Creating a Path for Students

Being an Episcopal School offers yet another opportunity for students to engage in their development of identity and empowerment of voice. Throughout the Preschool through 12th grade experience, Religion class and Chapel provide spaces where students discern their own beliefs and how those beliefs relate to others.

A cherished characteristic of Episcopal identity is that of inclusion. It is unclear who coined the phrase, “common prayer, not common doctrine” but it has become a well-known saying amongst Episcopalians. The idea is that prayer, rather than doctrine, is what connects us and this is certainly the case at Breck. When we gather, our prayer forms can be reflection, silence, silliness, or song. Prayer could be “Lean on me” or “Amazing grace,” the Lord’s Prayer in Chinese or Joy Harjo’s Eagle Poem.

I had the opportunity to witness how prayer, not doctrine, connected with one of our students at Breck. On the first day of school, a Jewish student ran up to me to share a story from his summer. He said that he traveled to Israel for his bar mitzvah and one of the prayers he used was from the Breck prayer anthology. He recalled the prayer saying, “Look to this day! For it is life, the very life of life,” words from an ancient Hindu poem. Having a Jewish student celebrate his bar mitzvah in Israel with a Hindu prayer that he found in a prayer anthology at an Episcopal school is a perfect example of this common prayer connection as well as Breck’s religious philosophy that “there are many paths to God.”

Our commitment to inclusivity comes from our Episcopal founding and this story epitomizes how that is lived in our building. Our practice isn’t just to celebrate the practices of Judaism, Hinduism, and other religions for that matter. Rather, we strive to create a sense of belonging for all of our students. That means we allow our lived experiences of different faiths to influence the development of our own beliefs and ideas. The Jewish student’s faith was deepened, not depleted, as the result of his understanding of another religious tradition.

We wrestle with theological and philosophical questions about faith, religion, and ritual in the Episcopal tradition and as a result, at Breck too. In my classroom I hear questions like, “What is a soul?” or “Why are there different religions?” I also am asked what happens when someone dies. The purpose of our class is not that I answer these questions. The purpose is for students to have a sacred space where the dignity of their inquiry is respected, and therefore, they can discover their own answers. Students listen to one another in the process. Their grappling is done in community.

Our religion program is about creating a path for our students to discern what they believe, whether those beliefs map onto the outline of a particular religious path or not. We cannot detach our spiritual selves from our emotional selves and our biggest life questions require continuous self-reflection throughout our lives. Our religion program is not about indoctrination, but the power of self-understanding. When we talk about inclusion work there is the development of self, then ourselves as we relate to others, and finally how we relate to the world. As our students answer their own spiritual questions, they develop a sense of self, juxtaposed to the interpersonal, and a worldview as well. Our Episcopal traditions allows us to embrace that component of human development, rather than deny it, religious or not.

Alexis Kent
Religion Department Head, Middle School Chaplain

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