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English Students Learn Religion in Oakland

Vanessa Marlin

By Vanessa Marlin


Cindy Escamilla, a junior, dressed in her Sunday best, went to a sermon at Hope Baptist Church in Oakland last week to fulfill a service learning assignment. Her intentions were to see how biblical scriptures are applied within the Baptist denomination, but when the choir sang and the minister preached, she tried her best to restrain herself from leaping up from her pew and shouting “Hallelujah” in the middle of the docile service.

“I’m so into singing and clapping my hands and I just wanted to raise my hands and get into it and sing with the choir, but I didn’t want to seem like an outsider,” said Escamilla, who was raised in a Pentacostal church where divinely inspired outbursts are the norm. “But they made me feel really comfortable.”

For Escamilla and two other students in professor Cynthia Scheinberg’s the Bible as Literature class, studying religious scriptures in a classroom setting is challenging enough, but when Scheinberg presented the class with the opportunity to explore religion within East Bay communities, it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

The three students who accepted this service learning opportunity were required to develop a project, with help from Scheinberg, that focuses on the ways biblical or koranic texts are applied within the Oakland community. Escamilla chose to focus on the Bible and derive her research from the scriptural teachings from a Baptist church. Charis Boke, a junior, and Shelley Falkenberg, a senior, are focusing on the Koran and deriving their information about how the Koran is interpreted from what they learn from theological classes at UC Berkley and from visiting a local mosque.

The students will be turning in a paper about their findings and will give an oral presentation, yet for each one of them, what they gain from this service learning project goes well beyond the assignment’s broad requirements. They seek to broaden their own religious experiences.

Scheinberg developed the new service learning program: Living Scriptures: Contemporary Issues and practices with biblical and koranic scriptures in East Bay/Oakland communities, because she believes that understanding the role of religious texts in people’s lives is especially relevant today.

“Our post-9/11 nation has tended to create powerful images and stereotypes about religious practice,” she says, adding that she hopes both religious and non-religious students will learn how religion functions in people’s lives to better understand other religious perspectives. “Religious texts are powerful outside realms of academia and powerful to learn,” she said.

The students who decided to add this project to an already full workload have their own unique questions that they want to explore in addition to completing the project. Escamilla felt so compelled to take on the project that she dropped her kick boxing class in order to have time to pursue it. She is comparing similar branches of Christianity— Baptist and Pentecostal— to see how each interprets the Bible. Her research topic is not the only incentive she has to visit the church. “My mom and I are trying to find a church in our neighborhood,” she said.

She said she is open to joining Hope Baptist church- especially since the church offers a Spanish-speaking sermon that appeals to her mother, who speaks little English.

Last week, unaware that the Spanish-speaking sermon was held in the evening, Escamilla attended an earlier English-speaking sermon in a predominantly black congregation. She said she found many striking similarities between Baptist and Pentacostal interpretations of the Bible, but still finds herself attached to the Pentacostal church’s lively, impulsive traditions.

Boke is taking an in-depth look at koranic scriptures, but like Escamilla, is seeking something much more personal from the experience. She has already attended a graduate class on koranic text studies at the theological union at UC Berkeley, and plans to visit a mosque in Oakland to study how the Koran is interpreted there.

What she is leaving out of her research paper is information that she will gather to enhance her own “panspirituality,” a term she uses to describe her own unique basis for belief which is derived from many different religions. Boke said that learning about religion is her passion, which stems from having Unitarian Universalist ministers as parents. She said her father, although a minister, is an atheist, who encouraged her to seek out her own spiritual path.

“[It’s] a fascinating function of the human brain that necessitates a belief in a power higher than one’s self,” she said.

Falkenberg attended a different class on koranic scriptures at UC Berkeley for her project and will be visiting a local mosque as well. The class of about 30, mostly men, explored the role of Islamic prophets in the Koran.

She found the subject fascinating for her research paper, but said is looking forward to learning more about Islamic culture, particularly the role of women. She said she sees Islam portrayed mostly in a negative light in the media and hopes her firsthand experience at the mosque will help her to draw her own conclusions.

After the class, Falkenberg talked with the professor for an hour and a half, covering every inch of the front of her notebook with notes from her one-on-one conversation.

“I was surprised to learn that [Islamic] faith supports women but the government redirects [faith],” she said.

Although raised a Catholic, Falkenberg said she has taken a personal interest in Islam.

“I’m from the Phillipines where they tried so much to convert ‘heathens’ [to Catholicism] and I don’t agree with it,” she said. “I want to find a religion that spreads the word of God without suppressing others’ beliefs.”

The Living Scriptures program is supported by the Irvine Grant, which is part of a broader program at Mills that enables students to gain extra credit by expanding their learning into the Oakland community in conjunction with certain classes that allow for the service learning option.