In the Heart of the Action: Persons of Purpose in the Profession
With Pam Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor
Victor H. Kazanjian
Dean of Intercultural Education & Religious and Spiritual Life
Co-director of the Peace & Justice Studies Program
Director of the Wellesley in India Program
President, Education as Transformation, Inc.
1. You founded the Religious and Spiritual Life Program at Wellesley College for which you serve as dean. Tell our readers about the history and purpose of your program.
During the past two decades, I have had the great honor and joy of being a part of the creation and growth of the multifaith religious and spiritual life program at Wellesley College. (The term “Multifaith” used in my responses includes all religious and spiritual traditions and practices, and the beliefs and practices of those who identify as Agnostic, Atheist, Humanist, Secular, and Spiritual. “Multifaith” is an imperfect term in this regard and stands as a placeholder for more inclusive term that needs to be developed.) It has been an extraordinary journey for all of us involved. While the original inspiration for the program was a multifaith program that provided services for rapidly diversifying student and faculty populations, our aspirations quickly shifted to a broad educational program that contributed to the institution’s global and multicultural educational goals. Recognizing that there was a confusion on campus between a mono-religious institutional history and a multi-religious contemporary college community, Wellesley convened a consultation on the religious and spiritual life of the college involving trustees, students, faculty, and senior administrators in 1991. In 1992 Wellesley inaugurated the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and created the new position of Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life; the role of which was not to represent any one religious community, but to be an educator, senior administrator, and spiritual leader who would design and oversee a new structure that would meet the religious and spiritual needs of students, faculty, and staff and consider the role of religion and spirituality in the college’s overall educational mission. The second part of this charge proved to be especially important in that it opened a door to reconsider the relationship between religion/spirituality and education, a process that ultimately moved religious and spiritual life from the margins of the institution to a partner in implementing the college’s core educational goals. We began by creating two leadership teams, the Religious Life Team of Chaplains and the Multifaith Student Council, which together with the Dean explores new possibilities of interreligious cooperation in creating Wellesley’s Program.
In 2008 after more than a decade of planning, Wellesley College opened a newly renovated Chapel and Multifaith Center, which has provided a beautiful space for our program and has advanced our work in ways we could hardly have imagined. The Chapel and Multifaith Center has become a kind of global commons on campus, where the people of the world gather to nurture and celebrate all particular forms of religious, spiritual, and humanistic practice, while also providing spaces for inter-religious understanding, dialogue, and encounter for the purpose of education and building community.
In April, we installed a new multifaith stained glass window in the Chapel that depicts the goddess of truth in the form of a woman of African descent standing above a circle of religious, spiritual, and humanistic symbols which represent the diversity of backgrounds and traditions reflected in the contemporary Wellesley College community. It is the most recent expression of our ongoing process of transformation (Boston Globe article).
It has been a wild ride these past two decades pushing the boundaries of multifaith work on campus. For some, Wellesley’s focus on engaging religious and spiritual diversity seemed to violate fundamental notions of secular education. One can easily understand these fears given the history of religious control over higher education and the long struggle to create a free and open academy. But in time, people at Wellesley began to see that our goal was educational not religious, and that the purpose of the Wellesley multifaith religious and spiritual life program was to enhance and further the college’s educational mission.
2. Why is diversity a driving force in this program and how does it align with Wellesley’s educational goals?
Wellesley’s multifaith program has four key programmatic areas:
Deepening Our Roots, (an initiative designed to strengthen Wellesley as a multifaith community through the support and celebration of each of the religious, spiritual, and secular/humanistic groups represented at Wellesley.)
Beyond Tolerance, (an educational program of interreligious and intercultural understanding through dialogue aimed at developing an appreciation of diversity within and beyond the Wellesley College community.)
Spirituality and Education, (a program exploring the spiritual dimensions of life and learning including the Art and Soul program engaging spirituality through the arts.)
Pastoral and Community Care, (providing care, counseling and community rituals in significant moments in the lives of community members, and the life of the campus, the country and the world.)
