Praying 25 times over the course of five days will change the way you look at God, yourself and others. Just ask Maddy Loewen.
This past June, the student at Winnipeg’s Westgate Mennonite Collegiate took up the Muslim practice of praying five times daily as part of a project in her Grade 10 Christian Studies class focusing on world religions. The assignment was to reflect upon a foreign religious practice for one school week.
“On the last day, I realized that I have never prayed 25 times over a course of just five days,” Loewen wrote in the reflection paper she submitted at the end of the project. “It was a pretty great experience. I felt a lot closer to God than I normally do. It made me think a lot more about others and myself. It made me become creative with my praying so I didn’t get bored and wander away with thought.”
Another student, Allison Janzen, fasted during the daylight hours to get a sense of what it is like for Muslim people to observe Ramadan, a month of fasting. Janzen recalls relying on prayer to help get her through times when she felt especially hungry.
“During my mini Ramadan, I got a glimpse into what it’s like to be Muslim,” Janzen wrote in her reflection paper. “Even though I did drink water during my fast, I had never tried fasting before, so it was something that I had to introduce myself to. During the month of Ramadan, for Muslims, they read larger portions of the Quran each day, to really make sure that the only thing that they take in during the day is the Holy scripture. I read parts of the Bible on some days, to put my focus towards God.”
Janzen added that what really amazes her is how Muslims do Ramadan.
“They don’t show it off, and they don’t go around telling people that they’re hungry all day,” she wrote in her paper. “They just do it, and it’s kind of like a private thing, that doesn’t have to be common knowledge.”
James Friesen, who teaches the Grade 10 Christian Studies class at Westgate, says that students can choose from a variety of different practices from different faith traditions to complete the assignment. Some choose to eat in strict accordance with Kosher laws, and some join a service in a Synagogue, Mosque or Temple.
Others do creative assignments like creating and destroying a mandala—a geometric figure that represents the universe. Buddhist monks spend days creating mandalas out of sand and then destroy them after completing them to symbolize impermanence. Some female students wear a hijab for a week.
Insights like Loewen’s and Janzen’s are what make the project worth doing, Friesen says.
“The point is to just get a glimpse of why people have been doing [these practices] for so long,” he says, adding that the project is also about recognizing differences between the Christian faith and other faiths, which hopefully leads to respectful dialogue.
“It would scare me if this [project] turned into [students] finding out we’re all just the same,” Friesen says. “We have these differences, let’s explore them. That starts communication and conversation.”
Friesen has been assigning the project for roughly the past seven years. He says the idea came from two students who came up with the idea of wearing hijabs for one week as a bonus assignment.
“I find the best ideas come from students wanting to do something a little extra—then you formalize and destroy it,” Friesen says jokingly.
Since then, the project has become a key part of the Christian Studies class. Each year, students add their own ideas into the mix
“I’m really excited about this,” Friesen says. “It keeps getting better.”
And for many students, it is an experience they do not soon forget. Loewen, the student who prayed five times a day for one week, gained a lot of respect for Islam as a result of the assignment.
“Muslims build their whole day around praying to God,” she wrote in her final report. “I felt a strong connection just after five days, so I can’t imagine how they must feel if they have been doing it their whole lives!
“I went into this project thinking that it wasn’t going to be hard, and it wasn’t. But what I found so interesting was how much I learnt about myself, others and the world.”
To read three reflection papers by Westgate students, visit www.tinyurl.com/WestgateReflections.