Dia de los Muertos and the Spirituality of Purpose and Belonging
November 1, 2021
The spiritual and cultural often intersect to create traditions, rituals, and celebrations of our communities. Through our research on purpose and belonging, we find a strong tie between the elements of belongingness in religious and spiritual beliefs as well as a common purpose driven by the elements of faith and doctrine.
Around the world this week, we will see, hear about or participate in a series of cultural and religious practices for All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day, popularly known in our Hispanic communities as Dia de Los Muertos (November 2), a time to remember those who have died. Closely tied to these events in timing and in history is Halloween (October 31st). There is a unique link between these Christian and pagan events that help us understand the reason why so many around the world make them a part of their own sense of belonging and purpose.
The author of “Christian Roots: All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day” shares that the ideas of incorporating non-Christian rituals into Christian holidays or aligning dates in unique times of the year, such as Christmas and winter solstice, were used by the early Catholic church to bring people into the faith, and in this case, Halloween and All Saints/Souls Days. The ideas behind celebrations of the dead – of their spirits, the return of souls to the living world, rituals of nature, celebrations of life, and the afterlife created the quintessential convergence of Christian and pagan beliefs.
In the “Monarch Butterflies and Dia de Los Muertos in Michoacán,” Will Smith narrates that the arrival of the monarch has come on the day of the dead for so long it has become part of the culture. During this phenomenon of nature, the yearly migration of the butterflies is associated with the belief that they are the souls of the dead returning to be with their kin, and preparations are made to welcome them home.
Last year, I traveled to Tabasco, a small town in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. On that brief trip, I visited the Panteón Municipal de Tabasco or Municipal Cemetery, where I witnessed a broad spectrum of colorful tombs from large, elaborate structures to small, humble headstones — all colorful and highly decorated with offerings, flowers or carefully placed gifts to the dead. Unlike the cemeteries I’d visited before, this was not a place of sadness or emptiness, but a place of peace, celebration, and belonging.
It is opportune to use this time of the year and these celebrations as context for us to look at the religiosity and spirituality of purpose and belonging in our work.
The Link to Purpose and Belonging
The ancient Sanskrit word ‘dharma’ refers to your purpose, life meaning and why you are here. It has roots in Hinduism, Buddhism and several other religions. In the May 2021 article, “Your Dharma Is Your Soul’s Purpose,” the author discusses this in light of the pandemic effect on the work environment we are facing. We learned through a Pew Research Center survey that of “715 unemployed, furloughed, or temporarily laid off adults in the United States who are looking for work, 66 percent said they have seriously considered changing careers completely.” The turmoil, change, and unprecedented impact on the employment landscape likely led many to reconsider their personal goals and consider purposeful work in alignment. Sahara Rose, referenced in this article, is the host of the Highest Self Podcast, Ayurveda expert, and author of Discover Your Dharma. She emphasizes the importance of living your dharma:
“If you’re not living your dharma, Sahara says you may experience feelings of being stuck—like you’re taking action, but not really moving forward. The future doesn’t excite you. You’re surviving rather than thriving. This, she says, can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety, depression, unworthiness, or just feeling off. When you are living your dharma, Sahara says, you experience feelings of satisfaction with the way you are expressing and sharing your unique gifts, and you know you’re touching the lives you are meant to touch.”
Our recent blog about Mental Health and Wellbeing focused on the link to purpose and belonging, and through ongoing research, we also find that spirituality provides an entryway to meaning and a life of purpose that mitigates anxiety and tension and supports mental wellness. According to the Cognitive Healing article “Importance of Having Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Life”:
“Spirituality does not mean that you have to stick to any particular religion or faith. Spirituality refers to the common experience behind the viewpoints of several religions. It is an experience that involves awareness and relationship with something that transcends your personal self.”
Based on a worldwide Gallup study, respondents in 84 countries were asked, “Do you feel your life has an important meaning or purpose?” The responses were analyzed by participant religion and commitment to practice, and results found that “respondents who claim affiliation with a religious tradition – any religious tradition — are more likely than those who do not to say their lives have an important purpose.” They also found that those who actively practice their faith are more likely to identify with a sense of purpose.
Also closely tied to our Purpose and Belonging blog on Mental Health and Wellbeing, the National Alliance on Mental Illness highlights the mental health benefits of religion and spirituality. According to the article, “both religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on mental health in helping a person tolerate stress by generating peace, purpose, and forgiveness.” They also shed light on the differences between the social nature of religion, which creates a sense of belonging to a group, and spirituality, which provides a connection to something bigger than ourselves—our purpose.
