This article was originally posted on the Religious Studies News website, October 2010
Religion in the City
One of my aims of teaching religion is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. It was with this in mind that I took my third-year undergraduate class, “Religion and the City,” to a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Toronto. For two hours, our guide and local expert, Anthony, a former crack-addict who had lived on the streets for eight years, gave my class a tour of the city, our city, from the perspective of a person experiencing homelessness.
“It was a lot quieter before the revitalization,” Anthony remarked as we walked through Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square (which some call the Times Square of Canada). We had just walked through the massive Eaton’s Centre when I turned to make sure that I had not lost any would-be shoppers to the call of the mall and observed several students reaching for their cameras to snap pictures of Canada’s busiest intersection. I was somewhat surprised by their desire to capture this moment — the students’ interaction with this space stood in sharp contrast to Anthony’s intimate knowledge of the site. This interlude raises important questions about the necessity of offering opportunities for civic engagement both inside and outside our classrooms.
This course offered students a chance to develop their own theory that could then be applied across historical and cultural realms. I specifically was interested in encouraging the students to look at the ways that religious and secular narratives described and constructed categories of the insider and outsider within civic spaces. I emphasized that we can understand meaning-making as deriving from both official and unofficial narratives. In doing so, I wanted them to understand that their lived experiences outside of the classroom could also serve as primary sources or “texts” available for scholarly examination (Morton, 2002: 41–42).
The course texts — biblical passages, novels, poetry, essays, documentary films, and a field trip — provided case studies with which we, as a class, could develop a theoretical approach to non-conventional sacred spaces in both ancient and contemporary worlds. In the first half of the course we read, among other texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which we used as the model for exploring specific questions related to ontological constructions of the self and community. In the second half of the course we read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (Knopf Doubleday, 1997), which is a modern retelling of the Gilgamesh narrative set in early twentieth century Toronto. Ondaatje’s poetic novel combines fiction and reality to tell the unofficial history of the working-class immigrants responsible for the construction of Toronto. More than once we joked that we were starting our own religion, “Ondaatje-ism,” which would have certainly dismayed the well-known Canadian fiction icon.
Although we did not start our own religion, we did develop our own theory. With a healthy dose of Foucault and Jonathan Z. Smith, we constructed a theory that we were confident applying to several case studies. I suggested to the students that in respect to the title of our course, “Religion and the City,” perhaps there is a religion of the city that could be identified in Ondaatje’s novel. The characters in the novel are forced to express their identity by investing in nonconventional spaces while opposing established authority structures. Our task then was to ask the same questions about, and to apply the same theory to, contemporary Toronto. More specifically, who is included and excluded in the physical construction and cognitive imaginings of Toronto in 2010? What sites become nonconventional sacred sites to those who define themselves as citizens non grata in opposition to the establishment?
These questions were addressed in a major assignment for the course. I instructed students to select their own spaces within the city of Toronto that they felt resembled spaces described above and to apply our theory to those sites. In order to help them, I offered my own example, the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter and Drop-in Centre, for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto.
Civic Engagement as Knowledge-Production
So it was on a chilly March morning I took my class to the shelter where they spoke first with Dion Oxford, the manager, who addressed the challenges of urban homelessness. He then turned the class over to the aforementioned Anthony, who runs walking tours of the city to provide community groups with insights into the ways in which individuals experiencing homelessness navigate Toronto’s downtown core.
The Religion in the Public Sphere (RPS) Initiative at the University of Toronto was established three years ago with the intent to provide a forum for interdisciplinary conversations among scholars, students, and community members concerning religion in public venues (politics, art, education, etc). Several RPS initiatives are directed primarily toward undergraduate students, including the student steering committee, an online blog forum, and the opportunity to take a service-learning course.
While not directly related to the RPS initiative, the goal of the “Religion and the City” course was to incorporate some of the core themes of research focusing on public manifestations of religion, and was made possible in conjunction with generous funding from the Jackman Humanities Foundation. The course was initially taught in 2008 by Pamela Klassen (director of the RPS Initiative) and graduate student Arlene MacDonald (who has since received her PhD from the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion). They passed on to me a format that emphasised ethnographic engagement within civic spaces.
Civic engagement as a pedagogical practice has been defined in numerous ways (Battistoni 2002; Boyer 1990; Ehrlich 1999; Tritelli 2003). At the most basic level it suggests a collaborative and reciprocal interaction between students and the community at large. Civic engagement promotes a framework of learning in which students are encouraged to understand themselves as agents or participants in their field of study and in relation to their object of study. Ideally it positions students to ask intelligent and meaningful questions about their own roles within their communities and social spheres of influence.
