Inspiration for Sincere Dialogue in Difficult Times

Martin Luther King, Jr., meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Public Domain

“We live at a time when the world is full of violence, oppression and conflict.” “We live in a time of deep division in our own country.” Perhaps both these statements are true of many times, maybe even all times, but they are certainly true of this one. The communication technologies of our period also can serve to make these realities seem closer to us or harder for many of us to escape, even if we’d like to.

One of the reasons we honor and celebrate certain special individuals is because we hope that in their lives, we can find wisdom and inspiration for our own times. In the span of a few weeks at the beginning of the year, we mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the celebration of Foundation Day (the commemoration of the start of the Vincentian Mission), and the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. So much could be said about each of these days and the men and the movements they commemorate. Today, let’s consider what they might suggest to us about relationship and dialogue in difficult times.

In reading the highly acclaimed new biography of Dr. King by Jonathan Eig (who happens to live near DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus), I was struck by King’s relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson reached out to King three days after the assassination of President Kennedy seeking his assistance.[1] Johnson was a highly skilled political operator and said he was committed to civil rights but he knew he needed the help of King, who was then at the height of his mainstream popularity and success. They remained in close contact although neither publicized their dialogue, and both were wary of the other. (In fact, both knew that elements of the federal government were spying on King and seeking to destroy him.) King wept after watching Johnson’s powerful address to Congress after the civil rights movement was met with violence in Selma (and after Johnson had met in the White House with Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace).[2] The address called Congress and the nation to pass the Voting Rights Act. Despite what they were able to accomplish in this arena, as Johnson continued to escalate the Vietnam War, King would not remain silent, despite the advice of many who considered themselves his allies in the movement.[3]

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King stressed the importance of dialogue and negotiations (along with research to identify injustices and to engage in self-purification). Yet King rejected the idea that direct action was in opposition to dialogue and negotiations. King argued that while destructive violence must always be opposed, the constructive tension created by nonviolent direct action was often necessary to force those in power to engage in dialogue and negotiations with the marginalized. King said that while he initially disliked being the label of extremist, he now embraced the need for “creative extremists” for love, truth, and justice.[4]

While the time and place of Vincent was not one of direct action or of democracy, I would argue that Vincent and the organizations he founded relied not only on service, but also on creative calls through words and actions for those in power to accept their responsibility for those on the margins. The call for the powerful in France to live up to the Christian example and not ignore those in poverty stood in stark contrast to the injustices of French society. When Vincent was transformed from a smart young man who was motivated to make a better life for himself to one utterly committed to serving God and those living in poverty, he did not cut off relationships with the elite and powerful in society. Instead, he continued to cultivate them with the aim of using those relationships to fulfill his mission.

I have also been reading a compelling recent book on Abraham Lincoln by NPR’s Steve Inskeep.[5] While Lincoln, like King, is remembered for his powerful oratory, this book focuses on Lincoln’s relationships and dialogues. Each chapter focuses on a different account of encounters between Lincoln and another person who came from a different background than him and with whom he had a significant disagreement. What stands out in each encounter is Lincoln’s willingness to engage with those with whom he disagreed. The results of the dialogue were rarely about one convincing the other, but Lincoln used the dialogues to understand others better. He was a quintessential politician and believer in democracy, and he could use his understanding of the others’ interests to define priorities and create coalitions to accomplish his most important goals. Although as a politician Lincoln would often choose to remain strategically silent as part of this process, Inskeep’s book takes its title from something Lincoln wrote in a letter to his close friend Joshua Speed. Speed came from a slaveholding family and Lincoln “chided [him] for admitting the “abstract wrong” of slavery but failing to act accordingly.”[6] Still, Lincoln remained in relationship with Speed, signing off the letter with “your friend forever.”[7]

We all have different roles to play in life and in the university. Just as the roles and perspectives of a prophetic preacher leading a movement for social change, a politician in an era of civil war, and a saintly founder of a religious order in an absolute monarchy may differ greatly, we may see our own roles differently based on our positions, personalities, or other commitments. I see in each of these examples a call to remain in dialogue and relationship with others, even those with whom I may have profound differences or disagreements. I have seen a call to sincerity in that dialogue which means a willingness to express difficult truths and to listen to them. Finally, I appreciate the role that constructive, creative tension can play in individual and communal transformation when we are willing to channel that tension into dialogue and negotiation.