One of the most exciting developments for Wellesley's multifaith program is the College's decision in 2010 to restructure all of its diversity programs to bring the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and the newly created Office of Intercultural Education into one department in the Division of Student Life responsible for diversity and inclusion support and education. This initiative led by the president, provost and dean of students, derives from one of Wellesley’s core institutional goal’s of “Valuing Diversity” and affirms Wellesley’s commitment to educating students for national and global citizenship by implementing an integrated program of intercultural and interreligious education that equips students with the knowledge and skills they will need for leadership and life in a diverse and interdependent world. It is an exciting moment as we bring our multicultural programs and our multifaith programs together in exploring new dimensions of engaging diversity in an American and global context.
3. The Multifaith Student Council has many roles to play including planning programs and advising you as dean. How has the council been able to work together while being composed of representatives of so many faiths?
The multi-faith student council at Wellesley engages in an exploration of the possibility of religious, spiritual and cultural pluralism at Wellesley College, as students from different belief traditions gather weekly for dialogue designed to deepen their understanding of self, other and world. Pluralism in this context is nurturing and celebrating all particular religious traditions and spiritual practices represented in the Wellesley College community, while at the same time actively engaging this diversity in ways that build community by exploring the principles that bind us together in a common life. The Multifaith Student Council together with the Religious Life Team of Chaplains are the life blood of our program. Each week the Council of between 20 and 25 students from Agnostic, Atheist, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Pagan, Secular, Sikh, Spiritual, Unitarian Universalist, and Zoroastrian traditions comes together and takes up complex issues related to their beliefs and practices, and consider how to help the community to grow in areas of interreligious understanding. It is beautiful to see not only creative conversations happen, but also deep friendships grow from this experience. And this may be the most significant force behind the work, the power of friendships. As first encounters give way to deeper relationships and ultimately to friendships, the barriers that traditionally have been erected between the peoples of different traditions begin the fade, replaced by bonds of enduring friendship.
4. College peer culture can have both positive and negative influences on students’ personal, social, and academic life. What religious and spirituality programs and initiatives are in place at Wellesley that might moderate the negative influences of peer culture?
Wellesley’s religious and spiritual life programs work in close partnership with colleagues in other areas of student life to promote health and wellness among all of our students. We see our work as critically interconnected to that of the offices of the Dean of Students, Residence Life, Health and Counseling Services, Intercultural Education, the Center for Work and Service, the Learning and Teaching Center, Disability Services, the Class Deans and so many others whose collective work helps to provide support and guidance for our students. Our collaborative work promotes healthy living and wellness generally, and our specific work enhances wellness through programs of yoga, mindfulness meditation, life balance, constructive dialogue, labyrinth walks, creative dance, and many other programs.
5. The interfaith, spirituality, and New Atheist movements are gaining momentum on college campuses today. How do you see your work and program addressing students’ religious and spiritual needs, including both theistic and non-theistic perspectives?
Wellesley's religious and spiritual life program has always included students who identify as spiritual, humanist, agnostic, and atheist. Too often college and university chaplaincies have tried to become multifaith by modifying their historically “theistic” (often Christian-centered) programs by simply including other religions into the existing "theistic” model. This often results in programs in which the theistic traditions (especially Protestant Christianity) are at the center of religious life on campus while all other traditions are marginalized.
Wellesley's program is based on the principle that that the beliefs and practices that shape our sense of self, other, and world are derived from a variety of sources, (humanistic, religious, and spiritual) and that no one system of belief should be privileged. This has meant de-centering the theistic as normative and inviting all people of all beliefs (theistic and non-theistic) to work together to build community at Wellesley. One of the advantages of being a dean who is not a chaplain, is that I not only do not represent a particular religious tradition, but am charged with the task of holding a space that includes all. One challenge of this work is that the spaces of encounter which we create necessarily involve tension. This is difficult for those for whom tension is seen as negative, but for us a creative tension is essential if people of different beliefs are going to honestly and authentically struggle to build relationship and community together.