Studies have also found that “religion can improve a sense of belonging for socially disconnected people.” The University of Michigan conducted three separate studies analyzing responses from nearly 20,000 participants who were asked to describe their “purpose in life, levels of loneliness, the quality of their friendships and religious beliefs.” For those who were already socially connected, links to religiosity and to God had little additional benefit to an already grounded sense of purpose. However, for those who lack social connections, turning to religion or God will provide a better sense of purpose in life.
“Belonging is related to a sense of purpose. When people feel like they do not belong or are unsupported by their relationships, they consistently have a lower sense of purpose and direction in life,” said lead author Todd Chan. “For the socially, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide,” Chan added.
In addition, the study sheds light on ways people can cope with disconnection when they face challenges such as poor relationships, rejection, or unavailability of people, something many experienced with the lockdown of COVID-19.
Another study published in the Journal of Religion and Health found that “meaning in life is an important element of religion that imbues religious behaviour with a sense of purpose and significance,” and “religious coping methods are used to strengthen other non-religious psychological resources to enable people to face life challenges.” The role of religion in providing connection to purpose and meaning has been supported through research over time. The set of beliefs, values, and goals within religion can be used to explain the world and the experiences that arise from our interactions with people and situations that can then support psychological wellbeing and coping with stress and challenging life events:
“According to recent research, meaning is a central element of religion because every religion addresses important questions related to a sense of purpose and significance (Hood et al. 2009; Park 2013). People turn to religious beliefs and activities in order to find meaning in complex and incomprehensible events. Religious interpretations enable individuals to perceive daily experiences in terms of universal goals and provide explanations for situations of high ambiguity and threat. Therefore, religion is inseparably interconnected with meaning on both the structural and functional levels. As a result, meaning in life only partially mediates the relation between religious coping and psychological wellbeing mainly because the religious realm is already imbued with meaning.”
In “World Religions, Spirituality, and Experiential Education,” Journal of Experiential Education, the author conducts an inventory of eight major world religions in order to help educators consider the significance of religion and spirituality in students’ lives and how this could be manifested in curricular and extracurricular activities through educational experiences:
“Because religion is so important in many people’s lives, experiential educators may have an obligation to understand more about the essence of religions and acknowledge the influence of spirituality. Further, religious beliefs are a direct reflection of what is morally valued and how ethical issues are addressed.”
We find through this research that the blog topics we have covered are infinitely linked. Connecting with our Purpose and Belonging blog on peace, Linda Groff and Paul Smoker looked at the varying “spiritual and religious traditions in the world and how they have or could in the future contribute to the creation of a global culture of peace.” They list quotations from several world religions that all reference peace as a purpose of their beliefs structures, yet history tells us that is sometimes not carried out in practice. In their paper, “Spirituality, Religion, Culture and Peace,” their work focuses on “how religious and spiritual traditions can contribute to creating a more peaceful world via an exploration of the foundations for both inner and outer peace in the twenty-first-century.” Striving for peace is a key driver of purpose:
“If a man sings of God and hears of Him, And lets love of God sprout within him, All his sorrows shall vanish, And in his mind, God will bestow abiding peace.” –Sikhism
“A Muslim is one who surrenders to the will of Allah and is an establisher of peace (while Islam means establishment of peace, Muslim means one who establishes peace through his actions and conduct).”–Islam
“The Lord lives in the heart of every creature. He turns them round and round upon the wheel of Maya. Take refuge utterly in Him. By his grace you will find supreme peace, and the state which is beyond all change.” –Hinduism
“The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.” –Judaism
“All things exist for world peace.” –Perfect Liberty Kyodan
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” –Christianity
“Peace … comes within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their openness, with the universe and all its powers and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”–From The Sacred Pipe, by Black Elk, Lakota Sioux Medicine Man
Other research and efforts we looked at has unique perspectives we also wanted to share:
Exploring Social Belonging and Meaning in Religious Groups
Journal of Psychology and Theology, Volume: 47 issue: 1, page(s): 3-19, Issue published: March 1, 2019
Hansong ZhangJoshua Hook, Jennifer Farrell, David Mosher, Laura Captari, Steven Coomes, Daryl Van Tongeren, Don Davis
“We encourage researchers to continue to explore the roles of ideological homogeneity and diversity in individuals’ religious experiences—particularly one’s sense of social belonging and meaning. Additionally, Intellectual Humility may be an important character trait to study in future research, because it appears to help individuals maintain their sense of belonging and meaning in the midst of ideological diversity. Because we live in an increasingly ideologically diverse country and world, Intellectual Humility might offer help toward the goal of productive religious discussions and resolution of religious conflicts.”