I am inspired by the people and spaces in the university that help form students to engage in these types of difficult, sincere ongoing dialogues. Among those with which I am most familiar are the Interfaith Scholars program and the Grace School of Applied Diplomacy, but I know there are many others. What are the ways in which you think DePaul engages these questions best and what are ways in which we might be able to do better?


REFLECTION BY: Abdul-Malik Ryan, Muslim Chaplain and Assistant Director, Office of Religious Diversity, Division of Mission and Ministry.

[1] Jonathan Eig, King: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), 351.

[2] Ibid., 435.

[3] Ibid., 514–30.

[4] See Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” August 1963, https://www.csuchico.edu/iege/_assets/documents/susi-letter-from-birmingham-jail.pdf.

[5] Steve Inskeep, Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America (New York: Penguin Press, 2023).

[6] Ibid., xiv-xv.

[7] Ibid., xv.

Vincentian Service Day brings students closer to community – News – The DePaulia – The student newspaper of DePaul University

 

DePaul students and faculty participated in DePaul’s annual“Vincentian Service Day” May 4, where students

Courtesy of Taj Simmons: DePaul students garden outside of the Zakat Chicago Community Center dur- ing Vincentian Service Day May 4. This is the 13th year the community service event has been held.
Courtesy of Taj Simmons:
DePaul students garden outside of the Zakat Chicago Community Center dur- ing Vincentian Service Day May 4. This is the 13th year the community service event has been held.

volunteer at sites across Chicago in a super-charged day of service. DePaul volunteers cheerfully flocked to McGrath Arena at 8 a.m. on Saturday where they partook in some interfaith prayers and were sent off to their respective service sites. The cheerful demeanor of all those present was derived from the knowledge of the good they were doing in their community.

 

DePaul’s Jewish Life coordinator, Matthew Charnay, took a moment to describe the idea behind Vincentian Service Day.

 

“It is something that staff and students look forward to all year. The chance to get out into the community and do work with your fellow classmates is such a positive experience,” said Charnay. “The ability to stand in solidarity with not only peers, but fellowChicagoans, people of faith and standing together as a community, not just a school community but a world community, is a highlight for the entire university.”

 

It seems that Charnay voiced exactly how DePaul students feel about this day. “(Vincentian Service Day) is important because it teaches DePaul students to look beyond themselves,” said Taj Simmons, DePaul junior andVSD team leader. “Too often in college we become self-absorbed and block out what’s going on all around us, and Vincentian Service Day really gives us a chance to go beyond what we know.”

 

Simmons also noted how much it has expanded over the years.

 

“It’s grown so much since I was a freshman. My first year, all of the service groups started inside of the (St. Vincent de Paul church) before leaving for their work. Going from that to the quad last year to McGrath Arena this year is just an amazing leap forward. I never thought there would be so many people dedicated to taking action to keep Chicago as glorious as it is, but now that I know there are, I can’t help but feel elated.”

 

Charnay echoed Simmons’ sentiment in regards to the day’s steady growth over the years. “We keep expanding the number of service sites that we visit and this year we even had students and families come to DePaul for activities.  It will only continue to grow. When you have such a great program and everyone involved can see the wealth of positivity and justice that is the end product, it makes it very easy to keep growing that program. I can only see it getting bigger in years to come.”

 

The community members who benefited from this day had positive things to say as well. Laila Muhammad, director of Zakat Chicago Community Center gushed about DePaul students who planted a vegetable garden at the community center. “The students were very helpful. The garden really brightened up the area,” said Muhammad. “It’s something that will continue to benefit the community. Last year when we had the garden, a boy had never had red lettuce before, but now he asks for it like candy. It can change a person’s life and encourage more nutritious eating.” In this way, one day of service can have lasting effects on a community.

 

“I think (the service day) is great,” said Muhammad. “I think that it shows DePaul’s understanding of the holistic approach to education. You can’t just teach in the classroom, you have to go out and experience life.”

 

That appears to be precisely what DePaul’s Vincentians in Action are hoping to achieve. Indeed, Charnay said “It is one thing to talk the talk, but when we give students the outlet to walk the walk of service, they have a chance to experience firsthand the mission that drives this university to new heights.  To take something theoretical (and) intellectual such as the ‘dignity of every human life’ and make it tangible, the lesson is better received, and it gives students time to reflect on their work.”

