved ice in various flavors.

Just like us.