We Are Better Together
The power of interfaith dialogue and cooperation
By Erin Hemme Froslie
During a visit to campus this fall, Dr. Eboo Patel leaned forward and asked a group of student leaders assembled around him to consider this scenario: You live in a small town where the largest employer is a meatpacking plant. Its employees are diverse and include recent Somali immigrants who are Muslim.
Because their faith prohibits eating and touching pork, the Somalis do not process hogs at the plant. During the holy month of Ramadan, they ask for time off at dusk so they can break their fast. The company denies the request because it can’t afford to shut down the line.
Furious, the Somalis walk off the job, leaving the other workers, mostly Sudanese and Latino Christians, to pick up the slack. Anger and blame soon flame into violence.
Patel’s question to the Concordia students: Let’s say you live and work in this town. What do you do?
“You need to bring them together and talk,” says one student.
It seems so simple, but sharing personal beliefs with someone from a different faith tradition can be an effective tool to solving conflicts that arise from religious differences. After all, it’s harder to judge and stereotype someone you know personally.
This belief that understanding will create better neighbors is why colleges like Concordia are making interfaith and intrafaith dialogue and cooperation a priority.
As part of the strategic plan for 2012-17, interfaith conversation and service will be promoted as a primary function of Concordia’s identity as a college of the church. It’s a formal embrace and support of work that is already happening on campus.
That work ranges from the curriculum, which requires students to take an introductory course called “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” to a student group, Better Together, which brings students of all faiths together to do service. The recently created Forum on Faith and Life on campus is designed, among other things, to serve as an interfaith resource for the community.
Confirming this work, Patel, a national leader in interfaith dialogue, spoke at the college’s opening convocation and at a standing-room-only public event later that evening. He is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago and author of two books, including “Acts of Faith.”
“Our students live in an interreligious culture, an interfaith world,” says President William Craft. “If they are to thrive as professionals and be effective as citizens, they need to have a mature understanding of different faiths.”
Consider the soundtrack of our times. The video of an anti-Islamic film is posted on YouTube, leading to protests and violence around the world. A shooter kills six and wounds four at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Even the earlier scenario presented by Patel happened in Grand Island, Neb.
“As communities diversify, who is skilled to navigate these faith traditions?” Patel asked during his visit
Who will inform and train the teachers, social workers, engineers, doctors and journalists who interact with this religious diversity?
Concordia’s response: We will.
For today’s students, interfaith dialogue is a natural extension of their environment. Their friends and neighbors are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and practitioners of Native American traditions. They find that discussions with people from other faith traditions are a refreshing and necessary part of their lives.
“It’s about bringing your full self to the table and not checking your faith at the door,” says Anastasia Young '14, a Campus Ministry Commission leader and one of the first interfaith scholars on campus.
As an interfaith scholar, she works with the interfaith movement and will present academic research at a national conference. The dual leadership roles have been a blessing to Young, a religion and nursing major from Butte, Mont.
“It’s not just about tolerating, but engaging each other. It’s asking ‘What do you believe?’ and then hearing that person’s story,” she says.
Young is among dozens of students involved with Concordia’s Better Together movement.
Students meet weekly to learn about different faiths and share understandings of their own faith traditions. They also complete service projects together. Last spring, members of Better Together volunteered to clean the Red River and created green space at a homeless shelter for people who are chemically dependent.
These service projects were followed by discussion on topics like what about their faith traditions motivate students to serve. The service and discussion combined are designed to show that people don’t have to agree about every doctrinal issue to accomplish something positive for the community.
“In a culture where we often think dialogue is synonymous with debate, it’s important to have a model like this,” says Sarah Funkhouser '13, Beulah, N.D., a co-leader of the group. “You learn how to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you and move beyond it to get something done.”
Campuses like Concordia, where faith and service are already a core part of the mission, are particularly well situated to lead this movement, Patel says.