Vincentian Service Day brings students closer to community – News – The DePaulia – The student newspaper of DePaul University.

By Anne Malina

Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013

Updated: Sunday, May 12, 2013 20:05

 

Digital Story: Realities of El Salvador

So 5 months ago I went to El Salvador for a Service Immersion Trip. And once I returned, I wrote a small blog about my experience, “Realities of El Salvador.”

This quarter, I took a digital story class and we were asked to talk about something impactful. A digital story is a short film filled with photographs and audio. It is simple, easiy and to the point. With this assignment, of course my trip to El Salvador stuck out at me. It has definitely been a couple of months, but that experience is still with me. I hope you enjoy my work, and here is my digital story:

Digital Story: Laura Mena

Peace,

Laura E. Mena ’14

Spring Quarterly Interreligious Celebration: Life, Death, and Social Justice

Life, Death, and Social Justice

As the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings circulated around the news outlets, the DePaul University community stood shocked and worried. All of the faculty, staff, and students called their loved ones, and checked up on each other’s family and friends. Coincidentally, the Interfaith Scholars had been planning for their Spring Quarterly Interreligious Celebration with the theme revolving around, Life, Death, and Social Justice. The evening usually holds four significant segments. The first, is an opening prayer, which was held by DePaul Community Service Association, University Minister Rubén Álvarez, who asked the audience to center their minds, bodies, and spirits in order to be present. The second, is the opening introduction of the theme usually done by a short talk. The DePaul community was honored to have Sr. Helen Prejean talk about her interfaith experiences and the ways in which they effected the way she perceives life, death, and social justice. The third segment of the evening was composed of short-story performances and prayers by three DePaul students, Dana Jabri (Muslim), Tom Miller (Agnostic), and Josh Sushan (Jew), each of whom reflected on occurrences of life and death in their lives. Below is Tom Miller’s reflection and story he shared with the audience.

“I want to share a story which I think touches each of these themes: Life, Death and Social Justice. And then try to explain how I addressed them as someone who identifies as an Agnostic. For the past two summers I have been volunteering at a summer camp called Camp Courage. This camp is only a week long. This is a grief camp for people who are connected to a recent death. There are about 40 or so kids who go there each year, all between the ages of 6 and 13. Each and every one of these kids lost someone close to them, parents, friends, aunts, uncles, even siblings.

I remember very clearly the story of Alex. Alex was about 9 years old when I was introduced to him. I soon learned he had a twin brother. Alex liked to swim and was on a swim team. One day their mom drove them to a swim meet. But as they were on their way to the swim meet, a garbage truck sped through a red light and crashed into the car Alex’s mom was driving. Alex’s twin brother was instantly killed and the crash only mildly wounded Alex and his mother.

When I was talking to Alex he would ask questions like, “Why did I have to live and he die?” He felt guilty for living, he felt like he was wrong to be alive, to be given life when his brother had his life stripped away because they were going to Alex’s swim meet.

 So as an Agnostic how was I supposed to approach this situation? Was I supposed to talk about the meaning of life? About Karma, an afterlife, Heaven, Hell, God? I didn’t know what faith his parents were raising him with. Should I talk about morality, or all the philosophical ideas I have been learning about for the past few years? Where was Social Justice? What would Social Justice say I should do? What about that garbage truck driver? Should he be thrown in jail for the rest of his life? What if it was an accident?

What was I supposed to tell to a 9 year old about life and death? Especially when I had no idea what I thought of it, or am still trying to figure out what to think of it. I did not want to tell this little boy that he will see his brother in heaven. I didn’t know that, I wasn’t sure of that. I’m still not sure of that. I didn’t want to lie. I wanted to tell him something, to comfort him, to give him something to believe in, something to give his life meaning. But should I be the one to give meaning to someone else’s life? I didn’t want to sugar coat anything, but I also knew that I couldn’t give him a long philosophical lecture based on everything I had been learning at DePaul.

What I ended up doing was listening to his story. I looked him in the eye and I smiled. I shared with him a moment of my life simply listening. The only thing I knew at that point in time was that I cared for this boy. While I have never lived his life or went through what he went through I understood that there was an intense struggle he was going through. At that moment I knew that he was not alone, and that I was also not alone. As an Agnostic I realized that I don’t know how to answer these questions, but I think we should be okay with talking about them.

