This fall, Friends' Central Middle School Latin teacher Margaret Somerville presented at the eighth annual Parliament of the World’s Religions. Hosted for the first time virtually, this international event was described on its website as, “a safe way to gather the world’s global interfaith movement and celebrate the enduring spirit and work of religious and spiritual communities striving toward a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.” Several religious leaders and public figures including the Dalai Lama Dr. Eboo Patel, and Jane Goodall, participated and presented as well.
Known affectionately to her students as Magistra, Margaret Somerville is an FCS alumna from the Class of 1983 and has been a Middle School Latin teacher at the school since 1999. She is also the parent of three FCS graduates. She is deeply involved in Quaker pedagogy and social justice education. Along with her teaching, Margaret became an ordained minister in 2017. She described it as a lifelong journey. Her father was a Presbyterian pastor whose interest was in ecumenical and interfaith work. “At many touchpoints in my life,” Margaret said, “I considered the ministry, and I put it aside for one reason or another, mainly because I felt really called to teach.” She also resisted her calling to the ministry, because, she explained, she questioned whether she would be doing it just to follow in her father’s footsteps. “It took me decades to realize, nope, this is for me too!”
Margaret first attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions six years ago, and she described it as a “life-altering experience.” She was the Associate Pastor at Gladwyne Presbyterian at the time, and upon her return, she began working with her community on interfaith contemplative practices through her church. “The programming eventually turned into an alternative worship experience called Alignment. Every week, someone from a different faith tradition offers a meditative practice,” she explained.
Margaret’s breakout session at this year’s Parliament of World’s Religion was titled “Alignment: Interfaith Contemplative Practices.” The goal of the session was to, “experience contemplative practices from Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Celtic, and Nature Spirituality traditions.” The description for her session explained that, “Mantras, sung prayers, chants, meditation through art, dance, poetry, breathing exercises, and improvised music are among some of the contemplative practices that are shared to bring neighboring faith communities together to build relationships,” Margaret led a panel exploring the intention of Alignment for attendees. Four panelists who had previously led her sessions explained what it is like to share their contemplative practices with people not of the same faith. Then they gave a mini version of that practice. “It’s a great honor, always, to be a part of this,” said Margaret.
Margaret’s Alignment interfaith programming has received external funding so that she can share it more widely. She visits faith communities to facilitate the programming with faith leaders of different traditions. Several members of the Friends’ Central community have participated in the programming, and Upper School science teacher John Gruber and Middle & Upper School Music teacher Carl Bradley have led sessions.
Currently, Margaret is working on a virtual “Calendar of Light'' for December, which is “fashioned after an Advent calendar.” She explained, “Each day, a digital door opens to a spiritual practice. It might be Baháʼí, Sikh, Jewish or indigenous chanting, poems, or an image for a five-minute reflection. It’s an amazing opportunity to bring people together from different traditions to share in contemplative practice.” She noted that a number of FCS community members have contributed to the calendar. “Friends’ Central is running all through it!” she said.
Margaret sees a crossover between teaching language and faith. “In studying language, I see so many connections to how we feel connected or disconnected from our faith traditions,” she said. One unit in her Prima Lingua class asks students to ponder whether or not there should be a universal language. They debate one another on the topic, and Margaret said that, “It all comes down to: Yes, it would be really helpful to have one common way that we use language together, but how dreadful would it be if we lost our individual sense of culture? And I think that is exactly how I see it connected to studying faith traditions. There is a common core of being spiritually connected. How sad it would be if we lost the individual flavors.”
FCS junior Faiza Carey interned with and leads a student group within Interfaith Philadelphia, which Margaret has been on the board of for four years now. Last year, at the beginning of the year, Faiza expressed that she really wanted to start an Interfaith Dialogue Club for the Upper School students at Friends’ Central. The plans were put on hold due to COVID-19, but the club was able to start this fall with Faiza and Alison Whellan ’23 as the leaders and Margaret as the advisor. The club is a space for students of different faith traditions to discuss how their traditions impact the way they live their lives. The group kicked off the school year by joining other high schoolers in a group called VITA (Voices of Interfaith Teens Advising) connected to Interfaith Philadelphia for the Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention Walk on October 3 at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
“The conversations with the FCS Interfaith Dialogue Club have been deeper than many conversations I have with adults,” said Margaret. “The first time we met, Faiza asked everyone to go around and say what tradition they were from, and we noticed as we went around the room there was an element of guilt in everything that was said: ‘I’m Christian, but I don’t go to Church every Sunday’; ‘I’m Jewish, but I’m only culturally Jewish’; ‘I’m Hindu, but I wouldn’t call myself a good Hindu...’” Margaret said she stopped them and pointed out the feelings of guilt surrounding religion. She said to the students, “Let’s take that off the table and say that these are our roots, this is where we come from.” In the end, she expressed that, “We’re so limited by language around faith that we don’t give ourselves the freedom to realize that we’re all feeling something and practicing something in the same way and in a variety of wonderfully different ways.”
To learn more about Margaret’s work, and participate in the “Calendar of Light” this holiday season, click here.
Congratulations to Margaret Somerville '83 who was awarded the 2021 Excellence in Teaching at the K-12 Level by the Society for Classical Studies. Friends' Central is incredibly lucky to have Margaret as a longtime Friends' Central community member - Alumni, Parent, & Current Middle School Latin Teacher. Congratulations Margaret! https://hubs.li/Q011C_JB0