6. Why is it important to get young people involved in the interfaith cooperation movement, do you think?
Today's young people are growing up exposed to a culturally and religiously diverse world in ways that earlier generations never were. Through courses on the cultures and religions of the world in grade school and high school, through the globalized world of the internet, and on college and university campuses which gather students of the world together in one living and learning community, this generation of students sees the world as necessarily multicultural and multifaith. I have learned so much from my students over the years about seeing diversity as the norm to be embraced, rather than as something abnormal to be feared. I hope that today's students will continue to challenge inherited notions of the dominance of one religious or cultural group as normative and seek to form pluralistic multicultural and multifaith communities. Additionally, all successful social change movements have been significantly driven by young people engaging in social action in partnership with older generations. For the interfaith movement to truly create broad social change, these same partnerships must grow and strengthen.
7. Explain how you would respond to religious educational leaders who might say that teaching their students about interfaith cooperation cannot be a priority for them in terms of the efforts needed because such efforts would take time away from their young people learning about their own faith.
Ignorance by any other name is still ignorance. For too long religious traditions have perpetuated themselves by isolationist tendencies which have led to gross ignorance about people of other traditions, beliefs and practices. This combined with exclusivist truth claims has been one of the most powerful forces of ignorance and the resulting prejudice and violence on our planet. I believe that the beauty and power of the religious traditions of the world is not diminished by affirming the legitimacy of other traditions, and certainly not by actively teaching about the many ways in which human beings have sought to make meaning of their lives through religious, spiritual, and humanistic beliefs and practices. Interreligious ignorance is one of the most pernicious and dangerous problems of our time. As an educator, my job is to confront ignorance with education, not perpetuate it.
8. There is a certain paradox about inclusive worldviews: for example, some campus leaders and students might say that pluralism is only one interpretation of religion or worldview, and being inclusive is actually having an exclusive worldview, in that pluralism by its very definition excludes non-pluralistic views. How would you address a group of students and campus leaders who might bring up this paradox?
Pluralism, as we use it at Wellesley, is a process, not a worldview. It is a process of bringing people of many different beliefs and worldviews into contact with one another in ways that seek mutual respect and understanding through education, encounter and dialogue. This process of engaging diversity through a dialogical educational process is at the heart of education. I am completely disinterested in the battleground of competing truth claims that seems to captivate so much of the religious world, "conservative" and "liberal" alike. The task of an educational institution is to educate towards deeper understanding of self, other, and world. At Wellesley College, all are invited into this learning process, "exclusivists" and "inclusivists," “conservatives,” and “liberals” alike. In our multifaith programs at Wellesley, people all across the spectrum of ideological and theological perspectives participate equally and actively. Our goal is not to judge which of these "worldviews" is right and which is wrong, but to create opportunities for all community members to engage each other out of whatever "worldview" their life has to this point afforded them. This will enable people to broaden their knowledge and discover in their encounters a deeper sense of that which comprises the global human community. It is through this process of education and encounter that each of us can begin to build the moral and ethical frameworks that guide our actions in a diverse community, country, and world. I have found that when framed this way there are no barriers to participation of any group on campus.
9. What do you think students like best about Art and Soul events?
Art and Soul events at Wellesley College have become a new and vibrant place for students, faculty, staff, and members of the broader community to gather and experience a variety of cultural, religious, and spiritual themes expressed through different artistic forms. Dancers, musicians, poets, story-tellers, and writers all share their creative works at Art and Soul gatherings. It is lively and fun, and moves us beyond purely intellectual discussions of topics into places of shared experience. Artistic expression is also a way for people of different and historically conflicting groups to express cooperation. Groups like the Afro-Semitic Experience featuring musicians and music from African and Jewish traditions, Eliahu and the Qadim Ensemble featuring music and musicians from Armenian, Turkish, Israeli, and Palestinian tradition, and Navarasa Dance Theater, which brings together Hindu and Muslim dancers in a variety of South Asian dance traditions, provide experiences that invite us beyond narrow lines of communalism. People leave Art and Soul events filled with inspiration and energy.
10. Will you tell us about your Multifaith Living and Learning Community at Wellesley? How do students have the opportunity to live in the “corridor”?
The Multifaith Living and Learning Community has been a more recent expression of our multifaith programs at Wellesley. Students whose identity may be humanistic, religious, spiritual, or multireligious apply to live on the corridor, which comprises a floor of one of our residence halls. The only criterion is that they are interested in exploring creating community, where such diversity is seen as a resource not a barrier to their lives together. We have had students of all beliefs live on the corridor including Quakers, Mormons, Atheists, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, Humanists, Sikhs, Jains, and many more. The intentional aspect of the Multifaith Living and Learning Community involves a weekly meeting in which spiritual stories are shared, and topics are discussed. As one student shared about her experience, “It becomes very personal when you are showering and brushing your teeth side by side. All the philosophical differences seem far less important than just learning to live together.”
