By Karen Johnson. It is Palm Sunday in the heart of Chicago’s Austin community, a west-side inner-city neighborhood. Children welcome the congregation into the gym, one dressed as Jesus riding on a donkey (for all you Color of Christ fans, Jesus, in this case, is black). Pastor Robert Stevenson encourages the congregation to sing their praises to God, dance their praises to God, play instruments in praise to God. Technical difficulties prevent a song from playing well from the speaker system. The atmosphere lacks the professionalism of most suburban churches, but the praise is heartfelt. People pass babies. My own son makes it to the front of the church when Pastor asks the man holding him to pray over the service. The prayer quiets the congregation, a moment of comfort for many of the visitors in the audience who are my students from a suburban liberal arts college. For many, this is a cross-cultural experience. The students are part of my class on the history of race and ethnicity in the United States, and they are on an experiential learning field trip.
Why a field trip – especially with all the work it requires? The answer lies in our calling as teachers. “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” said James Baldwin. This semester, we have studied the history of race and ethnicity not only to learn it, but to learn how to use it. But how do we “use” history without being presentists? Part of the answer lies in the question of why we teach. Teaching should not just transfer knowledge, but help students be transformed. Experiences teach students in ways that reading and analysis cannot. As one student commented, “a woman who had attended the church for over 20 years said, ‘Sunday’s the most segregated day of the week.’ It struck me not only that there was some truth to that statement, but that I have lived my entire life experiencing segregated Sunday church services.” The present has a history– to understand why Sunday is so segregated, and why Rock Church was such a powerful experience for the students, they needed to know the history.