Culture of Belonging – We all Yearn for Connection and a Sense that we Matter
The San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund is making it a priority to create a culture of belonging with opportunities and pathways for the marginalized within their communities to experience Jewish Life and all its possibilities.
“Belonging rarely happens by chance. It requires a shift in the way Jewish life is offered from delivering programs and services to designing intentionally for human connection. The Federation has partnered with Dr. Sarale Shadmi-Wortman and the Israeli Association of Community Centers to develop a language and methodology that is deepening belonging throughout our Bay Area Jewish ecosystem.”
Authentic Purpose: The Spiritual Infrastructure of Life
Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, Volume 8, 2011 – Issue 4, Pages 281-297 | Published online: 24 Nov 2011 Corey L.M. Keyes
“Purpose is an intention and a cognitive sense of one’s life. As an intention, purpose is the quality of being determined to do or achieve something, which resides in all forms of life in the universe. For humans, however, the valence and likelihood of enactment of the intention of purpose is capricious, as is the resulting sense of purpose in life. When absent or low, a sense of purpose places individuals at risk for psychopathologies; when present in sufficient levels, a sense of purpose buffers against adversity and enhances life chances. Unfortunately, studies show that key measures of “authentic purpose”, which are a psychological purpose in life (i.e. direction and goals) and social contribution (i.e. has something of value to give to society), are at their zenith in young adulthood and decline steadily throughout the lifespan. In addition to reviewing the religious and social scientific literature on the nature, function, and age trajectories of purpose in adult life, this article explores why this important infrastructure of life does not increase or remain constant throughout adulthood. To that end, this article reviews whether and how the modern university is, or is not, sustaining or promoting purpose in life for students in preparation for their occupancy and custodianship of important social roles throughout adulthood. Particular attention is then focused on how purpose in life does and does not emerge in work-life and occupations in adulthood. Literature is reviewed on the nature of work in terms of “callings”, “careers”, and “jobs”, the prevalence of callings in the workplace, and the consequences of callings in work and life.”
Philosophy, Religion, and Humanities under Department Chair Dr. Grant Potts offers three related programs and courses:
The ACC Religion program offers an introduction to the academic study of world religions from a comparative perspective. Students learn the central teachings, history, and practices that shaped the major religions around the globe throughout history. This program emphasizes the social context within which religions evolved, the central concepts upon which religions were founded, their ritual practices, and how religions spread and evolved over time. The goal of this program is to encourage students to engage respectfully with religious practices and belief structures cross-culturally, as well as to contemplate the purpose of religion for human cultures as a whole.
Philosophy courses cover a diverse group of questions and topics, spanning from classic investigations into the nature of reality, truth, and morality, to contemporary inquiries into freedom, identity, and justice. Philosophy courses place significant emphasis on the justification for holding one particular view or position over another.
The ACC Humanities program offers a range of interdisciplinary courses, including introductory classes that cover the broad history of human culture as well as offerings with an emphasis on special topics. Our program aims to equip students with the cultural acumen that they need to hone their critical thinking skills and expand their worldview, resulting in a better understanding of self and society. Topics in Humanities classrooms include art, music, science, philosophy, literature, architecture, and history.
Sociology under Department Chair Dr. Rennison Lalgee
The goal of the Sociology program at Austin Community College is to inform and educate students on the social construction of human behavior through active and engaged teaching in the discipline of Sociology. The program has a strong emphasis on social justice to examine the structural and cultural patterns of human behavior and how society influences our daily lives. Sociology seeks to answer questions about why people think and act the way they do through the study of structural and cultural patterns and social dynamics.
Morticianschool.net shares that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas ranks as number one for employment of morticians and in the upper-middle-range for mortician salaries. Career field projections are 18% growth nationwide over the next 10 years.
While ACC does not offer this as a degree, students would be able to take courses at ACC and transfer to one of the few mortuary science programs available. The mortician career field is governed by the Texas Funeral Service Commission and provides a career path to become a licensed funeral director/embalmer. This field requires that individuals work well with people going through crises in their lives and are skilled in consoling and counseling. Course requirements include English, biology, accounting, psychology, chemistry, sociology, and speech.
