Students enter the classroom as music plays, a song that relates to the lesson of the day. Then, a ring of the singing bowl calls students to settle for a few moments of silent worship. After clearing their minds and grounding themselves in the moment, a land acknowledgement to honor the Lenni-Lenape people is read. Students then recite a portion of the poem, Pensamiento Serpentino: You are my other me/If I do harm to you,/ I do harm to myself./If I love and respect you,/ I love and respect myself. This routine begins each of Brian Blackmore’s classes, readying students to engage in the rich conversations that characterize his and all religion classes at Westtown.
“Our community [at Westtown] is a microcosm of the world, so our intention is that the knowledge that students gain about the history, texts, beliefs, and practices of the major world religious traditions [in our religion classes] helps them interact and engage with other students, adults in our community, and others in the world in a way that feels ethically responsible,” shares Blackmore. “We want students to have a real and informed understanding of folks who are of religious backgrounds that are not their own. The role of the Religion Department is to look at religious faith as an important dimension of human identity and experience.”
Blackmore is the Religious Studies Department Chair. He teaches World Religions 1 and 2 — which focus on the study of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — as well as courses on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality and Religion, Nonviolence, and Social Change. He has many other roles including advisor, dorm affiliate, Work Program faculty, faculty advisor for WAGGS (student affinity groups for gender and sexuality). Among these roles is the Upper School Quaker Worship and Spiritual Life Coordinator. In this role, he organizes logistics around Meeting for Worship and provides religious and spiritual experiences for non-Quaker students, including arranging shuttles for students to attend religious services off campus, creating opportunities for students around observances of Ramadan and Eid, and leading meditation walks around the lake, to give a few examples.
For the past several years, the Religious Studies faculty have been applying a method for teaching about religions in secondary schools developed by the Religion and Public Life Program at Harvard Divinity School. This method for studying religion with young people helps them become “more ethically responsible citizens in a multi-religious world, and to help students effectively navigate a world of religious difference.” Blackmore describes three points that are emphasized in this method of teaching religion: all religions are internally diverse; they are dynamic and changing over time; and, they are embedded in culture and politics. “The first two are especially important in our work towards becoming a more inclusive and anti-racist school,” says Blackmore. “We’re trying to resist monolithic claims and assumptions about any religious group; any kind of singular idea about who they are, what they believe, or how they practice.”
Blackmore emphasizes that the religion courses at Westtown are scholarly studies of religious texts and traditions, not spaces to evangelize. “We’re not interested in creating the next generation of Quakers. We’re not trying to get students to adopt certain Christian beliefs or incorporate certain Hindu practices into their daily lives. We want them to be able to navigate a world of religious difference. Religions often influence politics, culture, and our relationships with coworkers, family, and friends, so knowledge about religious traditions can help Westtown students engage with folks who practice unfamiliar traditions a bit more effectively.”
The offerings in the Religious Studies Department are courses that you might be more likely to find in a college curriculum. Required courses such as World Religions 1 and 2 investigate the history, texts, beliefs, and practices of these traditions. Upper-level electives, such as Religion, Gender, and Sexuality; Environmental Justice; and Religion, Nonviolence, and Social Change, explore social issues through the lens of religion. Blackmore emphasizes that there is — and always has been — an intersection between social issues and religion. “It was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian faith that drove his work and his vision for a more beloved community and a harmonious world; faith was central to who he was as a peacemaker. The point of the Religion, Nonviolence, and Social Change course is to ask: How have religious traditions been complicit in supporting income inequality, racism, and misogyny? And, equally so, how have religious individuals and groups been valiant actors for social change? Religion can be wielded for good or for bad and we want students to see that complexity.”
While the religion classes do not encourage students to adopt certain religious beliefs, as a Quaker school, Westtown does have a set of values that inform and shape curriculum and how it builds community. “We don’t seek to convert any students, but when we teach about simplicity, or equality or stewardship, we are inculcating certain values. It might not have the trappings of God language attached to it, but there is an expectation that students will fold these values into how they live their lives.” Those values are certainly woven into how education is delivered throughout the school. But it’s important to remember that “where you stand determines what you see,” says Blackmore. “I’m a card-carrying Quaker so I have a bias. I see the values that we hold and from which we teach as mechanisms that help us create a more just [and] harmonious world; that nonviolence will help us get there; that commitments to equality will help us get there; that better stewardship of our resources on this planet will help us get there. But doing any anti-bias, antiracist work is also about checking one’s own implicit biases. I’m so grateful that at Westtown we speak frankly about this, and we honestly lean into these courageous conversations.”
As the Quaker Worship and Spiritual Life Coordinator, Blackmore, along with a cohort of faculty, seeks inclusivity and belonging through attention to both Quaker practice and the spiritual lives of all students. Small elements of programming have been added to Meeting for Worship to make room for cultural celebrations, music, or messages before settling into the traditional silent worship that marks the Quaker service. An early sign of success has been that vocal ministry — the sharing of messages during Meeting for Worship — continues to feel grounded and spiritually guided. Celebrating the religious and cultural holidays of our students through Community Dinners and other activities is another way of creating a sense of belonging, as well as offering an opportunity to learn about traditions and cultures of their peers outside the classroom.
In each of his various roles, Blackmore’s priorities reflect those of the school itself, and he’s particularly interested in the specific work of this moment in the school’s history. “As an institution that has historically been predominantly white, historically been predominantly, if not exclusively, Quaker,” concludes Blackmore, “how do we create not just inclusivity but belonging for a variety of different religious groups and individuals? It is a challenge that we work on each and every day.” In his classrooms and in the community, Blackmore is a leader in helping to create this inclusivity and belonging.
Featured in the 2022 Westonian Vol. 1