Curriculum on Worship and Cross-Cultural Experiences

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By Heather Elkins, Green Team Member, Drew Theological School, Madison NJ

Drew’s required worship class offers students the opportunity to read and interpret scripture and worship texts with cultural sensitivity, ethical and environmental awareness, and a critical understanding of their histories, interpretations, and applications in church, society, and creation. Each semester’s presentations, practicums, and readings encourage discernment of the holiness of space and time in community and creation through the structures of the life cycles, the Christian Year, the lectionary, and worship environments. Prayer traditions and practice now include the use of Drew’s labyrinth and weekly use of the Psalms that highlight human, nature, holy relationships.

In addition to the traditional seasons such as Advent and Lent, the Season of Creation is presented through services, vestments, and writings of Saint Francis and Pope Francis. Presentations of the water rites of Christian Initiation include ethical considerations of water as a human right, such as prayers from Standing Rock. Table practices include tracing sacramental and ethical connections to food and poverty. One recent example of teaching material can be seen in my presentation, “In Defense of Creation” that links a communion set, a UMC Bishops’ Letter on creation and nuclear weapons, and the Olympics.

Students are asked to design their own funeral services with appreciation and knowledge of the ethical, ecological, and liturgical relationships that enable their communities to seek justice, mercy, and love. Ecological burial practices are presented in the context of theological and cultural insights on life, death, and life beyond death.

It is in the hymn writing assignment that ecological insights often surface into texts. Although these hymns may never end up in congregational use, the concentrated theological focus on “singing what you believe” may prove helpful in more extended forms of proclamation and prayer.

Drew’s new curriculum, beginning in fall 2018, will feature new required courses. Aspects of this course will be incorporated in new offerings and the eco-theological connections between chapel services and classroom will continue to be strengthened.

This emphasis will also appear in two of Drew’s cross-cultural courses, featuring issues of environment, energy, economics and peoples who have faced historical trauma and marginalization: Native Americans and Appalachians. Appalachian courses have been offered every other year since 1995, engaging students with community religious leaders and activists in cultural identity and survival in the face of mountaintop removal, chemical pollution, globalization, fracking, and economic limitation. The second series of cross-cultural courses are Native America: People and Place. It features Native educators and has been offered in three different locations/tribes: Northeast, California, and Oklahoma. The historical, environmental, and cultural trauma of these peoples are experienced through the leadership of communities that continue to honor relationship with earth and other created beings in ways that are life-giving. The most recent class included Chumash tribal leaders who work with their youth on tribal identity, environmental protection, and cultural survival. One of the leaders shared a pin with the class that summarized both the historic struggle and their humor and humanity. The pin simply reads: "We should have built a wall."

Students in both courses develop a teaching project designed for specific communities to share key learnings, resources, and relationships. Library holdings, both texts and digital resources have been strengthened so that the entire University benefits from this curriculum.