Field Trip Of World Religions Doesn't Go Far

April 27, 2009

Author: Joe Mozingo

Source: The Los Angeles Times,0,2546661.story

In his quest to have students experience firsthand how people around the world worship, Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at USC, did not start up some expensive study-abroad program. He just ventured a few blocks from campus.

Within a square mile, he and his staff discovered 67 places of worship. And that was without crossing the Harbor Freeway just to the east.

Earlier this semester, Soni started a weekly "Souljourn" to explore that religious diversity, bringing students of different faiths to churches of different faiths, from Hare Krishna to Tao to Pentecostal.

On Sunday about 10 a.m., four Wiccans, a Buddhist, a Sufi and an agnostic filed up the rickety stairs to the balcony of the Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Hundreds of congregants filled the pews, many men wearing suit coats, women wrapped in gauzy white scarves. They chanted joyously with the choir in Amharic, tended restless children and clapped the deep detonations of the kubaro drum.

With no English translation, the students took in the distinct mix of African sound -- the ululating and drums -- with the Western fixtures of votive candles, incense and stained glass.

"It was beautiful," said Jaclyn Kalkhurst, 23, who runs a Pagan-Wiccan group on campus. "We love the drums. We want to get one now."

The service reminded her friend, MacKenzie Edwards, 18, of the African Methodist Episcopal church she attended growing up in Seattle. "The sermon, the intonation, the repetition was similar to services I experienced," she said.

Soni, a Hindu, says he wants students not just to study religion, but to see how it "is lived."

The volunteers who come along -- just for the experience, not for class credits -- sit in on the services and then meet with the congregants or clergy to ask questions about their faiths.

This semester, a revolving cast of students went to services at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Chabad, Omar al Khattab Mosque, Senshin Buddhist Temple and Ministerios Manantial de Amor -- all near USC. And for a bit more variety they expanded their range, going to a Sikh Gurdwara in Los Feliz, a Krishna temple in Culver City, the Thien Hau Taoist Temple in Chinatown and the Church of the Nazarene on skid row.