11. How do you think service learning might relate to interfaith commitment?
Inspired by the remarkable work of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, we are all learning about how service learning can play an essential role in moving people to greater places of respect and mutual understanding. When people of different beliefs and backgrounds serve side by side for the greater purpose of helping others our differences recede and the values that we share of care and concern for our fellow human beings and the planet comes to the fore.
12. You are co-director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley. The program offers a major in peace and justice. Can you tell us how the peace and justice major was started at Wellesley? How many students typically major in this course of study? What examples can you give us of the careers of those who have completed their degree in this major?
One of my other roles at Wellesley is to co-direct the Peace & Justice Studies Program that started almost 30 years ago. The program has grown in the past decade to become a dynamic academic program offering an interdepartmental major that examines the underlying causes of conflict on all levels of society and develops strategies to transform conflict and create sustainable peace. We have on average 50 to 60 at any given time and offer a broad curriculum of courses, lectures, and workshops. Our students study such diverse topics as international conflict, women and peace building, peace education, public health, grassroots development, non-violence, and race, class, and gender justice. Our graduates have gone on to a variety of master's and PhD programs as well as work in UN, non-profit, and community based organizations.
13. One of the courses you teach is “Grassroots Development, Conflict Resolution, and the Gandhian Legacy in India,” which includes a seminar series in Banaras. Can you describe some of the experiences that students talk about the most after taking your course? You also are the director of the Wellesley College Wintersession in India Program. What types of structured and nonstructured experiences do students have as participants in this program?
In 1996, I first brought a group of Wellesley students to India with Arun Gandhi to learn about the poverty-related challenges that India faces and grassroots organizations engaging these challenges. This trip began a 15 year journey that has taken me back to India annually. Many of these trips have been leading this Peace & Justice Studies course, visiting grassroots organizations in cities and rural areas in the North of India and collaborating with our sister Peace Studies Program at the Malaviya Center for Peace Research at Banaras Hindu University, where I also had the honor of serving as Fulbright Professor of Peace Studies in 2006. Students on this program work as a team to engage critical questions related to issues of education, women’s and children’s rights, public health and sanitation, economic development through micro-credit, communal violence, and interreligious and cultural dialogue. What students often talk about the most is the opportunity to build relationships with and learn from women working on grassroots projects to create positive change in their live and for their communities.
14. As president of Education as Transformation, tell us what projects, both past, current, and future, the organization addresses relating to higher education, religious pluralism, and spirituality?
Education as Transformation (or EasT) began in 1998 following a National Gathering on Religious Diversity and Spirituality in Higher Education held at Wellesley College. Nearly 1000 participants (presidents, faculty, students, administrators, trustees and alumni) representing 250 colleges and universities gathered at Wellesley to explore questions related to the largely unexplored issues relating to the impact of religious diversity and spirituality on contemporary campuses. Since that initial gathering, Education as Transformation, under the leadership of Peter Laurence, has become an international organization focused on Education (hosting and presenting at education related conferences); Publication (featuring a nine book series Studies in Spirituality and Education, Victor Kazanjian and Peter Laurence series editors, published by Peter Lang); Consultation (providing consultation services to schools, colleges and universities on developing multifaith programs); and Networking (maintaining a database and information sharing website on religious diversity and spirituality in education.) Recently Education as Transformation has focused on bringing together young leaders in the field of interreligious dialogue and education with elders in the field to explore new directions for work on campuses. In this way EasT will continue to be a catalyst for creative thinking and collaboration around issues of religious diversity and spirituality in higher education.