Now, when I go to camp courage this upcoming summer, I’m going with the goal of trying to make kids smile. I think sometimes we forget how to smile or how to have fun and we all need to be reminded every now and then.

One of my favorite intellectuals to quote is Einstein. With all his knowledge and wisdom, he wrote this, ‘The life of the individual has meaning only insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful…'”

– Thomas Miller 

Knowing that the Anti-Death Row activist and spiritual guider Sister Helen Prejean was going to present the opening remarks introducing the theme of the evening, as a group, the Scholars began to think of ways in which we could get the campus students’s ideas, thoughts, and topics they wanted to discuss after the introduction was given, as the interreligious dialogue activity for the evening. The idea was to get the students to form discussions that came from their own quandaries. So we collected questions, topics, and ideas from the 200+ students that were present. For the last segment of the evening, we invited the students and audience to participate in meaningful discussions about the ways in which life, death, and social justice effect the ways in which we percieve our faith traditions, and as students of the DePaul community.

Some of the questions suggested:

What about your religious tradition do you find life-giving?

Do you feel the responsibility to engage in social justice work? How does your personal faith tradition or belief system inform your answer?

What do you hope to do in your life before you die?

Sr. Helen Prejean talked about the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, how do we as a DePaul community provide support to the Boston community?

As the event came to an end, the faculty, staff, and students had for the last time this school year, reflected as a community on their individual faith values to the roles that life, death, and social justice play within one’s life.

– Dana Jabri ’15

Being Present as a Form of Healing: QIRC Reflection

Dialogue in the happening...
Dialogue in the happening…
IMG_1532
Vincentian Art Exhibit

I think I’m getting the hang of Quarterly Inter-Religious Celebrations (QIRC). This was my second QIRC on staff, and 4th or 5th QIRC overall, I believe. It was very different going from hosting to presenting on the evening’s theme, Healing A Wounded World Through Art, – I found the former to be significantly less challenging than the latter, which is stressful for obvious reasons. That said, I had a fantastic time.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how empowered I felt in my religious identity while speaking about it to others. In the past, I have been unwilling to identify with a specific tradition or faith because I had been unwilling to claim ownership over what I believed. I understand now that this is because I had been looking for the ‘perfect’ religion. Without ever realizing it (and, indeed, oftentimes hiding behind a mask of feigned ambivalence), I was hailing religions like cabs – only to leave each taxi the second that their route to my destination varied from the one I desired. ‘There’s got to be a cabbie that has thought about this route before, someone who knows exactly what it is that I should do,’ I thought to myself. Since then, I have come to understand that only I can chart this route, because only I have had my life of experiences. As a result, I’ve begun to take ownership over what I believe; love it even. And it seems as though now that I love what I believe, people are more interested in hearing me talk about it – and now that people want to hear what I have to say about Buddhism rather than what others have to say,  it is easier for me to find delight in my identity. I want to hear what I have to say. I suppose that is the healing that I will take from the QIRC as a whole.

Islamic Art Exhibit
Islamic Art Exhibit

I also couldn’t possibly write a reflection without commenting on Morgan Spears’ performance. God, what a stupendous, brave, and vulnerable piece of art. And how much more challenging and perfect could it have possibly been for our night’s theme? I had personally invited her to perform, but had no idea that her poem would be so personal and self-revolutionary. I think the most powerful part of the entire evening for me was when, after Morgan performed, she came over to my booth to thank me for asking her to be a part of the evening. She looked me in the eyes with an expression that said ‘sorry if that got out of hand…I kind of lost track of myself’, and I told her that she was incredible, and then she just smiled and we both laughed and hugged. She said that she was super nervous to open herself up the way she did, but I could see in her face how grounded and lucid the experience had left her feeling. Morgan’s performance, more than perhaps anything else at the QIRC, invited the audience to engage in radical transparency, heartfelt expression, and most importantly, the kind of listening that one can only learn by calling out for God and enduring the silence before Her/His reply.

Until next quarter!

Josh Graber ’14

“Meeting Minutes” – Interfaith Scholars Out For Dinner!

Interfaith Scholars Out For Dinner at Cozy Noodles near Cubs stadium!
Interfaith Scholars Out For Dinner at Cozy Noodles near Cubs stadium!

