December 2015

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 three childhood playmates were Jewish. I recall my surprise that my friends Roger and Robert attended church on Saturday not on Sunday and, in fact, didn’t attend church at all, but rather "temple."

Later, when I was a graduate student developing a serious relationship with a woman from a very different background, it happened our best friends were Jewish. We soon stood under the chuppah as the witnesses at their wedding, and they returned the favor as two of our witnesses when we were married by my uncle, a Catholic priest, in a Lutheran church in faraway South Dakota.

Seders and bat mitzvahs became part of our married life, alongside baptisms, Holy Week services, and Easter dinner. We sat Shiva when Larry's dad died, just as he and Lynda flew home from Mexico 20 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.

Such memories were stirred recently when we opened a new interfaith Prayer and Reflection Room in the center of Alvernia’s campus. It was made possible by the generous, joint support of Jewish and Muslim families who are devoted to interfaith relations — Mike and Susan Fromm, Elsayed and Catherine Elmarzouky, and their children. Complementing our three chapels, this room is a space for people of all religious faiths (or no faith) to gather, mediate, pray and share reflections. It is another visible way for our campus community to practice what we preach.

For me, interfaith and intercultural relations are still quite personal. Yet I have come to recognize that significant efforts in these areas, while rooted in personal relationships, require far more. Essential is mutual appreciation of both different perspectives and shared values with those we barely know. Such dialogue must be open and ongoing. It starts with valuing one's own religious and cultural traditions and style of spirituality; it flourishes when we honor and value the traditions of others.

Unlike public and secular institutions, which generally avoid discussion of overtly religious issues, universities like Alvernia consider religion an essential element of personal identity. So, interfaith dialogue is a mission-centered activity, embedded in our Franciscan DNA. Eboo Patel, a prominent Muslim intellectual and nationally known advocate for interfaith work, has publicly praised Catholic universities as ideal communities for Muslim students because such schools support and nurture the spiritual explorations and faith development of all their students.

And so today, amidst the violence and intolerance that mar our world and even our own country, faculty, staff, students and trustees must work together to make our campuses models of inclusion — communities of free expression, civility, charity and reconciliation. We must not simply affirm the humanity and dignity of those different from us but also seek opportunities to understand and embrace them with open minds and generous hearts. In so doing, we discover anew that there is more that unites us than divides us.

Our country, like our universities, has far from a perfect record regarding the treatment of racial, ethnic, religious and other minorities, but that should inspire us to try harder, to dare more boldly. As a nation whose citizens count as their ancestors many who fled poverty and persecution to seek better lives on these shores, we must be a model of inclusion, faithful to the ideals expressed in the famous poem of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

As we begin this New Year, let us reject the divisive rhetoric of those who would marginalize others. And let us offer our prayers and strong support for those who are treated with intolerance and prejudice.

And at a time when our nation and world are too often filled with hostile — even hateful — sentiments, let the loving spirit of this blessed season cause us to be women and men inspired by the Franciscan call to be “Sister and Brother to All.”


The Morning Call, Jan. 2, 2016



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