None of us believes we are mere products of our childhood environments. Nor do we believe, even as college students, that our values and beliefs--what we hold sacred--are simply derived from our families. Yet personal experiences as we are growing up are major influences on how we come to see the world.
I grew up in a Boston neighborhood that was relatively homogeneous: certainly, racially (Boston was as segregated as most northern cities) and also economically--families of modest means, far from impoverished but far less comfortable than our suburban counterparts. Yet religious backgrounds were varied: two of my childhood friends were Jewish. I recall my surprise that Roger Sherman and Robert Lamasny attended church on Saturday not on Sunday and, in fact, didn’t attend church at all, but rather "temple."
When as a young graduate student I was "getting serious" with a woman from a very different background, it so happened our best friends were Jewish. We soon stood under the chuppah (pronounced "huppa") as the witnesses at their wedding, and they returned the favor as two of our witnesses when we were married by my uncle, a priest, in Helen's Lutheran church in faraway South Dakota.
Seders and bat mitzvahs were part of our early married life, alongside baptisms and Easter dinner. We sat Shiva when Larry's dad died, just as he and Lynda flew home from Mexico twenty years ago to attend my uncle's funeral at the Jesuit Center, a mere half hour away from a tiny college (unknown to me at the time!)called Alvernia.
Interfaith relations were initially simply personal for me. Yet I came to recognize that genuine interfaith efforts require far more than personal affection. They require our appreciation equally for the different perspectives and shared values of those we barely know and passionate commitment to open, ongoing dialogue. Mutual respect starts with the valuing of one's own religious tradition and spirituality; it flourishes when we honor and value the traditions of others.
For Alvernia, guided by the Franciscan ideal of "knowledge joined with love” and the core values of our Sisters, our identity as a Catholic university calls us to support and nurture the religious traditions and spiritual growth of all members of our community. As the Bernardine Franciscans put it so well, we are "Sisters and Brothers to All."
Our new Prayer and Reflection Room, incorporated into the Bonaventure Room of Franco Library, complements small chapels in Francis and Veronica Halls and our main chapel in the Motherhouse by providing a sacred space for both interfaith discussions and private contemplation welcoming to all, especially those from non-Christian traditions.
The creation of this room builds on the work begun at the large interfaith service at my inauguration a decade ago. It will support the work of our interfaith chaplaincy team and complement the annual Interfaith Lecture, the Fromm Interfaith Award, and our other related initiatives. It will also advance Alvernia’s partnership with “A Common Heart,” a wonderful interfaith community organization linking the Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim communities.
Students played a central role in advocating for this project and emphasizing its importance. Our chaplaincy team and religious representatives from the local community provided helpful suggestions for the room’s layout. The team of Kelly Caddy (Campus Ministry), Jay Worrall (Holleran Center), and Sr. Roberta McKelvie (Mission) led the planning effort, with wonderful support from Sharon Neal (Library).
And two families of trustees (Elsayed and Catherine Elmarzouky, Michael and Susan Fromm, and their children)--who have supported and helped shape previous interfaith initiatives--stepped up together to fund the effort. What a wonderful gesture for them to sponsor this project jointly. On behalf of the entire university community, and our interfaith partners beyond the campus, I again thank the Fromms and Elmarzoukys for their inspiration as well as their support.
So as we commemorate the opening this new special space, let our interfaith efforts provide opportunities for meaningful (and transformative) personal experience and also for deep reflection on the many bonds we share with those of different beliefs. Surely our world has never been more in need of women and men of faith, hope, and charity, rooted in the Franciscan ideals of inclusion and “knowledge joined with love.”
What better way to celebrate the cooperation which made this effort possible than to have many of those most involved in creating this special space share their reflections:
Kevin Shainline, Class of 2014 (FROMM SCHOLAR, 2014-2015) As an alumnus, I feel this room makes a powerful statement of inclusion for current and future members of the Alvernia community. It provides a safe environment for everyone to pray, reflect, or learn about different faith traditions. It shows that interfaith work is, and will be, a focus of the University, so that all members can explore their own spirituality.