This past week, the DePaul Interfaith Scholars traded in their typical weekly meeting for a ‘Cozy’ dinner together. We ventured to Cozy Noodles a thai restaurant in the Wrigley neighborhood – just north of the DePaul Lincoln Park campus around the corner of the red-line Addison el-stop. The dinner was an opportunity for us as scholars to simply ‘hang out’ and be in good company. A casual atmosphere sparked segmented stories of each other’s lives: bits of our daily triumphs as well as pieces of family traditions.  I learned that I should not expect to see a Jewish man waiting at the end of the aisle at his wedding, but I might more likely find him walking down the aisle with his parents.

 

I don’t think that we always realize the fun facts, heartfelt stories, or shared experiences that we exchange with one another, in the passing of laid-back conversations. What can also slip by is the unintentional ‘ouches’, assumptions, and generalizations that can easily weave their way into chit-chat.  Even the dialogical training and insight of interfaith scholars can get away from us. We can easily forget challenges that come with intentionality and consciousness. But it is talking with friends – the time we spend listening, questioning and sharing – that shape the foundation for inter-religious dialogue we seek to foster.

 

Caelin Niehoff ’14

 

The Beauty of Sharing Thoughts

I hope that this blog post is brought to you in good health and spirits. Being a DePaul University student entitles one to have a seven-week break. With that being said, I was blessed and privileged to attend several spiritual and faith-based events, lectures, conferences, and a convention. Sometimes we can’t help but jot down the phrases and concepts that scholars throw at us. And surprisingly as I took a moment to look through my notes, I noticed that these quotes and phrases that were mentioned could relate to any person: religion, or no religion. Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder the impact my experience can have on another individual, below I share with you my many moments of inspiration.

“A beliver will never view the glass as half empty because he or she knows that the other half will be filled by God.”

“The Great, the King, if it wasn’t for You, we would not be here…”

“The heart constantly waivers and turns, and that is where the problem is.”

“The beauty is that God does not judge by outer appearance, he looks within.”

“A heart that has no desire to sin, but falls into sin without it intending it.”

“We fear everything else… as if our bosses are paying our salaries, we forget that we work for God and God pays our salaries.”

“Our reliance on placebo medicine far out weighs our reliance on God…”

“Sometimes religions make it a point that rituals are an end rather than a means.”

“Ignorance breeds fear!”

“Everyone has a form of spirituality whether it is formerly religious or some-other sort of spirituality…”

“Religious defamation exists, and free expression can be upsetting… but then ‘ethical people’ of religious and non-religious backgrounds will need to stand up for their fellow citizens and stand out against extremism.”

“Looking at the world in the eyes of the Hereafter is a vantage point which we all should take advantage of. Where did I come from? Why am I here?  Where will I go when I die?”

“You should stay here and stand up. But to stay here and to sit down is not an option.”

“A true leader is a servant of his people.”

“That which you have given away stays with you forever.”

“That which you give is your wealth and that which you leave behind is your inheritance.”

“Let us reflect on our relationship with God. Can we believe in God if we do not have a relationship with God?”

Happy New Year’s!

Dana Jabri ’15

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Quarterly Inter-Religious Celebration: “Healing a Wounded World Through Art”

I am excited to announce that next week DePaul’s University Ministry will be holding their Winter Quarterly Inter-Religious Celebration! After holding our Fall Quarter “QIRC” which revolved around the theme of restorative justice and engaging one’s faith through a service-based lens – I hope that this upcoming QIRC will allow for a space where conversations about restorative justice and art can be intertwined.

The DePaul Vincentian Society, state that “Through prayer and careful reflection on the current broken state of the US criminal justice system, Vincentians guided by the legacy of Frederic Ozanam should begin to see their role as change agents and implementers of restorative gospel values. Recognizing that the dignity of the human persons applies to both the victim and the offender.”

If you’re in the city please feel free to stop by and check out this event!

Follow us for live updates on twitter:  @dpu_interfaith

Follow us on Facebook: DePaul Interfaith

 

Many Blessings,

Dana Jabri’15

* Apologies for spelling error*
* Apologies for spelling error*

Standing In Unity Against Violence

As winds blew through the Chicago skyline on Wednesday the 18th of September, a group of student leaders from the United Muslims Moving Ahead DePaul University on-campus organization decided to hold a candle-light vigil. The vigil was a call for students and faculty to stand together in unity against violence occurring all over the world. During the Unity Vigil the students gave their respects to the United States Ambassador Christopher Stevens who was serving in the US embassy in Libya. We came together on an evening to condemn the violent protests that erupted as a result of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” which meant to insult the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him). We also stood together against violence happening within the Syrian Crisis, the daily shootings in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and anywhere else across the world.

