In today’s world, diversity can either drive people toward conflict or it can be productively engaged to build a spirit of respect and cooperation among community members.
At Interfaith America, we are dedicated to unlocking the potential of America’s religious diversity; we do so by fostering respect for religious identities, encouraging mutually inspiring relationships, and facilitating common action for the common good. Our work has never been more important, and our success relies on the dedication and investment of partners across the U.S. landscape – many of whom are situated within our network of higher education institutions.
In August 2022, we embarked on a collaboration with one such partner – the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) – to support multifaceted, sustainable interfaith initiatives on Christian campuses over the course of an academic year. As Eboo Patel, President and Founder of Interfaith America, and Shirley Hoogstra, President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, have observed, “Christian colleges in particular have an exciting and rewarding role to play in bridging divides in our country by creating opportunities for students to learn the skills of bridgebuilding while deepening their own faith identities.”
To this end, the “Building Bridges, Deepening Faith” grants brought together a cohort of faculty and staff from nine CCCU institutions to design and implement context-specific programs with an overarching goal of advancing bridgebuilding, racial justice, and interreligious understanding. This goal was realized through creative efforts targeting diverse audiences on and off campus to:
Enhance student learning and development. Bridgebuilding and interfaith cooperation at Spring Arbor University over the past year took the form of co-curricular programming focused on both racial and religious diversity. This programming included a series of chapel speakers who engaged with students, faculty, and staff on topics of faith and racial justice during visits to Spring Arbor. For example, the Rev. Anthony Thompson shared his story of forgiveness in the wake of the 2015 Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Afterward, Thompson met with student leaders and led small group discussions that laid the groundwork for dialogues in the residence halls. Training for student leaders on listening and storytelling has also been prioritized to facilitate fruitful discussions and dialogues.
Strengthen campus-community partnerships. Students at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, engaged in bridge building workshops that exposed them to personal stories from local immigrants identifying as Afghani, African, Asian, Hispanic, or Ukrainian, and deepened their understanding of immigrants’ distinct identities and needs. Many students from Theology, Christian Ministries, Intercultural Studies, Linguistics, and Anthropology departments also completed service hours by working directly with immigrant communities in Cleveland. Their experiences led to mutually inspiring relationships across faiths, sparked interest among students in advocating for immigrants, and strengthened ties between the university and its surrounding community.
Cultivate learning tools and resources. Grantees at Fuller Seminary dedicated the past year to creating interfaith-focused online courses that would deliver seminary-quality research and resources to audiences within and beyond the seminary. Early drafts were piloted with faculty and students preparing for InterSem, “a retreat experience for Los Angeles-based Jewish, Christian, and Islamic seminarians to build relationships by engaging in dialogue designed to increase understanding and appreciation for their respective traditions.” The courses reportedly kick-started conversations that ultimately informed a more fruitful and robust retreat experience.
Shape institutional practices. Leaders at Bethel University joined the grantee cohort with ambitious goals to build a university-wide committee for inclusive excellence; train faculty for inclusive excellence in hiring, departmental climate, and teaching; and shepherd a cohort of faculty through a process of developing and implementing inclusive excellence within their departments. These goals were achieved with strong support and commitment from institutional leaders, including the Vice President of Inclusive Excellence, Associate Dean of Inclusive Excellence, Associate Dean for Academic Inclusive Excellence, as well as key stakeholders in myriad undergraduate and graduate academic programs.
You can read more about these campuses and the work of other grantees in the coming months. We will be sharing reflective pieces from our “Building Bridges, Deepening Faith” grantees on Interfaith America Magazine to inspire action and collaboration among other Christian college and university leaders. We hope each real-world example underscores the need, the opportunity, and the potential for Christian leadership in a multifaith world to bring about positive change in our society.
“Building Bridges, Deepening Faith” campus grants were made possible by generous support from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and The Pew Charitable Trusts.