15. What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far as dean of the Religious and Spiritual Life Program?
One of the things I have learned over the years is that the college and university campus is a unique environment in which people from different cultures and traditions from all over the world live and learn together, and explore the possibilities of building community together. Working in this context is an amazing experience. That is college and campus is a kind of global commons where the people of the world gather is one of many lessons that I have learned from my extraordinary students who are so willing to follow their hopes and dreams, and engage the difficult questions that continue to vex humanity. It’s in the seemingly simple moments like watching the students of the Multifaith Student Council finding connection with each other as they explore their differences, or listening to the students of the Multifaith Living and Learning Community share their spiritual stories with one another that this work really comes alive. Recently several young alumnae returned to campus and talked about what a powerful and complicated experience it was to live in a multifaith community while at Wellesley, and then live and work in communities with very little inter religious understanding or dialogue. Encountering so much ignorance and prejudice in their lives after Wellesley led both former Multifaith Student Council members to get involved in interfaith activities in their communities and continue the work they began at Wellesley.
16. Some critics think that students should stick to activities that relate only to their academic education. In other words, it is the not the business of higher education to teach students to learn to be tolerant and respectful of different faiths. How would you respond to this criticism of programs such as yours?
If not us, then who? If we in higher education are not willing to confront the ignorance that leads to interreligious and intercultural prejudice and violence, and teach our students to understand and respect the diversity of human belief and experience, then who will? If we in higher education choose to ignore the critical role that religion and spirituality play in shaping societies around the world, then we have abandoned our responsibility as educators to equip our students to be citizens of a religiously and culturally diverse country and world. The vacuum in society that has been left by higher education’s reluctance to engage issues of religious diversity has been filled by extremists whose absolutist views of truth and rejection of the values of multifaith and multicultural community erode our attempts to foster pluralistic democracies. To stick to a narrow definition of “academic learning” is to bury our heads in the sand and ultimately fail our students in our responsibility to provide an excellent education.
17. What do you like best about your work?
I love working with students in a learning community. It is just such a remarkable and humbling experience to be a part of the growth and development of students through their college years. Whether it is in class, working with student groups, or in one-on-one advising and counseling, it is such a privilege to teach, learn with, and learn from my students. One of my favorite moments of the year is Flower Sunday, a multifaith celebration of sisterhood and friendship in which over 1,000 students gather at the beginning of each year for a service that includes dance, music, readings, and reflections offered on campus. Seeing the community come together in this way fills my heart and lifts my spirit.
18. What are some of the challenges that you have—either currently or in the past—that others might anticipate if they want to establish a program similar to yours.
While observing that issues of religion are increasingly crucial to understanding the vast complexity of social issues facing this country and the world, most colleges and universities still have difficulty determining where these programs fit in their educational agendas. When developing our Religious and Spiritual Life program, I heard the following comments (also often reportedly heard on other campuses.) Religious and Spiritual Life/Chaplaincy Programs are “a remnant from a long gone era,” “marginal to the educational mission of colleges and universities,” “irrelevant in the context of an epistemology defined by rational inquiry,”“contrary to a secular institution,” “an unnecessary drain on scarce institutional resources,” “redundant now that we have community service and counseling centers,” “making too many demands on issues such as unreasonable space, and food needs,” “attracting ‘unwelcome’ outside groups on campus.”
Too often those responsible for religious and spiritual life programs have in the past adopted one of the following stances in response to these challenges: (a) remain on the margins and hope that no one notices us; (b) whine a lot and hope that people will take pity on us; or (c) fight “the good fight” to hang onto our precious resources and marginalized status. But increasingly campus leaders (including chaplains, students, faculty, and student life staff) are choosing to engage in a process of self-reflection, critical analysis, and the rearticulation of the role of religious and spiritual life on their campus. At Wellesley, this process has led to the development of four principles upon which the work is based.
(1) The role of religious and spiritual life programs must be primarily about education.
Religious and Spiritual Life/Chaplaincy programs must be connected to the educational missions of colleges and universities, clearly articulated as an aspect of student development, integrated into the students’ educational program, and embedded within the institutional structures in both student life and academic realms. In such a program the role of Religious Life professionals/Chaplains must be as
- leaders often grounded in a particular tradition, belief system or practice, but committed to a multifaith educational context
- educators articulating the educational theory and practice behind interreligious dialogue and understanding,
- and student life professionals well versed in student development theory and questions of religious identity and spiritual growth.
