by Gwendolyn Branch, ICJS Teacher Fellow 2022–2023

This experience working with the ICJS Teachers Fellowship has truly enhanced my viewpoint on interreligious diversity, in the classroom and personally. As a second-year theology teacher in a Jesuit/Catholic High School who is a devoted Christian, I initially struggled with planning lessons that would promote interreligious coexistence. I was afraid of having awkward and uncomfortable conversations. 

Many people would usually think that talking about differing religions would be easier for me because of my content area, but I often felt trapped by the Christian foundation on which Cristo Rey Jesuit High School is founded and I used to try to avoid the topic. Cristo Rey is a Catholic school, sponsored by the Jesuits, and a majority of its students identify as Christian. However, after participating in this fellowship, the conversations we had have allowed my perspective to change and have given me an interreligious voice that I did not have before. From the lessons that were taught during our sessions to the small group conversations with my colleagues, my interreligious lens has transformed from just my Christian point of view to embracing contrasting opinions within my classroom.  

In the beginning of the school year, I was prepared to have a short lesson to simply introduce world religions, but the goal was to steer away from deep conversations out of fear. However, there was one session with ICJS that changed that plan for the better. I remember when we were asked to share how we orient toward religion in three minutes or less, and I was truly terrified. I had never before been asked this question or given the opportunity to hear other outlooks on religion. But this session allowed me to see the similarities in our stories while appreciating the differences in our experiences. 

After this, I felt so excited about presenting my students with the same opportunity that the following week I had an entire impromptu lesson to give my students a voice and safe space to share their religious backgrounds. Not only were the students extremely engaged in the lesson, but they even took the conversation out of the classroom to lunch and had conversations at home with their families. It was so incredible to hear that my students were excited to talk about religion and promoting religious diversity and inclusion that I have already started planning a larger lesson for next year! I also spoke with the Theology Department at Cristo Rey about adding this lesson to their planning for the upcoming school year. They were all on board, which made me feel like the ICJS mission is being fulfilled.

In addition, this fellowship has given me the agency to welcome religious curiosity to my classroom without apprehension. Asking my students “Do you believe you have a religious voice?” has become an exciting question for me as we explore religion, which has created a protected space for my students to speak about religion without judgment. Even though I know that religion will always be a tough subject to speak about in education, I now feel more prepared than before with the interreligious historical background and challenging viewpoints from my ICJS fellowship. I am now welcoming religious variety instead of backing away from this conversation, which has caused my students to feel more “accepted” in this parochial school than they ever thought possible. 

My goals were always to “educate and not convert” my students. I believe that this fellowship has equipped me with a better understanding of religious differences that support that goal. I also believe that I have been able to build better relationships with my students and colleagues of different religions. The basis of these changes in my relationships has been in confronting my religious biases and becoming more open-minded about religions outside of my own. I have gained so much from this fellowship, and I am forever grateful for this opportunity to learn and grow, religiously and personally.

Gwendolyn Branch teaches theology at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and was a fellow in the 2022-2023 ICJS Teachers Fellowship. Learn more about the ICJS teacher programs for teachers here

Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Teacher Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives.