Brownies for Buddha: A Student’s Prayer for Peace from Proselytes by Kacie Hengel (November 2000)

I am a recently completed product of public education. As I type this essay, my newly-acquired diploma rests in its place of honor among what little I’ve kept as reminders of my high school career: Prom pictures, dried flowers, a What Would John Denver Do? bracelet, old movie and concert stubs, art projects, a saran-wrapped Brownie for Buddha, my Highest Honor sash, and my Homecoming Queen tiara.

When I look at the artifacts on my dresser, I remember the triumphant feeling of scoring 10 tickets to the sold-out eight o’clock showing of Titanic on its Opening Night, also my birthday. I remember writing my speech to be given at Commencement and cringing in pain when last year’s Homecoming Queen, Miss Mindi Wright, slammed the tiara onto my head and thrust a bouquet of roses into my arms.

I remember passing out What Would John Denver Do? bracelets in the courtyard and the subsequent trip to the principal’s office regarding the matter. I remember all too vividly the bake sale held by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in which Cookies for Christ were sold. Never a fan of oatmeal raisin, I found this fund-raiser only increased my distaste for the cookie. I also remember the bake sale held by my friends and me in which Brownies for Buddha, Yogurt for Yahweh, Apples for Allah, Grapes for Ganesh, Tiramisu for the Talmud, and a wide selection of Pies for Pagans were sold.

Whether it was our cause or the quality of our cooking that allowed every item to be sold remains to be seen. Regardless of our customers’ motives, the profits financed a field trip for the Theory of Knowledge class to listen to a professor from Arizona State University speak on various religions, as well as atheism and humanism.

The memory that comes to mind most frequently is walking into the cafeteria to grab some breakfast before first period, only to be met with stares, silence, and the shaking of many, many heads. In the morning hours, the cafeteria doubles as the informal meeting place for anyone with a belief in God and a need to validate this belief through the means of mass prayer. While I don’t particularly enjoy being stared at like a leper, nothing comes between me and my prepackaged Fruit Loops, not even a higher deity.

Contrary to the popular belief of school administration and students, I am not an activist or a rebel in any way, shape, or form. I am a student. I go to school to learn, and I like to learn in peace. Whatever I do that can be considered a protest of religion in public schools is the result of a simple desire to have my Mormon and Christian peers cease their extracurricular campaign to convert me and other “heretics.” The Advanced Placement curriculum at Chandler High School is a rigorous, time-intensive ordeal and, like most Honor students, I cherish my lunch period as the one time of day when I don’t have to be “mature” or “intelligent” or even “attentive.” I’d rather spend my lunch hour with my friends, devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike, than nod politely and attentively at a total stranger who is telling me about his experiences with the glory of God in excruciating detail.

When I “antagonize” members of religious clubs or youth groups, I do it not out of intolerance for their beliefs or to prove that they’re “wrong”; I do it in defense of my lunch and sanity. I cannot be more honest when I say that if there is one reason why religion should not pervade public school campuses, it is to keep people like myself from completely losing it and inciting a lunchtime jihad.

Thankfully, logic and rational thought are also on the side of religion-free public schools. Prayer is an entirely personal experience; it is a person communicating directly to God. Why does anyone, even a kindergartner, need a middleman such as a teacher to relay his or her thoughts to God? Instead of devoting their energies to changing part of the foundation of the United States Government as well as the educational system, Christians should concentrate on encouraging prayer before or after class, in one’s free time, and in places where it would be welcome by everyone.

The bumper sticker that claims that “as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school” is exactly right, though it also makes the critical point that prayer needn’t be a public ritual. I know for a fact that teachers do not allow a “moment of silence” for students to offer the last-minute prayer, “Dear God, I didn’t study for this test, but if you help me pass it I’ll study extra hard for the next one.” Nor do teachers publicly lead the class in pleading for a passing grade. Yet, I also know for a fact that many desperate students find the time to pray for a miracle nonetheless. This leads me to wonder why the basic school-wide prayer that the Religious Right is calling for can’t be done privately and on one’s own time, as well?