Other related jobs include
- Computer Support Specialist
- Cosmetology and Related Personal Grooming Services
- Electrolysis/Electrology and Electrolysis Technician
- Funeral Direction/Service
- Funeral Service and Mortuary Science
- Make-Up Artist/Specialist
- Mortuary Science and Embalming/Embalmer
- Personal and Culinary Services
Related Programming at ACC
Religious Literacy Initiative
According to the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, religious literacy is “The ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social, political, and cultural life through multiple lenses.” And, according to Wikipedia, “The importance of being religiously literate is increasing as globalisation has created greater links and migration between societies of different faiths and cultures. It has been proposed that including religious literacy as an aspect of public education would improve social cohesion.”
A Faculty Interest Group (FIG) was established as part of the new Religious Literacy initiative at ACC by the Religious Literacy working group. The focus of this work is to learn and reflect on Norton Anthology of World Religions. The first Religious Literacy FIG, starting with Islam in Spring 2021, covered a different world religion each semester for 6 total consecutive semesters. For Fall 2021, the Religious Literacy FIG will focus on Hinduism. Participants are welcome to participate in as many or as few semesters as they would like.
The religious literacy working group continues to meet and plan future projects for developing religious literacy across ACC.
Student Success Course: Religious Texts and Great Questions
Alarmed by the low graduation and transfer rates for many first-generation college students, Dr. Ted Hadzi-Antich, professor of government, set out to design a Student Success Course aimed at addressing challenges that often prevent these students from succeeding. Informed by Paul Tough’s article, “Who Gets to Graduate,” published in The New York Times Magazine, his course was designed to help first-generation college students increase their feeling of belonging in higher education and help combat the fears of inadequacy and academic inability that often contribute to a decision that one is not meant for college.
This Humanities 1301 Great Questions Seminar course is designed to develop critical thinking, reading, speaking, reasoning and writing skills, while simultaneously building a sense of community, shared struggle and loftiness of purpose among peers and faculty, who will also serve as advisors to students as they navigate their first semester at ACC. The course will be a great welcoming into the world of higher learning and a formal invitation into that world for students who may feel that they do not belong.
Of particular interest are the second 2/3rds of the class. In the second third, students read creation accounts from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Hindu Vedas, the Islamic Quran, and the Mayan Popol Vuh alongside Plato and Euclid in an examination of the nature of truth, beauty, and creation. This is followed in the last third by an encounter with world poetry which includes readings from the New Testament, selections from Hindu, Christian, ancient Greek poets, and an anthology of Chinese Poetry.
Service Learning Partnerships with Interfaith Action of Central Texas
The Office of Experiential Learning (OEL) in collaboration with the English Department at ACC recently worked with Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT) on a service learning project involving their refugee population. The concept is project-based service learning whereby teams of students (5+) function as consultants to assist client nonprofits with specific needs they are having. This type of service learning project will augment our existing direct service model: students working as volunteers at nonprofits, then writing/ presenting about their experience.
In the project-based model, faculty will be supported by a service learning coordinator, an instructional designer (to assist with development of timelines, milestones, deliverables, assignments, assessments, etc.) and a research librarian (support materials unique to each project.) OEL will recruit and vet opportunities with nonprofits, maintain and publish lists of these opportunities, share best practices and success stories, and grow service learning programs college-wide.
Interfaith Action of Central Texas exists to build healthy relationships between the faith communities of Central Texas by bridging the faith divides of the Austin community and cultivating peace and respect through interfaith dialogue, service, and celebration!
Dia De Los Muertos and Ascender
Ascender is an academic transfer program with a strong mentoring component that focuses on special support and assistance for Latinx students. Through intensive counseling, accelerated customized classes, one-on-one mentoring, and community events, Ascender seeks to ensure that students earn their associate degree, transfer to a four-year university and become thriving community leaders:
In October 2019, Ascender participated in walking in the Viva La Vida parade in Downtown Austin. The Mexic-Arte Museum sponsored and created the 36th Annual Viva La Vida Parade & Festival this year. Otherwise known as the Día de los Muertos Parade, the event highlights current Hispanic cultures in Austin, while using the day of the dead as a medium to celebrate Austin Hispanic heritage. The event started first with a parade showing different aspects of Hispanic culture, like pre-Columbian to Austin-weird, then followed with a festival full of dancing, music, traditional food and crafting marigold flower crowns.
Religious Holy Days
In compliance with Senate Bill 738, ACC permits students to be absent from classes for the observance of areligious holy day. “Religious holy day” means a day observed by a religion whose places of worship are exempt from property taxation under Section 11.20 of the Tax Code.
