28 April 2008

Religious Freedom at Seventeen

The scene: Photography trip at the local community college. I'm sitting in the "cafe" with a couple of students from another school in the county. We're eating lunch and talking about our respective schools, and we come to the topic of which musicals our schools are performing.

Me: We're doing Children of Eden.

Girl: What's that?

Me: It's based on the Book of Genesis. It has the story of Adam and Eve, then it skips to Noah and the Ark.

Girl: Really? And they're like, allowed to do that?

Me: Why wouldn't they be?

Girl: Well... it's religious, isn't it?

Me: But it's the Old Testament, so it's more universal. I mean, Jews and Muslims use the Old Testament, they just interpret it differently and call it something else. Besides, freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion, right?

Girl: Yeah, whatever.

End Scene
I didn't think much of this incident when it happened, but when I had the same conversation with my mother, her co-worker, and just about every person I told about the play, I stumbled upon an oddity of my high school.

The student body isn't expected to check their faith at the door.

I always suspected this to be true--what with the "In God We Trust" sign that hung in the old lobby before it was torn down for renovations, and the Christian youth speaker that came to talk to us about morality. And it should have been perfectly clear to me when our choir director selected Christian pieces from various time periods for the concert choir's spring performance. But it wasn't until I started going to play practice for Children of Eden that I began to appreciate the faith I shared with other students.

One night in particular stands out clearly in my mind.

After a practice that ended some time around 10:30, I began to think about all of the tasks I was leaving unfinished because I was exhausted from the play. And because I was tired, my emotions were close to the surface--until they finally spilled over. I had a breakdown as I was walking down the longest hallway in the school; the one that goes from the front door straight to the auditorium--a single path if all the doors are open. Anyone would have been able to see (and hear) me if they stepped out of the auditorium.

And that's exactly what happened.

My friend Soon was about 20 feet behind me the entire time, and I hadn't noticed him. He didn't say anything to me until we got outside, and I really began to sob. He called after me, and I almost kicked myself for not having a tighter grip on myself. He asked me what was wrong.

"Life," I said, throwing my hands up into the air.

Without saying a word, he came over to me and hugged me, and began to say a prayer for the both of us; that we would find peace from our trials, and strength in our Lord. Even now, his gesture brings tears to my eyes because he said the words I couldn't bring myself to say in that moment. When I stood in need of faith stronger than my own in order to pick myself up again, he was there to pull me to my feet.

Which really put this next incident into perspective for me.

Fast forward to opening night. The entire cast was really nervous, and even the most confident singers with the most beautiful voices were now beginning to doubt themselves. After a pep-talk from our choir director, someone called for a prayer circle and the entire cast gathered within seconds in a large ring in the back of the choir room. The buck was passed around a few times as to who was going to say it, until our choir director finally said, "whoever is going to do it, do it soon, because I'm not allowed to do it and we gotta get moving." He then stood off outside the circle as the guy playing Father (God) said our prayer.

That bothers me.

Our choir director--an admitted Methodist--didn't feel comfortable joining our prayer circle because of what the repercussions might be.

He's a younger guy, and has a relationship with his students that is pretty remarkable. Even though we don't really get much individual attention, I feel like he sees us for what we are instead of what we're trying to be. And because he sees the faith we're trying to put into our lives, he gives us the chance to do that during school hours--the opportunities we've been taught not to pursue, not matter what our feelings might be.

He gives us the chance to have a voice.

In our schools, which have been revamped to teach us to pass tests, it has been really liberating to be able to express my faith instead of parroting back answers "they" want to hear all the time.

It's to the point where even though I've taken Honors French IV, AP Calculus, AP English Literature, Photography, and a Shakespeare independent study I had to fight with the administration to give me, the class that taught me the most about myself, prayer, and faith was Concert Choir.

So even though our PC nation has tried to remove religion from our schools, they cannot succeed when we keep our faith with us and act on it anyway.

Let them raise their eyebrows at our play, our prayer circles, our way of life--because what I'm learning from them is infinitely more important than the rest of my public school education anyway.

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