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October 30, 2019

By Nichole Johnson

Students, Faculty, Staff Lead Effort to Build Model Interfaith Community at Capital

Imagine a world where interfaith cooperation is the norm—a place where religious diversity can exist without strife. In a country that grows increasingly diverse and seemingly more divided by the day, this may sound like a tall order. And it’s exactly what students like Nicky Gutierrez are striving for.

As a member of the executive board of Capital’s Interfaith Council, Gutierrez, a junior, wants to help foster a welcoming and diverse environment where students of all faiths and spiritualities are shown the same level of respect. “The Interfaith Council is a group of people of different faiths and spiritualities coming together to promote interfaith dialogue and appreciation for other faiths,” he said. It’s all part of a larger effort taking place across the university.

Capital was recently accepted into the Institute of Teaching and Learning for Campus-wide Interfaith Excellence, an organization that helps prepare college and university leaders to transform their campuses into model environments for interfaith cooperation. The organization is run by the Association of American Colleges & Universities(AACU) in cooperation with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization dedicated to creating the next generation of interfaith leaders.

Interfaith inset ”America is the most religiously diverse country in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere. Religion is an important part of many people’s lives, and makes major contributions to American civil society,” said Eboo Patel, founder and executive director at Interfaith Youth Core (IYC). “We believe interfaith cooperation should be a social norm in the United States, and that college campuses are the perfect laboratory and launching pad for this vision.”

In July, University Pastor Drew Tucker gathered a team of five university faculty and staff – Anita Slack, liaison and instruction librarian; Keirsten Moore, Ph.D., professor and associate provost of learning; Jean Scholz Mellum, Ph.D., assistant professor of Nursing; Craig Burgdoff, Ph.D., professor of Religion; and Robert Bennett, Ph.D., assistant professor of Social Work – who traveled to Atlanta for the institute’s four-day conference, which set the process in motion. The team applied for and received a $5,000 grant to help implement an action plan to be presented in March at the next interfaith gathering. The overall goal is to infuse interfaith cooperation into the campus culture, which further positions the university to attract, retain and embrace students who are determined to find their own unique way to live, learn and lead with purpose.

“America is the most religiously diverse county in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere. Religion is an important part of many people’s lives, and makes major contributions to American civil society.”
– Eboo Patel, founder and executive director at Interfaith Youth Core (IYC)

Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University plays a key role in strengthening this interfaith work. “The IYC emphasizes the importance of understanding our own religious or spiritual identity as we build relationships with others,” Tucker said. “Having Trinity Lutheran Seminary as a core part of Capital helps us identify more strongly with the Lutheran roots of Capital and define more clearly what it means to be centered in contemporary Lutheran values. This, then, empowers us to build stronger relationships and support people of all religious and spiritual identities. We can see what we share, where we differ and how we can celebrate the common good and goals we hold in common.”

The Action Plan

Capital’s action plan consists of four objectives, all currently at various stages of completion. It begins with the objective to increase interfaith content in the curriculum. Small grants are being provided to faculty members who are willing to develop certain modules in their courses that support this effort.

The second part of the plan, which may be the most ambitious, is to develop and implement a certificate in interdisciplinary education. The goal of the certificate is to prepare students, faculty, staff and community members for work as interfaith ambassadors. “We see the community as an opportunity for our students to learn, and take what they are learning and apply it to the real world,” said Bennett, assistant professor of Social Work and a member of the team.

The third objective is to increase interfaith community engagement. The student-led, faculty-supported Interfaith Council, which provides opportunity for representation to every faith and non-faith expression on campus, leads this effort by helping to facilitate greater understanding among worldviews and faith traditions. “We are welcoming to diverse faiths,” Gutierrez said. “We want to take down the stereotypes and see the real people.”

Finally, the fourth objective is about developing a university-wide statement on interfaith cooperation. “There is value in being more explicit about our religious identity. We must commit to creating clarity and sharing that message widely, including an interfaith cooperation statement,” Tucker said. “It’s hard for people to know where they fit if you don’t say who you are. This is necessary if we’re going to be hospitable to a host of religions and identities.”

Different Programs. A Common Goal.

By design, every member of the team brings a unique perspective to the process. “Being in social work, we are really focused on diversity and trying to help people from all different backgrounds,” Bennett said. “I see that religion in the world can be a point of conflict, and this project is an opportunity to bring people together and facilitate cooperation.”

Scholz Mellum, the assistant professor of Nursing, is quick to point out that a holistic nursing program is based on helping people achieve their highest level of wellbeing, which includes knowing people’s spiritual histories and faith traditions. That’s why it’s important to teach nursing students about the different world views and faith traditions they might encounter as a professional nurse. It’s also about equipping students to be successful, and part of that is creating a welcoming environment. “It’s going to make the students’ education so much more meaningful if they feel like they belong and this is a place for them,” she said.

While there is still a great deal of work to be done, the hope is that one day Capital will be a place where the end of the Ramadan fast is celebrated on the same level as the lighting of the Christmas tree or the lighting of the Menorah. “We don’t say you have to believe a certain thing,” Tucker said. “But out of our Lutheran heritage, we believe that spirituality is an essential component of wellness, and each of our members deserves to pursue that wellness in a way that is authentic to their religious tradition.”