Multifiaith religious and spiritual life programs can contribute to the global/multicultural educational goals of their institution by offering programming on interreligious understanding, dialogue and conflict transformation, and increasing the literacy and competencies of community members in areas of religious diversity and spiritual practice.
(2) A pluralistic approach to religious and spiritual life is the most consonant with the educational values of secular higher education.
A pluralistic approach to engaging religious diversity requires the decentering of the normative group(s) and creating of a shared circle of conversation. This means that equity of voice is crucial. Experimenting with new models of dialogue requires that traditionally marginalized voices be fully included. An equal representational model more like the United States Senate (rather than the proportional model of the House of Representatives) is essential to this process.
By decentering the historically normative theistic, usually Protestant Christian, traditions, campuses can create a dynamic pluralistic program in which all traditions and practices of belief are equally valued as part of a global educational community.
(3) Including everyone at the table means sharing the conversation and including more food.
Institutions that incorporate religious diversity programming into their educational agenda must also provide resources to support this aspect of their educational program. Such programs much be embraced at all levels of the institutions, and support given to addressing issues of staffing, program, and space. Justifying this as a priority for colleges and universities requires from chaplains less polemic and more reference to educational theory and quality research on the growth of religious diversity and spirituality on campuses and its educational import.
(4) Everything flows from the moments of community connection and individual care
Ritual gatherings in which community members celebrate their lives together or mark crucial life moments (like the death of a community member or national or global crises) remain central to understanding the role of religious and spiritual life/chaplaincy programs. Even as we adapt to a more educational focus in forging new partnerships with educators on campus, the pastoral care of the community remains the foundation of religious and spiritual work on campus. No one doubts the essential role of religious professionals on campus in moments of crisis.
With these principles in mind, we have developed an institutional change process that we hope will be useful for other colleges and universities in the work of reenvisioning the role of religious and spiritual life on campus. We begin by using the following steps in helping campus teams of leaders including administrators, faculty, student life staff, religious professionals/chaplains, students, alumnae, and trustees to develop a multifaith educational model appropriate to their campus.
I. Identifying the Mission
What is the mission of your institution?
II. Acknowledging Our History(ies)
What is the journey that has brought your institution to this moment?
How has religion factored in that history?
III. Understanding the Context
What are the structures religious/spiritual life structures that you have inherited?
What are the systems in which the work of religious/spiritual life is embedded?
In which division(s) is your program situated?
To whom do you report?
How is your program funded?
What relationships exist with other departments/divisions in your institution?
What relationships exist with external organizations, religious/spiritual/ethical communities, educational and community organizations, and global partners?
IV. Articulating a Vision
How does your envisioned religious and spiritual life program help fulfil the mission of your institution?
What aspects of the history of religion at your institution are important to preserve?
What past practices are in need of transformation?
What is your desired structure that best enables you to be an effective part of achieving your institution’s educational goals?
What are your desired outcomes?
V. Developing a Strategy
Who are your partners in this work?
Create cross constituency conversations which lead to the development of statements of mission, philosophy and goals
What structural change is necessary?
Deconstruct old structures that inhibit achieving these goals
Build new structures in collaboration with administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumnae, trustees, and external organizations that reflect your mission, philosophy and goals
VI. Reflecting and Redefining
What are you learning from your change process?
Develop mechanisms for periodically evaluating your programs and responding to the need to growth and redesign
19. What is the downside? And how do you best cope with problems that arise?
Problems are opportunities. That is my main mantra. Problems will arise. This is part of any change process. Institutions and many people within them will resist change. But the problems and the resistance are a natural part of the process and need to be welcomed as opportunities for engagement, dialogue and education.