From my experience as a student, the answer to this is that there are things on their minds like unfinished homework or whether the demi-Gods of the Yale Admissions Office have deemed their applications worthy of acceptance. From this answer stems another question: If the typical red-blooded student, whether 8-years-old or 18, is largely preoccupied with matters more crucial to his or her immediate well-being than school-time prayer, who is it that is advocating the introduction of prayer into public schools? Obviously not students; they’re too busy trading PokŽmon cards and staring at the cute girl two rows over.

There is an infamous group of people known to use American youth as the pawns that keep their business booming: tobacco manufacturers. Their exploitation of youth has led to continually stratospheric profits, and these profits have enabled them to yield considerable control in legislative issues by monetarily supporting politicians. As the slick rhetoric and objectives of Christian groups promoting religion in public schools become more apparent through their media organizations and the cases before the Supreme Court, I cannot help but see similarities between the “marketing” campaigns of Christian organizations and tobacco companies.

By introducing school prayer and other religious activities to the captive, often gullible, audience of American youth, the Religious Right exponentially increases its power in the political and cultural arenas of American society. Through peer pressure and the constant barrage of Christian rhetoric, students will no longer have access to the liberal, secular, and diverse education that has played such a key role in the lives of society’s most productive members. Instead, they will learn to be judgmental of those who differ in ideology, and they will not question the ways of the world, as they will have learned that the answer of “That’s the way God wanted it” will suffice.

I am not an atheist or an agnostic or a Catholic or Deist. I’m not sure what group I fall into, if any. What I can say for certain is that I am neither a devout believer nor a staunch non-believer. My best friend will attend the Moody Bible Institute next year; she’s as fundamental as they come. Though she would have nothing to do with my heated theological debates with lunchtime proselytes or my John Denver bracelet enterprise, she baked the Brownies for Buddha and attended the field trip on world religions. My friend and I are friends because we can put our differences aside and because we know that diversity and individual rights are absolutely crucial to a free society, whether or not we like some of the diverse elements. Diversity strengthens one’s personal beliefs and value systems, as it allows for the entire picture to be seen and analyzed; there aren’t any “missing pieces” that nag at a person’s conscience.

The creators of the Constitution had such diversity in mind when they wrote and adopted the Constitution and Bill of Rights as the guidelines of American society. Every member of this society has a civic responsibility to uphold and defend these guidelines of the United States, including the section that refers to the separation of church and state. I don’t support the presence of religion in public schools for personal reasons and for civic reasons, thus making me a responsible citizen. Yet, I am a pariah in certain circles of my high school’s social arena. Ironically, these very groups of people that find me irritating and heretical and meddlesome claim their undying patriotism and love of country; they flaunt their status as law-abiding citizens and keepers of the American Dream. When it comes to the issue of respecting the rights of others, however, the rampant hypocrisy found in these people never ceases to boggle my mind. Principals devoted to the mental and social development of American youth refuse Atheist clubs and Gay Pride clubs, indirectly encouraging students not to bother with all the sides of an issue, to narrow, not expand, their minds. Pastors and ministers who preach compassion, love for self and others, and non-judgment in one breath, encourage their youth groups to look down upon non- believing peers with pity and disdain in another. On the opening page of Catholic monthly missalettes there is a paragraph devoted to the Roman Catholic community’s “fervent prayer” that one day all sects of Christianity will resolve their differences and join together in the name of Jesus Christ. It goes on to say that until that day comes, they’d prefer only Catholics to celebrate the Holy Communion with them. It is my most fervent prayer that one day all sects of American culture, religious and otherwise, can resolve their differences and become united by the common bond of individuality and respect for personal liberty and the law. Until that day arrives, however, I’d rather you not interrupt my lunch. Amen.

Kacie Hengel is a freshman at Rice University in Houston, Texas, this fall. She graduated with Highest Honors from Chandler High School in Chandler, Arizona. Kacie plans to major in Philosophy, with the long-term aspiration of becoming a fiction writer. Due to an almost nonexistent job market for philosophers, Kacie is looking to marry into wealth to support her artistic inclinations. She spends her spare time cooking, singing showtunes, swing dancing, and reading voraciously.

Freedom From Religion Foundation