Schools Seek to Foster Interfaith Dialogue

By Roewe, Brian | National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Schools Seek to Foster Interfaith Dialogue

Roewe, Brian, National Catholic Reporter

News of religions coming together too often is a tale of conflict. Muslims and Jews fighting in Gaza. Christians persecuted around the globe. Buddhists and Hindus battling in Sri Lanka. These headlines and more lead some to connect religion as the source of hate and violence in the world, and to do away with religion is to do away with violence.

That's the storyline some are trying to overcome, starting on college campuses.

More and more, universities across the United States have begun placing greater emphasis on overcoming portrayals of religion in conflict by bringing students of different faith backgrounds together through interfaith dialogue.

The growth of the interfaith movement can trace itself to the headlines, from the prejudices displayed toward Muslim Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to the reality of globalization bringing more people of all backgrounds in contact with one another.

"That's the world [students] already live in, isn't it?" said Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University in Chicago. "If universities are preparing people for the world, that is the world."

Holtschneider said the university has a long history of religious tolerance, beginning with the school charter's nondiscrimination policy.

Aiding their efforts is a close, working partnership with Interfaith Youth Core, an organization formed in 2002 by Eboo Patel, a leader in the interfaith movement (see accompanying story on Page 6a). Based in Chicago, Interfaith Youth Core has often used DePaul as a testing ground for new ideas to integrate interfaith dialogue into campus culture.

Programs on campuses have included small interfaith caf[contains]s, book clubs and dialogue training, but for many campuses, interfaith work begins through service.

"It's a way into interfaith dialogue that isn't about what is the difference between our religions, but really what do we have in common?" said Barbara McGraw, director of the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism at St. Mary's College of California in Moraga.

The program at St. Mary's draws from Interfaith Youth Core's model. Students come together on a service project and afterward the group debriefs, discussing aspects of their faith that motivated the day's service work.

"You tell the story of yourself and your religion and what it means to you," explained McGraw, author of several books on interfaith dialogue. "So it's not about finding theological differences or things like that, but it's about creating a sense of welcoming and empathy among the different people in the group."

Katie Brick, interfaith chaplain at DePaul, explained that connecting service with interfaith work offers a way to bring together people of different backgrounds for a shared purpose.

"It's amazing how people come to respect difference when they meet you as a friend first," Holtschneider said.

Brad Seligmann, a graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati and currently an interfaith coordinator at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the service approach acts as a catalyst for dialogue. Since implementing the program at Michigan, he has found it useful in drawing a different student population into the conversation, one that may not have given much thought much to the idea of religious pluralism.

Service offers a way to initiate dialogue between faiths, but other programs help students delve deeper toward understanding. While at Xavier, Seligmann helped create a student interfaith group that led retreats and trips into the community for religious diversity experiences, since the majority of the student body was either Catholic or Christian. There, students would hear from different faith communities about their faith traditions.

At DePaul, students can experience the various ways different faiths worship right on campus. The university hosts quarterly interreligious celebrations, where students from the various religious organizations on campus come together to pray publicly in their own traditions.

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