PLU professor launches new class that immerses students in the local Buddhist community

Posted by: Date: April 25, 2016 In: ,
Erik Hammerstrom's class visits Tacoma's Hongwanji Buddhist Temple on April 24. (Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)

Erik Hammerstrom's class visits Tacoma's Hongwanji Buddhist Temple on April 24. (Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)

By Genny Boots '18
PLU Marketing & Communications

TACOMA, WASH. (April 25, 2016)- Erik Hammerstrom, assistant professor of East Asian and comparative religions, teaches Pacific Lutheran University students the fundamentals of Buddhism from the shores of Honolulu, Hawaii, to the streets of Chengdu, China. Now, the course has arrived in a more familiar locale.

Utilizing Tacoma’s diverse and complicated history, Hammerstrom and 23 students have the opportunity to learn firsthand about Tacoma’s Buddhism.

The upper-division global religion course is split between on-campus lecture and discussion and off-campus site visits. Most recently, students visited the Tacoma Buddhist Temple and a Korean zen temple, both within a 20-minute drive of campus.

“Through this class students are learning about religion but they are also able to understand the importance of place, history of place, immigration and diversity. These kinds of things, that aren’t far away,” Hammerstrom said. “You can go away to learn about Buddhism, but you can also learn about Buddhism in your backyard.”

The course is split into three sections: first, students studied Buddhism as a general religion and then the immigration history of Tacoma. As the semester finishes, students leave campus and observe these two subjects at play in various sites around Tacoma.

For students this means a lot of field trips. “Being able to see the different temples has been really great because you get to see that not every Buddhist does the same thing,” said sophomore religion major Haley Bridgewater.

The course was originally meant to be a part of the new Tacoma Immersion Experience Program (TIES). This study away program had intended to take PLU students off campus and into Tacoma. When students registered for this course it was planned to be entirely off campus. While the course ultimately was not placed with TIES, Hammerstrom took advantage of the change to hyper-localize global education.

“For me, Tacoma is a place with a history and a diversity that is us, we are Tacoma,” Hammerstrom said, “even students who are coming to Tacoma from outside the state or outside the Puget Sound Region, they need to understand that it’s not just the campus in Parkland.”

Tacoma’s religious diversity comes from varied immigration to the area throughout the 20th century. After Chinese immigrants were expelled by city officials in the late 1800s, Japanese immigrants followed. Before the start of internment, Tacoma had a thriving Japanese community. It was during this time that the Tacoma Buddhist Temple started. After internment was in place, the community was dismantled.

Following the implementation of immigration laws in 1965, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants began arriving to the U.S. The conflict in these countries spurred immigration, and Korean and Vietnamese families followed their daughters who married U.S. soldiers to Tacoma, where a prominent military presence remains.  

“Things that were happening in the home countries of these immigrant groups, combined with changes of U.S. policy, led to a lot of immigrants,” Hammerstrom said, “and so you have these Buddhist communities.” 

In Tacoma, these communities are within 50 blocks of PLU — for Bridgewater and other students, that’s important.

“I think a main takeaway is that you are not learning about this thing that is over there, this idea of Buddhism,” Bridgewater said. “It is actually learning about people that practice Buddhism. It is really connecting with the religion.”

Senior Rachel Reeves agrees: “I think that this class fits really well with the cornerstone of PLU’s image of study away not just overseas but in Tacoma. And so it really emphasizes how diverse your own community can be within your own city.”

The global and locally inspired course is really about community. “We take seriously that we are a part of this community,” Hammerstrom said. “We draw from this community and we want to give back to this community.”