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The Matter of God (and How God Matters)
In speaking frankly with students about the role religious beliefs play in their lives, I was moved by how prominently God featured in student’s reflections about what matters to them, what they hold most dear, and what guides them in their everyday lives. Clearly, for many students, God matters.
God factors into their decision-making processes, their dreams and hopes for the future, their performance at school, and in their everyday interactions with friends, teachers, and administrators. While we certainly must be wary in public school contexts of discussing God and God-talk inappropriately, even secular spaces cannot afford to ignore the notion of God as something relevant to students’ lives and values. How, then, do we understand that thinking about God is a reality for many of our students, even in a secular context like the public school system?
Reckoning with God and religious identity as salient features of students’ identities, ways of knowing, and lives seems to be essential to seeing students as whole people who necessarily bring their religious selves to the classroom.
Louis, a senior at Faribault High School, and a devout Evangelical Christian, spoke eloquently about the huge role God plays in his life: “The difference between Christianity and almost everything else is that, it’s not just a religion, it’s a relationship with God.” For Louis, then, God is central to how he understands the reality of his life:
"God is like my best friend, or your father, you know? I do talk to him a lot, and it’s in a very real way...He’s everything.”
Louis speaks to the way ideas about the divine, the sacred—whether grounded in a specific religious tradition or not—influence students in impactful ways.
Josh, a smiley sophomore, and an immigrant from the Philippines, spoke about the impact of his grandmother's insistence that he become an altar boy for the Catholic Church: “I just felt like the more I became an altar boy, I could see that someone was watching me from above and guiding me through everything, and so that was the good thing about it. Someone’s guiding you through what to do and what not to do, so that was like, great.”
When I asked Josh what his concept of God is like, he was somewhat at a loss, but had no qualms with trying to describe his theology: “He’s like us, but, with powers. [laughs]. It’s like, it’s so hard to explain. God for me is like the one that’s always been there for you, when nobody’s there." This was a sentiment that many students seemed to express about their concept of God. Josh went on to say:
"In your darkest moments, He’s like the light, the light that you see at the end of the tunnel. So it’s like your best friend, that’s always been there, but you don’t know it. And is there for you every time you need Him, you know?”
Earlier, Josh mentioned the death of his father as a major turning point in his life and something he’s been struggling with recently; his description of God was even more significant given this context.
Kayla, a student who identified herself as native to Faribault and part Hispanic (and Josh’s girlfriend), described her relationship with God despite not being affiliated with a religious tradition. When I asked her if she believed in God, she answered: “I do. And it wasn’t just because I go to church sometimes, it’s just because when I was younger I knew that there was someone watching over me.” Kayla said:
“[God is] a really really close friend that moved away. You know you don’t talk to them that often, but you know they’re still there.”
Tofah, a Somali Muslim student, spoke eloquently about her passion for praying to God, and how it feels to worship: "You know how every day we have to pray five times a day? I feel so light, and free, and happy when I pray." Another Somali Muslim student, Ubah, a senior, spoke about the way prayer runs through all parts of her life and connects her to God:
"When I come here, I pray, like, before I take a test. I pray, like you know, ‘God help me, please, with this,’ you know? Like, I always think about Islam. It’s in my head. I was born with it, so, I was born into it."
I feel so light, and free, and happy when I pray. —Tofah
Skyler, a Christian student who is passionate about music and theater, reflected on conceptions of divine power, and what kind of God gives her comfort:
"God isn’t standing up there with a big old hammer waiting for you to mess up so that he can hammer you down. In my eyes, he’s like a forgiving God, like if you ask for forgiveness, he will be there for you and stuff."
Clearly, God is on student’s minds—in their homes, in their places of worship, and yes, even in school. This kind of God-talk in the cafeteria can make educators understandably nervous. Yet reckoning with God and religious identity as salient features of students’ identities, ways of knowing, and lives seems to be essential to seeing students as whole people who necessarily bring their religious selves to the classroom. Louis puts it most succinctly when he explains the way his belief in God impacts his everyday life: “I stand up for what I believe in at church, and the same way at school. So it’s like, I’m not going to live a double life, and have my church life be different than my school life."
I stand up for what I believe in at church, and the same way at school. So it’s like, I’m not going to live a double life, and have my church life be different than my school life. —Louis