In employing this framework, I aspired to provide my students with nonconventional objects of study and to challenge them to include their own subjective experiences and epistemologies in their analyses of religion (Palmer 1998: 106). From the perspective of the “Religion and the City” course, a focus on civic engagement meant the production of knowledge in an environment that is not inaccessible but rather one in which the students could take personal ownership over both their topic and method of study.
In my view, the class trip to the Gateway provided students with an opportunity to learn within a framework of civic engagement. As we followed Anthony through the streets of Toronto, he paused frequently to shake hands in jovial camaraderie with men and women who are likewise a part of street culture. Anthony introduced the students to a space that many of them have occupied for years and offered a completely different perspective. At the city courthouse, where one of my students had served as an intern, Anthony told us about various fights in the basement holding cells. At Eaton’s Centre, where another student worked as a sales clerk, Anthony reported to us that he is often rudely asked to leave by mall security. Finally, in the park in front of the twenty-four-story apartment building in which I live, Anthony reminisced about the nights he had slept in the park as part of an all-night “sleep-out” designed to draw attention to affordable housing needs in Toronto. After Anthony left, I pointed to my building and admitted to my students that I do not know my neighbors’ names, and then asked my students the following: who is really at home in these spaces? (Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, 2008).
Expanding Boundaries in the City and in the Classroom
Teaching and studying at the University of Toronto provides a great venue for theorizing about and interacting with urban spaces. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was surprised to witness my students stop to take pictures during the trip. Upon closer reflection, I realized that because the city of Toronto is a so-called megacity with an ever-expanding metropolitan conglomeration of sizable suburban municipalities, the majority of my students reside in the suburbs and in a very real way were tourists in their own town.
While the students understood themselves as Torontonians, many of them later reported to me that this identity was one that they tentatively held because they felt uncertain about what the major issues and concerns were for the city. With this in mind, one of my goals in teaching this course is to provide a space where students can draw connections between their learning inside the classroom and their lived experiences outside of the university. As Parker Palmer suggests, the teacher’s role is one that allows students “to be introduced to a world that expands their personal boundaries and enlarges their sense of community” (120).
In an attempt to have the students expand personal boundaries and better understand the city, I encouraged them to select and analyze sites that would challenge them to view the city from an unfamiliar perspective. Furthermore, I told them that they would be evaluated not only on their critique but also on their selection of data. Following my lead, many of the students selected sites that are central to specific subcultures within the city (the Gay Village, Jewish or Muslim community organizations, domestic abuse care centers, the University’s Centre for Women and Trans People), whereas others chose to focus on what have traditionally been viewed as ethnic neighborhoods within Toronto (Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal) or neighborhoods that are notorious for violence and gang activity (Toronto’s Flemingdon Park and Regent Park).
In the end, I was surprised by the number of students who selected sites in which they were personally invested. In their papers, students reflected on and problematized their own interactions with their selected sites. Since the focus was on the way that spaces create narratives that include some while excluding others, the assignment provided an opportunity for students to challenge some of their own communities’ practices regarding the construction of boundaries and the implementation of authoritative systems.
I have left my definition of “civic engagement” intentionally broad. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion, I am sensitive to the reluctance of many of my colleagues to employ pedagogical practices that might be deemed ideological or values-driven. For example, in providing Anthony such a generous allocation of class time, one might assume that I am emphasizing my own personal (albeit fairly normative) commitments to reducing homelessness in Toronto. I have yet to resolve this concern, but I found it helpful to address the issue with the students in class as part of our discussion and reflection about the field trip. In doing so, I hope that I am attending to Jonathan Z. Smith’s instance that we must reveal to students the hard work that goes into our pedagogical and intellectual endeavors.
A lot of the research focusing on civic engagement promotes a classroom experience that compels students to be involved in political activities and social justice initiatives. There is a concern that university-educated individuals are becoming less involved in civic responsibilities (Putnam, 2000). In fact, there have been calls from student groups, community organizations, and university educators to integrate intellectual and practical venues for civic engagement (Zlotkowski and Williams, 2003). To date, service-learning initiatives are one of the primary ways through which this integration has been successfully accomplished (Devine, Favazza, and McLain, 2002). This initiative is a popular option for independent students with the means and aptitude for experiential learning. In order to truly meet the demands for a cohesive integration of the concerns of civic engagement, universities must move beyond one-off courses and begin to integrate these themes into the curriculum and learning objectives of more established courses.
In my experience it was optimal to use the resources already available to students in the course. They served as resident experts of Toronto and were able to identify objects of study within their own neighborhoods and communities. Assured that they were indeed already experts, and armed with a new method of looking at civic spaces from a different perspective, my students uncovered a city that was simultaneously less and more familiar to us all.