The context: I have taught classes in world religions for undergraduate students in a number of Catholic institutions of higher education. Some of these institutions have explicitly formulated missions that contain elements of outreach or service to local religious communities.
The pedagogical purpose: To emphasize learning from and with religious others in world religions courses, instead of only learning about them. This form of experiential learning provides students with resources to connect their learning process with the institutional mission of outreach and service to local religious communities.
Description of the strategy: When institutions of higher education provide possibilities for service-learning, I have collaborated with the service-learning staff in order to find places where students can work on behalf of religious communities that are different from their own religious background. If there is no service-learning opportunity, I give students information about a number of communities representing religions that they are interested in. Students prepare themselves by studying specific aspects of this religion, and questions for interviews. Students make appointments with representatives of a religious community – often a learning experience in itself because of cultural differences in communication – in order to participate in an educational or ritual activity of the community, after which they engage in semi-structured interviews with members of the community. They reflect on their experiences with the community visit, the interviews, and their learning process in group presentations. Moreover, in an essay they connect their experiences with the mission of their school or university. Students who were able to engage in service-learning write a number of reflection-papers and give a group presentation about their service-learning site.
Why it is effective: The strategies appear to be very effective for the large majority of students because it forces them out of their comfort zones to go and meet religious others. This requires them to learn from and with religious others, and enables them to discover unexpected insights not only about others, but about their own religious views as well. This was even more true for students who worked with and represented religious communities through service-learning. Students learn by connecting this form of experiential learning with well-known topics in religious studies such as religious prejudices, the place of women in religion, the political functions of religious groups, extremism, and piety.