As an Interfaith Scholar, there was nothing more meaningful that night than to be supported by faculty members and students representing diverse faith and spiritual backgrounds standing shoulder-to-shoulder in unity against violence. The importance and significance for us all to experience and share each other’s feelings about certain on-goings around the world is something that this world needs more of. But to then take it a step further by building a support system, and embracing one another in a time that calls us to do so, is hopefully an eternal bond that each one of us can use.

The Muslim Chaplain at DePaul Abdul-Malik Ryan, reached out to the DePaul community through an email inviting his colleagues and students to attend the vigil, “In light of the continued violence here in Chicago and around the world, and especially the violence that is being presented as a motivation of ‘religious faith,’ the students want to make a strong statement that the DePaul community, and especially people of all faiths here at DePaul stand united against violence and as witnesses for peace and justice.” Chaplain Abdul-Malik stressed the fact that Islam as a religion condemns violence and prohibits the killing of innocent people.

Another member that is dear to the DePaul community and a representative from the University Ministry Office and Assistant Chaplain of the Office of Religious Diversity, Katie Brick shared a piece from the Superior General Gregory Gay, who wrote about Vincentian non-violence. Chaplain Brick read out a few quotes in which General Gray characterized non-violence as though it should be used as a means of “creating harmony based on diversity, rather than using diversity as a justification for violence.” This phrase stood out to me personally because it embraced the theme of unity – the purpose and reason to why we were all standing together.

On September 25th, President Barack Obama spoke to the United Nations General Assembly stating, “We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.” Standing together as a strong and diverse DePaul community acknowledging the pain and creating a safe space that creates the chance for all of us to embrace one another, and to share our experiences with one another.

Our shared presence at the Unity Vigil affirmed to me and to the rest of the DePaul Community that brotherhood and sisterhood exists in a diverse form on campus. The Unity Vigil was also a way for the DePaul community to spread awareness about the violence going on in the world. And as I write this blog post I can’t help but sing the words of the song written by India Arie, “There’s hope, it doesn’t cost a thing to smile, you don’t have to pay to laugh, you better thank God for that.”

Dana Jabri ’15

Universities Welcome Muslim Students Through Interfaith Efforts

New York University students, faculty, and clergy gather at the Kimmel Center on the NYU campus to discuss the discovery of surveillance by the New York Police Department on Muslim communities.

By Aaron Shapiro | November 13, 2012

Many American universities—both religious and secular—have recently launched efforts to accommodate and encourage religious diversity on their campuses. Universities are fosteringthis diversity and strengthening interfaith respect and cooperation to better serve their students and to counter rising incidences of xenophobia and other prejudices. Colleges are taking particularly active steps to welcome Muslim students, who too often face discrimination and prejudice because of their faith.

The number of Muslim students enrolled at Catholic universities has reportedly doubled over the past decade. In fact, according to the Higher Education Research Institute, the percentage of Muslim students at Catholic universities is higher than at “the average four-year institution in the United States.” Many may assume this influx of the religious “other” might generate tension, and that has indeed been the case on some campuses. But while much attention has been paid to instances of conflict and discord, the firsthand experience of many students suggests that, theological differences aside, having a religious identity of any kind can serve as a point of commonality for many students.

Muslims thrive on interfaith campuses

Many Muslim students are in fact choosing to enroll at Catholic universities precisely because of the religious—albeit non-Muslim—student body. Maha Haroon, a Muslim student at Jesuit Creighton University, said, “I like the fact that there’s faith, even if it’s not my faith, and I feel my faith is respected.”

Similarly, many Muslim students express a sense of belonging at these institutions because they are surrounded by other people of faith. Beyond merely co-existing, Muslim students are finding their fellow classmates to be welcoming faith partners. Mai Alhamad, a Muslim student at the University of Dayton, told The New York Times that he finds comfort in these efforts, saying, “Here, people are more religious, even if they’re not Muslim, and I am comfortable with that.”

