Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
I once heard Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, saying, “You never know who you will meet at the crossroads.” This is a profoundly important statement when you think about it. In my short 32 years I’ve met people from every walk of life. Having traveled to almost every state and a few places abroad, I’ve had a remarkable opportunity to hear the stories of what have to be thousands of people over coffee, lunch, or simply in passing. It is a blessing to be a part of a tapestry that exists in the world and at every turn, at every crossroads, there is someone new to meet and a new story to hear.
But of all the places I’ve ever been, of all the stories I hear, universities and the stories of the students are the most diverse, the most full of energy, and yet the most divisive of all. And frankly, the world needs us to do better. As a United Methodist campus minister who frequents the campus atheist, skeptics, and humanists group at the University of Minnesota, I run across people who are very different from myself. I walk into Hillel, sit under the Sukkah, experience the Friday prayer with the Muslim Student Association, meet with the Multifaith Student Council, experience the evangelical preacher on campus, and on and on. This is my life, my career, my vocation, and I believe it is a beautiful thing to see with college age students. But when things get tense, like when the Muslim and Jewish students start arguing over the BDS issue on campus, or when the evangelical Christian groups start proselyting the international students, or simply when a group refuses to acknowledge another tradition as being worth their time to interact with, I start paying a whole lot of attention.
In our society, we’ve become attuned to tribalism, wherein at times of anxiety and tension, and even at times of harmony, we retreat to that which we know best. We like to be around people like ourselves. It is in this thread that Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 famously remarked that “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” We haven’t changed much to be honest, and our world is full of tribalism and an “us versus them” mentality that takes hold whenever resources are scarce and misunderstanding of the other is high.
Our campuses are a unique and important place through which we can shift our culture and change the way our world approaches many issues, most especially that of religious diversity. Should we perpetuate the divisiveness that takes place between religious groups on our campuses, we risk long term societal divide. But when we realize the possibilities the college campus has on changing our entire culture, we begin to see that higher education is not just about four-five precious years of transformative moments, but rather a lifetime.
Ten years of experience as a professional in higher education has thus led me to believe that my work is about the building up of compassion and peaceful interaction rather than finding difference. Eboo Patel has set it best by saying that we are “better together.” And we are. When we build up our relationships, find the other in our midst and understand how we are a part of a single human experience, we begin to see that we are not so different. We also learn to appreciate those differences and start to find appreciation. Our college students, all 20 million, require that we demonstrate this in our lives and on our campuses.