“We (as Americans) inherit one of the most astonishing traditions of pluralism known to humankind,” he said during an evening speech that packed the Centrum. “In America there has always been a group saying, ‘We are better together.’
“Why shouldn’t you be the people to build this cathedral of pluralism?” he asked the audience.
Building that cathedral doesn’t mean giving up one’s own beliefs, traditions and identity.
When someone in the audience asked whether it meant Concordia should drop “Christian” from its mission statement, Patel strongly objected. “I think you say it’s because of who we are, because we are Lutheran that we welcome other faiths and traditions and send them out to serve the world,” he said.
Indeed, there is biblical support for interfaith cooperation, as the Scriptures are filled with stories about the sacredness of welcoming the stranger, Craft says. One is the 25th chapter of Matthew where Jesus talks to his disciples about the judgment day and tells them that whatever they did for their brothers and sisters, they did for him. Another is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
It shows there are opportunities to build a more peaceful and just world when people of all backgrounds work toward the common good, says Dr. Jacqueline Bussie, Concordia’s director of the Forum on Faith and Life and a Christian theologian. In particular, this idea of pluralism speaks to students because they’re exhausted by the problems centered around religious diversity, she says.
Bussie sees the desire for more religious cooperation in her daily work. For the past year she has traveled to the college’s supporting congregations, asking people what they long for spiritually.
People want more community and more respect, Bussie shared during a gathering of college corporation members meeting on campus. They yearn to be heard and understood. While differences matter, people didn’t want them to divide communities.
“In a world plagued by fear and polarization, who’s going to model reconciliation and respect if not us,” Bussie says. “What’s more Christian than practicing hope and reconciliation?”
To assist with this, she has given a five-hour workshop answering thoughtful questions Christians in Bemidji, Minn., had about Islam. She has traveled to Atlanta with Concordia students who represented one of 50 schools accepted to an Interfaith Leadership Institute at Emory University. She also presented a paper on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue at a conference in Assisi, Italy.
Interfaith conversation and cooperation is not deciding everyone is right. It’s not a watering down of your own faith, Bussie says. “It is,” she says, “God making all things new.”
Students, in particular, benefit from such conversations and experiences, Craft says. “They learn who they are through encounters with others. It’s how they deepen their understanding of their own traditions and identity.”
It’s why leaving the comforts of home to spend a month in Rwanda or a semester in India or a year at a university in Oslo, Norway, is so valuable. Conversing and serving with people of different faiths offers a similar experience.
“In my experience, the presence of interfaith dialogue will draw some of those students into serious religious reflection,” Craft says.
Consider Funkhouser among those. She grew up attending a Lutheran congregation in western North Dakota that eventually split because of disagreements.
Funkhouser was saddened to see these arguments tear apart not only the church, but families too. In response, she re-evaluated what religion meant to her, and that was community. After taking a religion course at Concordia and discovering Better Together, she realized that interfaith cooperation gave her a way to be in communion with her neighbors while being strengthened by her own tradition.
“It has only strengthened my identity as an ELCA Lutheran. I’ve been forced to articulate what I hold to be true and believe while also looking for commonalities,” she says. “It’s beautiful.”
This year she is one of the leaders of Better Together and an interfaith scholar.
Her co-leader, Kristi Del Vecchio '13, Bismarck, N.D., identifies as an atheist and secular humanist. The biology and religion major treasures the engagement that happens when people of different faith and nonfaith traditions share their beliefs and values.
“I learn from the inspiration of others,” she says. “While we share our differences, we want to move on to our shared values. We’re about trying to find the resonances.”
Learning from one another and then finding common ground is a calling of faith, says the Rev. Tom Schlotterback, director of Vocation and Church Leadership on campus. In particular, the Lutheran tradition grants the freedom to engage with others.
“I’m proud of our college for engaging in matters of interfaith,” he says. “I believe it matters to God. There is great joy in exploring and encountering God through our neighbor.”
Photo: Sheldon Green/Evan Marsolek '13/Brianne Lee '16