The school bus packed with seventh graders broke down in the parking lot of the ornate, white stone Hindu temple.
It was already the second predicament of the field trip. And the day had just begun.
I had volunteered to be one of the parent chaperones on this daylong adventure. We would begin at the temple, head to a church, stop at a synagogue and end at a mosque before returning to school. This whirlwind tour of world religions started to fall apart three days before we even boarded the buses.
Teachers had locked down the itinerary two months before the trip. It originally included the Cathedral Basilica, an iconic religious landmark in St. Louis. But the very day the school had to turn in the final schedule to the bus service, the Basilica informed them that a funeral service was booked for the same time they planned to bring 125 students.
Oh, the best-laid plans.
World history teacher Neil Daniels had less than half an hour after school to frantically call nearby churches to find a replacement. The Baptists came through. Daniels juggled some of the time slots to accommodate the last-minute change. He also left a message for the speaker at the Hindu temple, to let him know that we would arrive earlier than expected.
The speaker never received the message.
When we showed up at the temple, we wandered into an empty meeting space. One of the seventh-graders whose family worshipped at the temple stepped up and shared tenets of his faith and their religious practice with the ease of someone years older. Another Hindu middle-schooler sang one of the devotional songs she knew. Their classmates respectfully asked questions about a religious tradition completely unfamiliar to nearly all of them. Afterwards, we walked through the sanctuary filled with murtis adorned with garlands and jewels.
By the time we boarded the bus, it seemed the mix-up had actually brought the group closer together. So when our bus broke down, we piled into the other one, sat three to a seat and continued on our way.
It was a small miracle that we arrived at our next destination just a few minutes behind schedule. The youth pastor at the Third Baptist Church welcomed us into their historic building and talked about the basic beliefs of Christianity. At our next stop, the rabbi at Central Reform Congregation shared the history of the only Jewish congregation located within the city limits. We happened to be visiting on the first day of Hanukkah.
Since we were running late, the students ate lunch at the synagogue an hour later than they normally do. And yet, no one complained.
If you’ve been around hungry 12- and 13-year-olds, you know this may have been an act of divine intervention.
Our final stop was no less dramatic. We arrived at the mosque earlier than the time given to our speaker. She was at the gym when she received the message that we had arrived, so she threw a jacket over her yoga pants and rushed over to meet us. We listened to her explain the steps of how Muslims pray and talked about the commonalities shared among the religious communities we had visited.
Daniels said the purpose of the field trip was to expose students to major religions in their communities, teach them how to talk about a subject not often discussed in school, work on critical thinking skills and discover that they can disagree politely with those who have different beliefs. Some of his students said they didn’t know anyone who was a Buddhist or Muslim, but some of their peers actually belonged to those religious groups. It was also a chance to find common ground.
It seems the point of major religions is to remind us that there is something larger than us in the universe. We control and plan for what we can -- and then funerals come up, buses break down and schedules get delayed. And these challenges can make a journey even richer.
Field trips work in mysterious ways.