Commentary

Bridging faiths, communities critical to success of future leaders

President Obama’s interfaith and community service challenge a way to lead by example

Paul Pribbenow

Connecting colleges to communities is a core value shared by many higher education administrators. As an urban college in one of the most diverse ZIP codes between Chicago and Los Angeles, Augsburg College understands that the connection to community is critical to our institution’s success and to the experience of our students.

Today, more and more communities look more and more like our neighborhood. This diversity is reflected in our student body. More than 40 percent of our last two incoming freshman classes were students of color. This diverse learning community also includes a large portion of first-generation college students and students representing a full spectrum of faith traditions.

The changing face of America, and of our campuses, makes President Barack Obama’s new Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge an important — and even critical — call to service. Colleges must seek ways to become better neighbors, to lead by example, to learn from our communities.

Augsburg College started on this path a number of years ago, and rededicated itself to this work in 2008 following a neighborhood tragedy.

That tragedy involved an Augsburg student who was fatally shot outside a community center in our Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. The student, a young man who was Somali-American and Muslim, had been at the center for a work-study shift to tutor neighborhood children.

As the campus community — grounded in the Lutheran Christian faith — faced this horrific incident, we wrestled with our grief and fear and sought solace in the familiar rituals of our faith. At the same time, we sought to understand our student’s faith traditions, and create space for his family and community to mourn.

Shortly after this event, we gathered to address safety concerns of the community. We intended to talk about security cameras and safety patrols that day. Instead, here’s what happened: An imam stood to speak. His first words were “God is good.” Though we were a room of people of very different faith traditions, we together could whisper: “Yes, God is good, and this is not what our God wants for us.”

In that spirit, our community came together. We rededicated ourselves to the well-being of our neighbors and to interfaith conversation — to talking and living together. Yes, we also have more security cameras and personnel, but the urgency expressed wasn’t about the material. It was to find common purpose in the health, safety, and well-being of our neighbors and neighborhood.

A college for its community

This desire for community is the same desire with which Pres. Obama in early March invited American colleges and universities to participate in his Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This year-long project will engage students in interfaith dialogue and community service. This is an important effort as we seek to educate students, not only for professions and careers, but also (and perhaps even more so) for lives of meaning and purpose in a world marked by more urgent attention to the diversity of religions and cultures.

At Augsburg College, we are enthusiastic about supporting the president’s initiative. It helps us lift up work already underway on our campus and in the rich and diverse urban neighborhood that has been our home for nearly 140 years. This presidential initiative is timely in many ways, not the least of which is in recognizing the growing demographic changes to our state. Minnesota ranks 17th in the United States for its rate of immigration. Our new neighbors have come to this state to join their families, to work, or as refugees. They bring with them a diversity of faiths, which are reflected on our campus.

As we consider our interfaith work, we are convinced that dialogue and service must be interwoven in all we do. We believe that what we learned through recent efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue with our neighbors is something we must do each day. We must seek to live side-by-side, day-by-day, within our neighborhood. Interfaith living is what we must — and do — aspire to teach our students.

Our work at Augsburg College is guided by the 20th century political philosopher and theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J., who wrote in his book, We Hold These Truths (Sheed and Ward, 1960):

Barbarism … is the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws. Here the word ‘conversation’ has its twofold Latin sense. It means living together and talking together. Barbarism threatens when men cease to live together according to reason, embodied in law and custom, and incorporated in a web of institutions that sufficiently reveal rational influences. … Barbarism likewise strikes when men cease to talk together … when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another.

Murray’s challenge is clear: How shall we recover our capacity for conversation – both genuine living and talking together?

Having faith in interfaith relationships

I find inspiration for this important work in the example of the late Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest who wrote a moving challenge in his Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday, 1975). His challenge illumines for me what we are called to be and do in our interfaith living:

* Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.

* It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

* It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment.

* It is not an educated intimidation of good books, good stories, and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find root and bear ample fruit.

* It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity for others to find their God and their way.

The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness — not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.

This is a vision of faithful living and learning that shapes the sort of education we seek to offer at Augsburg College. Augsburg faculty and staff must prepare students for lives in an interfaith world.

We are pleased to see that the nation’s leader, Pres. Obama, is calling on colleges and universities to commit to interfaith cooperation and community service. The ability of today’s students to successfully navigate their futures depends upon being able to navigate a world brimming with diverse people with diverse beliefs.

Paul Pribbenow is president of Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

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