Making Room for Both Dissent and Inclusion
November 4, 2020
Marc Bragin is the Jewish Chaplain and Director of Hillel at Kenyon College. Hank Spaulding is the Associate Campus Pastor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.
The campuses of Kenyon and Mount Vernon Nazarene University are only a few miles apart but do not often interact. However, both schools responded to the invitation to take part in the “Courageous Pluralism,” project and are part of a national effort to bring diverse campuses together for greater understanding across students, staff, and faculty. Courageous Pluralism is the work necessary for people with differing points of view to foster an appreciation of difference while also remembering and embracing the common good in which both participate.
Though COVID slowed the work’s progress, the leadership and participants remain confident about the importance of such an endeavor. The following is a reflection on the work by the leading directors of the grant for each campus. Marc Bragin is the Jewish Chaplain and Director of Hillel at Kenyon College. Hank Spaulding is the Associate Campus Pastor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Both Marc and Hank recognize the liturgical nature of Courageous Pluralism and the opportunities of working with students and each other.
Reflection from Marc Bragin
In our calendar of reading Torah (Old Testament) in the Jewish tradition, we just celebrated the holiday of Simchas Torah – literally meaning the “celebration of the Torah”. This holiday signifies reaching the end of the yearly cycle of reading Torah, finishing with reading Deuteronomy, and rolling the scroll all the way back to the beginning, and starting over again with Genesis and the story of creation. One of the many questions and observations that we notice while studying and analyzing the story of creation is that amidst the darkness, the light was created and there was room for both. In other words, the light did not cancel out darkness, the light did not replace darkness but rather there was evening, there was morning and God declared “Hinei Tov Meod” – this is very good.
This fits in perfectly with how we approached the Courageous Pluralism grant from the Interfaith Youth Core. Working with Mount Vernon Nazarene University and in particular with Hank Spaulding III, we knew that our campuses had never really worked closely together in this type of endeavor. This was going to be exciting, maybe a little uneasy at times, but also wondrous in that we had the opportunity to bring both of our campuses together in this one petri dish to try and see how each of us could understand each other and maybe even encourage one another to see the world from a different perspective.
What I found in working with Hank was more than I could ever have imagined. Hank is warm, thoughtful, academically brilliant, and above all, approachable. We have since marched together at demonstrations and rallies in our local community; we plan to study some text together because we both love to learn about liturgy and ancient texts. We live in a small community so we will run into each other from time to time at various venues and each time it brings a smile to my day. As we get older, it is even more meaningful to gain a new colleague and friend.
The entire community from MVNU has been so gracious and kind. From the administration to the students to the faculty, we all have worked together without the luxury of knowing exactly where we were headed. That has led us down a path of discovering our commonalities, sharing the values and outlooks that guide each of us, and unwrapping any prior preconceived notions that our two institutions had about one another.
This world we are in pulls us in so many directions and every day we see a multitude of paths ahead of us. Part of our job is to provide students with enough knowledge so that they can choose the path that is right for them. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
In this particularly polarizing time that we find ourselves in, it is even more important that we actually find ourselves. Students today not only need the tools to be able to discover who they are but also the tools to convey their story to others, to share their hopes, dreams, fears, and joys with those around them. Finding humility, self-awareness and the ability to embrace change are values that will enable us to move forward and to find that which connects us, as well as that which may challenge us. Working with the Courageous Pluralism grant, we hope to heighten the possibility that there is room for both, one does not cancel out the other, they both live together, Hinei Tov Meod – this is very good.
Reflection from Hank Spaulding
The current liturgical season for much of the Christian Church is simply referred to as “common time.” The seemingly innocuous title betrays a much deeper truth, namely that the calendar requests that one measures one’s days according to a different rhythm. Through one’s joys and sorrows, an individual learns to measure their time differently in the space set aside for common things which nonetheless are precious to God. Though one might struggle to find meaning, especially in uncertain times, the measurement of the calendar requires that they place the moments of their days in concert with the days of God’s time. Thus, one comes to see how the moments of each person’s day are wholly good and precious.
Like my wonderful colleague Marc Bragin, I see a connection between the Courageous Pluralism Grant as a liturgical response. At their best, religious traditions join with the lives of ordinary people who seek meaning in unexpected places and times. Courageous Pluralism, on Mount Vernon Nazarene University’s campus, offers a moment of reflection and calm amid very tumultuous times. Though the organizers of the IFYC Courageous Pluralism Grant did not plan for a Global Pandemic and the heightened racial tensions, they nonetheless understood that our time matters.
I consider two great gifts and opportunities arising from this grant. First, it is a great pleasure to work with my esteemed colleagues at Kenyon College. Though Kenyon and Mount Vernon Nazarene University (MVNU) exist only a few miles apart, many believe the two institutions are in fact worlds apart. However, my experience is quite different. Upon meeting Marc Bragin and Rachel Kessler, I immediately felt safe and respected as an equal in good work. Marc and Rachel are both the definition of hospitality and kindness, always eager to listen and answer any questions.
Marc spent an afternoon showing me around his place of worship and offered peerless insight into the Jewish faith’s liturgical practices. He graciously offered to study sacred texts and assisted me with my incorrect Hebrew pronunciations of Torah passages. Marc and I have attended various protests and marches in our town, illustrating that a courageous pluralism also involves recognizing shared commitments across differences. A mode of discovery and conversation guided our conversations. Marc showcases expertise, humor, a keen mind, and graciousness in all things.
Rachel, too, has illustrated keen hospitality and kindness to my every query. Though from the same religious tradition, our denominational affiliation is quite different. She treated me to lunch on a warm Wednesday afternoon and discussed the prayer book utilized in her Christian tradition. We discussed the many partnerships in our work and how Kenyon and MVNU can serve the common good in a polarized world.
My second gift is the student engagement between our campus. One of my favorite elements of higher education lies in the formation of young minds. However, in recent years my efforts cause me incredible frustration because of the existential ruts caused by political polarization and intellectual stagnation through perpetuating ideological silos. The work of the Courageous Pluralism Grant allows students to lean into difficult identity recognition and intellectual hospitality across vast differences. On both campuses, the capacity for dissent and inclusion grows every day as a result of dialogue. There remains work to be done, but as the grant continues, new capacities continue to emerge. I have no doubt that the Courageous Pluralism fostered here will translate into more connections with those who differ so that we might together work for the common good. This activity is time well spent as the liturgical calendar reminds us and, as my new friend and colleague observe, Hinei Tov Meod – this is very good.