I have learned from many teachers and Mentors during Project Conversion thus far. One such teacher, Rev. Susan Ulrich, was my World Religions instructor during the 2011 Spring Semester at a local community college. She asked if she could write a guest blog about her experience teaching me this year. I am honored by her kindness and proud to call her a teacher and a friend.
The life of the adjunct professor of religion isn’t always as glamorous as one might think. I understand that the idea of racing from one institution of higher learning to another dispensing wisdom like golden dreams and sprinkling religious information like fairy dust on the unenlightened can seem like an unreachable gossamer vision but it isn’t always the high and holy calling it’s made out to be. Sometimes you are informed which class you are teaching only days before the first session. Sometimes you find out that the class will meet on Monday Nights from 6:00PM to 8:40 PM after you have taught all day beginning at 9:00 AM. So it was with World Religions, and of course it just happened to be a class I hadn’t taught before. Night class one night a week for 2 hrs 40 minutes is one of the more non-glamorous parts of the job. In this milieu one does not expect enlightenment. Usually one just prays to make it through without getting fired, however like the title of an old gospel song, “Sometimes a Light Surprises” This time the light was named Andrew Bowen.
On the first day of class a young man in his mid- late 20’s sat on the third row. He was without expression, had wonderful posture and appeared to be fairly tense and guarded. I didn’t think much about it, most students are uptight the first meeting of the semester. At the first break he came down to the front of the room and handed me a newspaper and said, “You might find this interesting”. Misunderstanding I said, “I’ll find this interesting?” Andrew replied, rather strongly, “you MIGHT find this interesting” I read the indicated article and he was right. I did find the article interesting. The article was an interview of Andrew in the Charlotte Observer. The main focus of the interview was a unique project he had masterminded called Project Conversion. It was a project designed to enhance Andrews’ understanding of different religions and through his new found understanding enhance the world’s understanding. Once a month for 11 months he would “convert” to a new religion. It was hard to equate the erudite, warm and well-spoken person in the article with the intense, expressionless and closed-mouthed young man in my class. What was the difference?
After reading the article during the class break I told Andrew how interesting I found his project and suggested that we discuss a way to incorporate his project into the class. Andrew was agreeable to the suggestion and we made plans to meet at the library during the next week. We decided that once monthly he would give a presentation to the class concerning that particular month’s chosen religion. We thought that this would be a “win-win” situation. Speaking about the religion would help Andrew focus and consolidate all of the new information he was learning about his “faith of the month.” His presentations would allow me to clarify information that, although I’d studied, I’d never taught, and most importantly for me, the teacher, it would allow the class an “almost insider” view of that particular religion. Talking to Andrew in the library is a completely different experience than talking to him that first night of class. He no longer appeared tense and guarded, but was relaxed and excited. Even his posture changed as he appeared to melt into the chair. Now Andrew is the person in the article, articulate, interesting and convivial.
The first presentation is Andrew at his best. The religion is Hinduism and he gave a clear, concise and interesting lecture. I couldn’t help thinking that it was much more interesting than my own lecture. He was very relaxed and at ease during the presentation to the point shaking off his shoes when he came to the front of the class (he was wearing flip-flops) He began by first explaining the impetus that caused him to embark on a voyage into the perilous waters of religion and then gave an explanation of Project Conversion after this he effortlessly began the discussion on Hinduism
The semester ended after four months and four presentations, with each presentation we learned about a different religion and a different Andrew. I was amazed at how easily he seemed to embrace each individual religion’s tenets. Andrew seemed well able to allow each new religion to become the religion, at least for thirty days. I admit that I often thought that for Andrew schizophrenia could only be the end result of the project.
I saw Andrew today at almost the mid way point of his project. He’s tired and wrung out but he isn’t schizophrenic, not yet. I can’t help wonder if he doesn’t need a “time-out” because he said, “I don’t know who I am right now.” I found this statement exceedingly coherent in the context of the last six months. I can’t imagine how it would be to enter and exit this many faiths and their communities in this short period of time.
I read his wife’s blog post and I understood exactly how she felt. Her life must be terribly trying at this point and the fact that she not only “puts up with” but supports Andrew in this project is a testimony to the strength of her love. She’s also right; he is doing this correctly; he is putting all of himself into Project Conversion. If I had spoken to her as well as Andrew, today I would tell her to “Carry on, it isn’t forever. And if you need a break call me, I’ll take the children for a night while the two of you have some couple time.” Her post made me think. How many of us put all of ourselves into our own religion, much less a “borrowed” one? Certainly this immersion contributes to the understanding of the differences as well as the understanding of the similarities. All religions are trying to reach the truth, even if we don’t agree with their ways and means, or even their goal. All humans have similar desires and needs, even if we don’t agree with their ways and means, or even their final goal. Is immersion in other faiths necessary for acceptance of that faith? Must we completely absorb other teachings to understand and accept other ways? Can acceptance be found through simple understanding or is a comprehensive envelopment of belief necessary? Is Andrew’s way the only way, the right way, the only right way? If it is not the only way how can it inform our lives and our own process of understanding other faiths? These are questions that can probably only be answered individually, but they need to be asked and answered by everyone.
Why was Andrew so different, so tense and seemingly uptight when I first met him? Did it have to do with acceptance? My acceptance? Was it because I was a teacher, middle-aged, Christian, a minister, a woman, all of the above? I think that the project itself, even the idea of the project was still so new to Andrew that he felt he must guard it. Project Conversion was still an infant that must be guarded and tended, and Andrew as the Project’s “Daddy” would be the one to do the tending and guarding. What if it were rejected, would it have mattered to Andrew? Was the project such a part of him (even at that early stage) that any hostility (even perceived hostility) would have threatened not only the project but Andrew? But now does the project stand on its own feet? Has it matured to the point that like a grown child it no longer depends on its parent? Will Daddy Andrew be able to let go when the time comes? Is there a continuation of this project in another context, or does it end when the year ends? I imagine that Andrew’s wife, especially, has these questions in the forefront of her thought.
I’ll stop writing now. It seems that I must answer another e-mail concerning a student who is not pleased with their final grade. I will attempt to explain to this student that not only must one come to class but actually study and complete their assignments in order to pass a religion class. As I said in the beginning, the life of the adjunct professor isn’t as glamorous as it seems. Thank God for lights like Andrew Bowen. What a wonderful surprise.
Rev. Susan Ulrich
Thank you Rev. Ulrich!