So, too, is Dana Jabri, a sophomore at the Catholic DePaul University. Unsettled by the recent killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Libya and the violent demonstrations that subsequently spread across the Middle East, Jabri felt compelled to organize her fellow students to respond to the violence.

“We needed to come together and just share a moment of silence,” Jabri said in a recent interview with the Center for American Progress.

She worked quickly to organize a vigil on campus protesting violence around the world. About 40 students and faculty from a variety of faiths attended the event and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim chaplains shared their thoughts and prayers. As she recalled the vigil, Jabri said that it felt like a meaningful achievement to simply be able “to stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle, recognizing that it is important for all of us to come together, no matter our faith backgrounds, against this violence.”

As a Muslim and a religious minority at a Catholic university, Jabri has thrived on campus. Jabri is one of DePaul’s seven interfaith scholars—a group of student leaders, each hailing from a different religious tradition, who work with each other and their respective religious communities to cultivate a robust interfaith community on campus.

This kind of engagement extends beyond Roman Catholic universities. Many Muslim students, for instance, are finding common ground with their classmates at Brigham Young University’s Salt Lake City, Utah campus which is “supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and where 98.5 percent of all students are Mormon. The values promoted in the BYU Honor Code include “shun[ing] alcohol, illicit drugs and pre-marital sex,” and areimportant in the Muslim faith. These and other similarities have created a sense of solidarity among Muslim and Mormon students, leading Muslim student Sameer Ahmad to conclude that “[Mormons and Muslims] emphasize the same teachings, the same set of beliefs, even though the way of participating [is different].”

In the course of living and studying together, many students at BYU have discovered that their faiths can bring them together instead of pushing them apart. Andrew Moulton, a Mormon who lives with a Muslim classmate, told the Deseret News that, “I didn’t know that our cultures were so similar.”

But it is not just friendships or a sense of belonging that is prompting this increase in Muslim students at non-Muslim religious universities. Brigham Young University is taking concrete steps to create a more welcoming environment for its Muslim students. Each Friday, for example, the university sets aside a room in the student center where its Muslim students can gather for prayers.

Other religiously affiliated universities are making similar efforts to ease Muslim students’ adjustment to campus life. In early October of this year, Gannon University, a Catholic university in Erie, Pennsylvania, completed construction of a new “Interfaith Prayer Space,” where students from all faiths are able to pray and study in accordance with their religious traditions. In another expression of the school’s commitment to engage its Muslim population and improve its interfaith activities, during the ceremony dedicating the new space, Rev. Michael Kesicki read from the Bible and a Muslim student read a passage from the Qur’an.

Many other universities are developing programs and policies that are designed to make Muslim students feel more welcome, as well:

  • Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, where 15 percent of the students identify as Muslim, compared to the average 1.3 percent of students at four-year colleges,established dedicated prayer rooms for Muslim students and launched an “Interreligious Dialogue” program, inviting students from different faiths to discuss a wide range of issues, including anti-Muslim sentiment.
  • Georgetown University, in addition to reserving space for daily Muslim prayers, employs Imam Yahya Hendi as a university chaplain in its multifaith Campus Ministry in Washington, D.C.
  • American University, which is affiliated with the Methodist Church, actively engages Muslim students through its Kay Spiritual Life Center in the nation’s capital and its Muslim Chaplain Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad.

By taking actions that express concern and sensitivity toward students of all faith traditions, these universities have demonstrated a commitment to bridging the river of religious differences and countering the idea that religious diversity inevitably breeds discord. Other universities that have yet to take action ought to note the successes of these programs at both religious and secular institutions—most notably the one fostered by non-religiously affiliated New York University.

New York University as a secular model for interfaith community-building

Well-known interfaith activist Eboo Patel once noted that interfaith work on religious campuses is often successful because it “fits in the category of faith language and fits in the category of diversity. It’s just a different dimension.” As shown above, creating interfaith communities on religiously affiliated campuses is a fairly straightforward task since many religions have similar views on lifestyle choices, even if the specific tenets of each faith are very different.

Building interfaith communities at secular universities among a religiously diverse student body therefore poses a distinct challenge. Nonetheless, several secular universities are leading efforts to create inclusive spiritual environments for students from different religious backgrounds because they see the religious diversity of their student body as a resource upon which to build.