Mackenzie Bartlett, Class of 2017 (FROMM SCHOLAR, 2015-2016) The Interfaith Room provides all students, staff, and faculty a place where self-reflection and prayer is promoted. As an active college student, I am constantly on the go. To have a location on campus where I can put my stress and worries on the table and reflect and pray to God is a beautiful advantage that the University has given me.
Jay Worrall, Director, Holleran Center of Community Engagement (HCCE)Besides its use by students, this room will advance the Holleran Center’s relationship with "A Common Heart" (ACH), a group spearheaded by three local spiritual leaders--our own Sayed Elmarzouky (Islamic Center), Rabbi Brian Michelson (Temple Oheb Sholom), and Fr. Phil Rodgers (St. Benedict Church). We look forward to using this space to facilitate campus and community learning about the value of Interfaith understanding, both as essential to our own spiritual journeys and to foster religious inclusion in our community.
Sr. Roberta McKelvie, Assistant to the President for Mission This space fosters the spiritual development of our students and provides space where they can delve into an understanding of who God is for them, and who God is for people of other faith traditions. The creation of this special space is a visible expression of our Mission because Alvernia’s Franciscan heritage is rooted in an intellectual tradition that recognizes and values the importance of diversity of thought, faiths, and cultures.
Fr. Ron Bowman, Catholic Chaplain Our new interfaith room provides a venue for an actual interpretation of the ideals expressed in the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate (28 October 1965). This dedicated "Holy Ground" is a fitting expression of Alvernia’s interfaith cooperation.
Rev. Marsha Anderson, Ecumenical Chaplain The new Prayer and Reflection Room is a profound gesture to people of every faith, showing that there is a place for them at the heart of Alvernia University. It is significant that this place for all to pray, meditate, and reflect is located in Franco Library - the center of academic life. I believe that the positive impact of the personal reflection and communal conversation that will take place there will be felt in the University and in the community at large.
Rubina Tareen, Interfaith Chaplain This room is a physical manifestation of the Franciscan tradition of “knowledge joined with love” and also showcases a traditional Islamic concept of intertwining knowledge and faith, being that is in a library. The Prophet Mohammed said that the most learned of mankind is the one who gathers knowledge from others. That is exactly what this space will promote.
Kelly Caddy, Director of Campus Ministry For our students, the Prayer and Reflection Room is a calming, welcoming space for persons of all traditions and for those with no particular faith tradition. One student sees the room as a “common ground”--where she, a Christian Catholic, can sit with non-Christian and “spiritual but not religious” friends and have a deep conversation about who is God, why people believe in God, and how we even know there is a God--which naturally leads to the question of how do I know what God is calling me to do. It is a reminder that all students are asking the same questions, not just those who actively seek guidance in their spiritual quest. It is also an important connection to the “enduring questions” that are presented to students in their first year seminar courses, connecting a visible space to academic study. And finally, it simply provides a place where a soul can take a breath and rest, to let life settle in, breathe into it, and go forth refreshed.
Mike and Susan Fromm, Elsayed and Catherine Elmarzouky, and their FamiliesBoth of our families have experienced religious intolerance, and have responded by dedicating ourselves to building connections among people of all backgrounds. The establishment of an interfaith Prayer and Reflection Room is consistent with Alvernia’s aim to foster an atmosphere of tolerance and respect on its campus and within the larger community. Moreover, having worked closely with the Administration and Campus Ministry on this project, we know that locating the interfaith space in the Franco Library represents a thoughtful, intentional decision to centralize activities of coexistence - both physically and symbolically. We hope this room serves not only as a place of reflection for people of all faiths, but also as a reminder of how connected we all are to one another.
To all of the above, I add a simple, Amen.
Peace and all Good, Tom Flynn