ACC permits students to be absent, without penalty, from examinations or from completing assignments scheduled for that day. It is the student’s responsibility to work with the course instructor when absent for a religious holy day in order to complete required assignments within two days following the absence. The instructor may appropriately respond if the student fails to satisfactorily complete the assignment or examination.
Professor Patrick Hughes (1949-2016) began his career at Austin Community College (ACC) as a professor of history in 1977 and retired more than 35 years later. His excellence in teaching earned recognition for numerous awards throughout the years and he is known for creating the ACC Time Machine to escort students to historical sites all around Texas. During his tenure he also produced virtual trips to the Texas State Cemetery and Oakwood Cemetery enabling students to see how these sites bear witness to history. Students learned the meaning of gravestone symbols, how different cultures approach the burial ceremony, and much more. Virtual tours provided greater access for students, and faculty were able to share the experience and save valuable time that might otherwise be spent on travel and logistics.
Highland Campus History
The ACC District Highland Campus site has a long history as a place of education and community. In the early 1900s, it housed the St. John’s Orphan Home, an important school for African-American children. The surrounding farmland hosted annual gatherings of the St. John Regular Baptist Association, whose members came in wagons and on horseback to support the school.
In 2015, the Austin Community College District Board of Trustees approved street names for the Highland development. The names pay tribute to the College’s heritage and individuals who guided its growth.
One of the streets will bear the name of Reverend Jacob Fontaine(1808-1898) who played a key role in developing what is now the Highland area — Jacob Fontaine Lane. His leadership in the St. John Baptist Association benefited the African-American community in Central Texas. Highland Campus sits on the original site of the St. John’s Orphan Home.
The largest and most significant park at Highland will be named the St. John’s Encampment Commons to preserve knowledge of the site’s past and its role in shaping Austin for future generations.
St. John’s Orphanage. March 13, 1945
The stone building is dirty and there is damage to the roof. It is surrounded by a field and a dirt road leads to the building. This photograph is part of the collection entitled: Austin History Center General Collection Photographs and was provided by the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library to The Portal to Texas History, a digital repository hosted by the UNT Libraries.
“For years, it stood empty in open fields — massive, hulking, disintegrating — five miles northeast of downtown Austin. For some kids during the 1940s and ’50s, the three crumbling stories, fronted by columns and balustrades, served as a haunted house, a forbidden place to explore. For others, it was all that remained of a noble venture, an attempt to raise and educate African-American children in need from across Central Texas.
On August 12, 1956, the once handsome stone building — centerpiece of a 350-acre farm that drew tens of thousands of blacks nearby for St. John Regular Baptist Association annual camp meetings — burned to the ground. Before or after that fire — the record is unclear — the land where the St. John’s Orphan Home main building, which had stood for half a century, was sold to a developer. The adjacent land became Highland Mall, and parts of the Highland neighborhood are now undergoing yet another metamorphosis sparked by the mall’s purchase by Austin Community College and attempts to revive Airport Boulevard.
Other sections of the old farmland became, first, the St. John (alternately St. John’s) district, once an almost rural African-American enclave, and, according to one history, also parts of University Hills, a postwar development similar to nearby Windsor Park to the south. Yet for the first half of the 20th century, the St. John’s Orphan Home with its low, fertile fields — along with camp pavilions and agricultural structures — was as much a center of African-American life in Central Texas as any church, school, business or university in better-known Central East Austin.”
American journalist Emily Esfahani Smith grew up in a Sufi household. In her 2017 Ted talk called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” she tells her story about finding meaning in life and how her experiences with and connection to Sufism espoused the four pillars of life meaning — belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. You can access her Pillar of Meaning quiz here.
“In her writing, she draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience—why we are the way we are and how we can find grace and meaning in a world that is full of suffering.”
Whether we partake in celebrations of spiritual or religious nature, or we are merely spectators on celebratory occasions that mark special days throughout the year, the broad-reaching impact of these cultural traditions and rituals can provide a cause or purpose to join others in like-minded, meaningful, and self-fulfilling work that links us in belonging.
Peace be with you
Om shanti shanti shanti
La paz esté con ustedes
Susan M. Thomason
In collaboration with,
Dr. Grant Potts, Department Chair, Philosophy, Religion, & Humanities, and Associate Professor of Philosophy
Alejandra Polcik, Manager of Hispanic Outreach Projects
Are you harnessing the power of purpose and belonging in your work at ACC?
We’d love to hear from you! Contact TLEDcomms@austincc.edu for opportunities to be featured on our website and blog.