In the Fall semester of 2021, Dr. Elizabeth Kennedy walked into the ‘Religions of the World’ class, stood confidently in front of thirty students, and did a roll call in perfect Arabic. Students in the lecture hall gave each other looks of bewilderment at the Western professor perfectly pronouncing their names.
Hailing from the United States, Dr. Elizabeth Kennedy is an American pastor and professor. She teaches at the American University in Cairo (AUC) while leading sermons in the church, the Evangelical Theological Seminary of the Synod of the Nile.
As a young child, Dr. Kennedy moved to Jordan, and the minute she got there, she found herself fully immersed in the Arabic language and culture. She graduated high school with a Jordanian high school diploma and left the nest to get her Bachelor’s in the US.
At university, Kennedy grew interested in knowing more, so much so that she learned how to read in Hebrew, German, Greek, and Aramaic for research purposes.
Her Ph.D., acquired from the University of Edinburgh, focuses on Abrahamic faith, carving her scope of work for the future. She believes that language is key to knowledge, detailing that her students are not aware of how lucky they are to be able to read the Qur’an in Arabic, a significant privilege for those seeking to understand Islam.
The little blonde girl in Jordan
Growing up, Kennedy never felt left out or odd.
“Yes, I was a little blonde girl that stood out, but I never felt like I was very different because of two things: one was that my parents were very intentional about us having full immersion in the Arabic language, so I grew up as a native speaker of Arabic. Two is that in Arab countries if you speak Arabic, people open their hearts to you immediately,” she recounts.
Kennedy laughs at the clear bafflement her Arabic elicits in stores and in public, with many store clerks often finding the need to ask her if she has Egyptian citizenship, despite her foreign looks.
She also adds that when she preaches, she gives her audience 10 minutes to get past her speaking in Arabic. She tells a light story, at first, as soon as her audience familiarizes itself with her Arabic, she starts her sermon.
During her interview with Egyptian Streets, the AUC professor reminisces over her childhood, where she never felt different, although if there was one distinct moment where she felt left out, it would be during the Gulf war.
“I just remember several times, when my dad was driving us into school. He would have us lie down on the back seat rather than sit up because he has black hair and fits in, but my sister and I didn’t. Those are moments that stand out because they’re so different from the rest of the time,” she details.
Comparative Religion, a risky field
Dr. Kennedy has been teaching comparative religion at the AUC for three years. Before starting at the university, Kennedy used to teach at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo.
It is rare to find a discipline such as comparative religion in Egypt, let alone in the Arab world, due to the social stigma surrounding the study of other religions, particularly non-Abrahamic ones.
“I don’t think that other secular universities in the Middle East are trying to teach it [comparative religion] either. I can’t imagine it anywhere in the Gulf,” Kennedy professes.
The bubbly professor believes that, at the student level, comparative religion can become risky. This is why she finds comfort at AUC, a university bridging Egypt with the West; it is a place where one can create a safe space for sensitive dialogues.
She does, however, have very strict boundaries on what can be discussed, or rather, how to discuss things in her class.
She adds, “If we put those walls around it [teaching religion] and make sure it is an academic pursuit, and we do it that way, then it’s valuable. It’s such a great way to practice skills of critical thinking and objective inquiry, of checking your bias at the door of learning, and of becoming aware of how your own experience influences your assumptions.”
To Kennedy, studying religion is the ultimate test for liberal arts education.
Her students come to class prepared for difficult conversations; some even consider it a privilege to be able to compare their faiths. It is normal practice for Kennedy to teach a hijabi (a veiled person), a non-hijabi, a Christian, a Sunni, and a Shi’a student all in one class.
Yet, things never get out of hand.
Kennedy’s biggest enemy coming into the discipline was her background and the bias associated with it.
She recounts, “When I say I teach comparative religion, that gives people pause, like, that exists here? Everybody’s always responding with, I can’t believe it! They would hire a Christian woman to do that? And I question why? No matter whom you’re going to hire, they’re going to have some sort of bias, right?” Kennedy insists that she has no sub-intentions when teaching comparative religion and that AUC restricts itself from an agenda as well.
“I guess one important aspect is to honor where everybody is, and then also to give them space to study each religion to see it from within itself, faith is just a baseline empathy that we all start with. That allows us all to relax a little bit because nobody is trying to talk you into anything,” she adds.
Kennedy hopes that students do not go to her class with their guards up. Although she understands where their fear stems from, since religion is very important to most, it answers their deepest questions.
She adds, “I think that, for me, bringing everybody’s own experience in rather than saying we’re going to be objective, so nobody talks about anything personal, that just ends up being a very dry classroom, or we’re looking at facts,” she explains adding that “To me, objectivity isn’t about deleting who you are and being a white neutral page. It’s about being aware of your starting point, and bringing it in so that you know when to set it aside when you’re getting too emotional because you’re becoming self-aware.”
She hopes for everyone to stop getting in the way of knowledge due to their fear of losing their identity. She states that religious studies are not meant to eclipse one’s faith, they’re meant to widen it.
“El Asisa Liza”
When Kennedy started preaching in Egypt, she was also supported by bigger entities in the church. She would be invited to preach, and the church’s pastor would usually vouch for her, and give the people more time to adjust to her presence.
Kennedy feels welcome in the churches where she preaches. She explains that she was not assigned as a pastor in Egypt but in the US yet her church’s exchange program with churches in Egypt enabled her to continue.
Weary of her at first, her audience eventually warmed up to her.
Yet, Kennedy admits that the protestant churches in Egypt are cautious. Despite their enthusiasm to have women lead congregations, there are no steps to hire women as pastors.
“They [the protestant church] were enthusiastically wanting me to come [to Egypt] and were sort of using me as a look. If an American woman could preach or officiate a wedding, then it becomes more imaginable to have an Egyptian woman do it,” she details.
Kennedy only faced scrutiny from others a few times during her sermons.
“From time to time, there might be people in the congregation who find it hard or who become sure on what to say. I think, in my whole history, I’ve had two people who didn’t take communion from me, and one person who walked out [of the sermon]. That’s so small, such a small thing.” she admits, underscoring that the church’s support has helped her retain her audience rather than lose it.
Kennedy hopes that individuals will allow themselves to be more curious. She understands that Egypt is a family-based culture, and that curiosity about other religions can be seen as leaving the unit.
She, however, encourages people to stay curious, research, and gain more knowledge about the world.
“I feel like in the world today, we can’t avoid coming up against differences, so our best preparation is by growing in confidence that you can trust the process of being curious, and we all need to take different pieces, ” Kennedy stipulates.
She believes that comparative religion can add to a person’s breadth of knowledge. If one is keen on going deeper into their faith, or if they want to create a hybrid faith that fits with them, then comparative religion is the surest way.
Kennedy believes that the field is inviting; she hopes to see more people going out of their comfort zones and allowing themselves to be curious about other people’s perspectives on life.