New York University in particular stands out as a model for vibrant interfaith community building. Barely more than a year ago, NYU opened the Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life on its campus in lower Manhattan. This new building houses the Islamic Center and Catholic Center at NYU, and hosts Friday evening prayers for the Jewish campus community each week.

In 2011 a student club at NYU—Bridges: Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Dialogue—coordinated an event where Jewish students attended the Friday afternoon service at the Islamic Center, while Muslim students attended the Friday evening Shabbat service later that night. Naturally, the group titled the program the “Jum’ah/Shabbat Experience.” This event demonstrated that multifaith initiatives need not ignore religious differences and can instead embrace religious difference as an opportunity to learn more and broaden horizons.

While the Spiritual Life Center at NYU hosts many significant interfaith events, some of the most innovative and inspiring initiatives take place beyond its walls. In March 2012, in connection with President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, the White House highlighted a joint effort—led in part by the Bridges student group—in which both Muslim and Jewish students from NYU volunteered to help repair homes damaged by a tornado in Alabama. Chelsea Garbell, president of Bridges and a senior at NYU,explained the larger collaborative vision of the effort: “If we [Muslims and Jews] can learn from one another and develop an understanding of our similarities and differences, we can stand together as human beings in an effort to better the world around us.” By cultivating genuine interfaith relationships and taking interfaith discussions beyond the safety of the university grounds, students can both develop themselves and extend interfaith reach and significance to the greater community.

But NYU’s interfaith efforts also go beyond extracurricular activities: Administrators are bringing interfaith discussions into the classroom. Over the past year NYU chaplains Imam Khalid Latif and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna have been teaching a joint course, titled “Interfaith Dialogue, Leadership & Public Service: Traditions of Engagement in the U.S. & Beyond.” Students from diverse religious backgrounds have taken the course, where they learn how to build a better world while forming an authentic interfaith community—all in the safety of a college classroom. This means that they have a chance to interact with those of different faiths in a calm, intellectual setting, where they can truly air their opinions and hear from those who think differently, deepening their sense of other religions as well as their friendship as classmates.

Through these efforts and others, NYU is actively cultivating a community where students from distinct faith traditions can engage as classmates and fellow human beings, and where they can come away enriched instead of divided.

The result: Standing together through a crisis

The Associated Press reported in February that the New York Police Department was keeping Muslim students at NYU under surveillance because of their religious affiliation. Muslim students were outraged and organized a rally against this invasion of privacy. Atheists, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, and others stood together with their Muslim classmates at the rally, bringing to life the slogan “NYUnited,” which was emblazoned across the t-shirts worn by many rally attendees.

Among the many speakers who stood before the podium at the foot of NYU’s Grand Staircase was Ariel Ennis, a Jewish student. Ennis shaped much of his speech around a quote fromAbraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Rabbi during the Civil Rights Movement. Ennis said:

We may disagree about the ways of achieving fear and trembling, but the fear and trembling are the same. The demands are different, but the conscience is the same, and so is arrogance, iniquity. The proclamations are different, the callousness is the same, and so is the challenge we face in many moments of spiritual agony.

Ennis was able to speak as a Jew to a largely Muslim audience that day primarily because of his efforts and the efforts of the larger NYU community to develop a strong interfaith community—one that promotes solidarity despite difference and fosters unity without uniformity. As he reflected on the “most profound impact” that interfaith community development had for him, Ennis said that “[It] is not that we have necessarily solved world crises, but we have formed real friendships, deep and meaningful friendships, with many members of the [Muslim] community.”

Conclusion

The lesson of moments such as this seems clear: Building community takes time, effort, and the firm belief that our shared core values are more essential than our differences. Such efforts are central to our well being as a democratic nation. In the face of terrorist threats from Al-Qaeda and other groups of religious extremists, we must stand together as a nation of many cultures and faiths, instead of splintering apart from intolerance and hate.

Anti-Muslim prejudice, hate rhetoric, and bigoted actions divide and weaken our country. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslim Americans increased by 50 percent in 2010—the highest number since 2001. Muslim Americans seeking to worship according to their faith have seen their mosques defaced, burned, and destroyed.

But if we choose—much like Ariel Ennis and others at NYU and at other institutions around the country have chosen—to stand together, cultivating our commonalities while celebrating our differences, then we can stem the tide of religious intolerance. Together we can continue to uphold the American values of freedom and tolerance for all.

Aaron Shapiro is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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