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Teaching Religious Literacy in the Face of Intolerance


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Teaching Religious Literacy in the Face of Intolerance

Commentary by Tracy Simmons | FāVS News

“When will you see the truth?”

That was the comment left on my Facebook post a day after I shared photos of a class field trip to Sravasti Abbey. My students and I were there as part of the Religion Reporting Project, a journalism program I started at WSU’s Murrow College in 2022.

The aim of the project is to talk with students about religion in the media, introduce them to experts in the field and — the best part — take them on visits to houses of worship throughout the region. The field trips allow them to meet faith leaders and see and experience unfamiliar sacred spaces in an immersive way.

The abbey was the program’s sixth field trip. I always return home from these excursions feeling inspired. I’m moved by the people of faith trying to improve the community with compassion, like the monastics at Sravasti, and by my students’ open minds and curiosity.

In general, people seem to be just as excited about the Religion Reporting Project as I am. Whenever I share about the class on social media it’s greeted with smileys, thumbs up and heart emojis. Learning about the belief systems and cultures around us makes for a more religiously literate society, and a more religiously literate society makes for a more inclusive and respectful nation. Many people can get behind this.

I know not everyone has this worldview though, and as a journalist am used to biting criticisms.  

Cult Upbringing Fuels Parental Scorn

The, “When will you see the truth?” comment, though, cut deep.

It came from my parents.

After a deafening silence for seven years (and another four years before that), they seized this moment to track down my public Facebook profile and deliver a gut-wrenching haymaker.

In an instant, I felt like I was curled up protectively on the floor, being kicked again by their words. Religion reporting spreads lies. Religion reporting is dangerous (they said going into houses of worship exposed me to demons). Other religions are wrong and aren’t worth understanding. People who believe differently than they do are being judged by God, and thus their stories aren’t worth telling.

I grew up in a cult. My mom and stepdad would have sooner seen me go down a path of delinquency and crime than become a religion reporter.

I deleted their comment, blocked them and reminded myself that I do what I do because of their misguided beliefs. 

Dangers of Close Mindedness and Isolation

All of us from the Religion Reporting Project scribbled lots of notes while at the abbey last weekend. Two words in my notepad that jump out at me are: intention and motivation. I’ve dedicated my life to the religion beat and am trying to teach young journalists about it because I’ve seen the dangers of close mindedness and isolation. 

When we got back to campus we took a class photo with a banner the monastics gifted us that read, “Welcome Diversity, Choose Harmony, Show Kindness.”

Those are my truths and even with my parents’ unexpected comment still burning, I aim to keep those my motivation.

Our next trip will be to Deary, Idaho, to learn about Heritage Idaho, whose values come out of the Anabaptist tradition.

Even more students are signed up for this trip, as word spreads about the Religion Reporting Project. As I witness their enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity, I’m filled with a profound sense of hope for the future they will help shape.

While the path of religion reporting may not call to all of them, I’m confident these bright young minds will emerge as skilled communicators — armed with a deep respect and understanding for the diverse cultures and belief systems they’ll encounter along the way. Their open-mindedness and commitment to amplifying unheard voices can serve as a powerful counter-narrative to the prejudices exemplified by my own parents’ and others like them. In my students’ capable hands, the world cannot help but become a more enlightened, inclusive place.

The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of FāVS.News, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.

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Walter A Hesford
Walter A Hesford
1 month ago

Thank you, Tracy, for persvevering in your important work and in helping students understand the value of authentic and open religious experience.

1 month ago

Thanks, Walter

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