Pictures: Top image — full group picture of staff and students from Chicago Summer Mission 2015. Bottom image — a group of students participating in Soularium, a survey used to help facilitate conversation about individuals’ beliefs.
Name: Sarah Thompson
Type of Project: Leadership Experience
For my STEP experience, I participated in a ten week mission trip to Chicago, IL as part of a Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ) Summer Mission. The mission focused on college campus outreach at three campuses in Chicago: Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Chicago. The trip took place May 29, 2015-August 7, 2015. While in Chicago, I also had the opportunity to work at Shedd Aquarium, so I gained additional experience in the realm of nonprofit organizations.
Growing up, my town’s definition of religious diversity was one Catholic Church intermingled with a plethora of Protestant churches throughout my small town in Southeastern Ohio, so prior to coming to college I had to real experience with religious diversity. Even since coming to Ohio State, I know different belief systems and worldviews exist, but I have not fully had the opportunity to engage in discussions on the topic. In Chicago, my eyes were opened to a completely different worldview about individuals’ religions and how this impacts their day-to-day lives. My personal faith was challenged as I was pushed to understand (and articulate) why I believe what I believe and how this shapes my everyday interactions, especially as I look to learn about the religions of others.
Because one of the main goals of this mission was to interact with college students and just hear more about their views (particularly on religion), I met a lot of great people who helped bring about shifts in my worldview and challenges to my personal belief system. One of my favorite conversations that shaped the transformation discussed above was with a student on Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT’s) campus named Vidhiya. Using tools to help facilitate conversation, I learned that she had been raised in a practicing Hindu family in India, but after moving to the United States and doing extensive research on a wide variety of religions before deciding to identify as Agnostic. This was one of my favorite experiences because she was extremely knowledgeable and open to sharing her beliefs and listening to my personal opinions/experiences, and she gave me a lot of insight into other worldviews while challenging/affirming my personal beliefs.
Also during the course of my time on IIT’s campus, I spoke to a fraternity advisor who described his beliefs to me — and it was quite a unique perspective that I had never heard before. After being raised in a predominantly Muslim family and studying religion independently in college, he came to the conclusion that the God(s) of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all the same God. He described his belief system as “the faith” and cited scriptures from the Torah, Qur’an, and Bible to support his findings. Although I can’t say I personally agree with the conclusions he came to after studying these religions, it changed my worldview and personal definition of religion. I previously assumed that mainstream, large religious movements were the only legitimately observed religions, but this was proven wrong in his case. He was very certain of his beliefs, and “the faith” played a very large role in his day-to-day life although he was unable to be involved in a community of people with a similar belief system.
Finally, a lot of my personal transformation took place with my peers who were also on this mission from all over the country. All in all 68 college students spent 10 weeks together in Chicago. I learned more about myself in community with this group than I probably have during my first 2 years of college combined. Although there was not one major point of revelation with this, it is still extremely significant — from meeting others with similar experiences, to gaining knowledge and clarity about my own belief system by not being afraid to ask questions, to just gaining confidence in myself and in making decisions as an adult — this group was there through everything. Working through challenging conversations and personal struggles with a group of like-minded individuals was extremely powerful and allowed me to greater develop my personal belief system.
With more short-term academic goals, this experience helped to prepare me for a Comparative Religions course that I am currently enrolled in this semester. The experience gave me a tangible basis for applying the religions I am learning about it class, which allowed me to understand complex/supernatural concepts with greater ease. Additionally, this experience working with nonprofit organizations (both Cru and Shedd Aquarium) gave me real-world experience into the world of nonprofits and allowed me to put into practice what I was learning in my courses.
In terms of personal and lifelong goals, my experience on Chicago Summer Mission helped me gain confidence in talking about my personal faith. It also broadened my knowledge of religious diversity, which opened my mind to be more empathetic in working with religiously diverse individuals, especially for my future career field. In looking towards my future and career goals, it allowed me to compare the role that religion plays in people’s lives. More tangibly, it also provided great experience and networking opportunities in the city of Chicago. Finally, this experience gave me a better idea of what career path I want to take within the field of social work and has led me to look into pursuing graduate school for social work with a focus on counselling.