Summer travels to India helped Mercer University students see the world through new eyes. A Mercer On Mission (MOM) group worked with visually impaired children and deepened interfaith understanding through research and dialogue.
Six Penfield College students and six McAfee School of Theology students participated in the three-week experience, led by Dr. Wesley Barker, assistant professor of religious studies in Penfield, and Dr. Rob Nash, Arnall-Mann-Thomasson Professor of Missions and World Religions in McAfee. Mercer’s Georgia Baptist College of Nursing hosted a separate trip to India in July.
Mercer and Aligarh Muslim University in India began a partnership about four years ago and had done faculty exchanges. Mercer wanted to involve its students, too, which led to the creation of this new MOM program for this summer, said Dr. Nash, who also serves as associate dean for doctoral programs in the School of Theology.
MOM team members worked with the Ahmadi School for the Visually Challenged, managed by Aligarh University. They provided lessons on music, crafts and conversation for the children and showed the teachers how to incorporate collaborative learning into their plans. The Ahmadi students learned to create and sew products that they could sell to make a living in the future.
Heather Franklin, who will earn her Master of Divinity degree from Mercer next spring, was head of the group that led the music lessons.
“We got them on their feet and dancing and made music fun,” she said. “A lot of it was being a positive, affirmative presence for the kids but also showing the energy that can be in the classroom.”
The Mercer group took the Ahmadi students to the Taj Mahal, which was a challenging but “eye-opening experience,” Dr. Nash said. Most of the Indian students had never before visited this iconic site, and the Mercer students helped them discover it through their eyes.
One of Franklin’s fondest memories came after that tour. They had to wait hours to get a ride back to their lodging, so the Mercer team started playing games with the Ahmadi students. Before long, vendors and village children had joined in the fun. People who were strangers to one another were “sitting on the side of the road just laughing and having a good time,” she said.
As another component of the trip, the MOM participants teamed up with Aligarh medical and social work students to conduct research and interview villagers for a better understanding of their needs and challenges.
The trip coincided with the holy month of Ramadan. Mercer students and faculty were invited to dine with Muslims when they broke their fast; went to a mosque for Friday prayers; engaged in religious dialogues at Aligarh University; and read the sacred text of their own religion and of the Hindu and Muslim faiths.
“It was a real opportunity for deepening interfaith understanding,” Dr. Nash said. “The experience of being in a predominantly Muslim context, seeing the commitment to fasting during Ramadan and having one-on-one conversations … comes a long way to helping overcome biases and prejudices that we all have because we don’t fully understand what another religion is like.”
Franklin said the trip helped her to appreciate and accept the many unique life experiences that exist in a global society. Those other perspectives are just as important as her own. Her graduate studies at Mercer have focused on community development, and the MOM trip was a great opportunity for her to travel and learn about other cultures.
“My own experience, my upbringing, my belief system are so small in the scheme of things,” Franklin said. “There are a hundred million people who have completely different experiences and ideas than mine.”