|Communication Task Force on the Middle East|
20. What is your favorite interfaith story?
One my favorite moments each week at work is lunch on Fridays when I gather with a group of students called the Communications Task Force on the Middle East. The Task Force is comprised of two representatives from each student organization connected to conflict in the Middle East. This includes Al Muslimat, Hillel, J-Street, Justice for Palestine, Wellesley Arab Women, and Wellesley Friends of Israel. After years of struggle between these organizations on campus, we convened the Task Force to engage in dialogue about issues related to the conflict across cultural, religious, and ideological lines. The purpose of our meetings is to be an engaged reflection group that examines what happens when conversations about these issues lead to conflict. Each week we engage in dialogue on a related topic, and when the group gets stuck, we stop and reflect together on what happened. We ask each other, what can we learn from what happened? And how can we develop different strategies and best practices for dialogue? Two students lead each session. The dialogue goes deep into complex and controversial topics, and when the group gets stuck, that is when the work comes alive as students reflect with each other about what happened, about their thoughts and feelings, and the impact of the conversation on each other. I am so inspired by the willingness of these students to be honest with their thoughts and vulnerable with their feelings. Over the past four years that the Task Force has been meeting, the climate has changed on campus around these issues. The dialogue modeled by these students has influenced the interactions of others on campus. In times of campus or world conflict regarding the Middle East, the community turns to the Task Force for guidance. Student groups have stopped programming against each other, and now try and create educational programs that, while still controversial, seek to increase understanding and respect around these issues for the whole community. It is not a utopia. There are still moments of conflict and tension, but to watch Christian, Muslim, and Jew—Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians stand together as sisters committed to preserving their relationships even in the midst of intense conflict is inspiring.
21. If you could improve on the Religious and Spiritual Life Program (and money were no object), what would you change?
One dream that I have is to create fully funded January term trips, summer internships, and post graduate fellowships in areas of interreligious and intercultural understanding, dialogue and education in which our students could participate. Our students are hungry to out their learning to the test by engaging in interreligious and intercultural work in communities across the country and around the world. We have begun to establish some of these programs, but there are so many more students interested in this work than opportunities for them.
22. How do you situate your work at Wellesley in the context of your larger personal narrative and worldview? Who have been positive influences on your life? What influenced you to work in the field of higher education and religious life?
I would like to answer these questions by sharing a bit about my own journey…
From as early as I can remember, I experienced human difference of all forms including religion as enlivening not threatening. I grew up in a family that embodied this kind of diversity. It was a kind of pluralistic cultural and religious world in and of itself. The religious traditions of my grandparents ranged from Quaker to Anglican to Methodist to Armenian Orthodox. My family was definitely Christian. In fact on one side of the family my grandfather and great-grandfather were Methodist ministers, deeply devoted to the practice of Christian life and learning. Yet all parts of my family shared a passionate fascination with the wisdom brought by people of other traditions—religious, spiritual, and cultural.
In the hybridic world of my childhood, I waited with great anticipation for the next encounter with otherness and what new insights that would bring. This was particularly the world of my mother's family, the Cases and the Kirks; Scots who journeyed into the American West by wagon train preaching and teaching in churches and colleges. It was they who gave me an understanding of the diversity of human experience and taught me to seek out and celebrate all manifestations of wisdom without falling prey to the need to claim exclusive understanding of “the truth” as one's own.
As a child it was clamoring about the halls of Boston University where my grandfather was president that I was first introduced to and befriended by a great array of people from across the cultural and religious spectrum. My grandfather and grandmother’s home resounded with conversations among people from across the nation and globe. Their friends were Buddhist, Native American, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Humanist, Atheist, from African spiritual traditions and from just about every Christian denomination one could imagine. Their home felt like my own personal United Nations, and each visit filled me with stories of religious and cultural traditions other than my own, allowing me to see beyond the world that my Protestant Christian, Episcopal, suburban upbringing afforded.
These were the civil rights days in the United States, and dinner table conversations at my grandparents inevitably included updates from the front lines. Only later in life did I realize that those conversations had included visits from Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and, most frequently and most significantly for my life, Howard Thurman, then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, whose friendship with my grandparents left an indelible imprint on my life and shaped my understanding of religion in ways that continue to unfold.
It was Dr. Thurman’s vision of the universal human community in which many particular expressions of belief are affirmed as part of a greater whole that first gave me external confirmation to a long-held internal ethic. I am not sure when I first read or heard these words from Dr. Thurman, but they continue to be a mantra that shapes my life and work:
There is a sense of wholeness at the core of humanity
that must abound in all we do;
that marks with reverence our every step,
that has its sway when all else fails;
that wearies out all evil things;
that warms the depths of frozen fears
making friend of foe;
and lasts beyond the living and the dead,
beyond the goals of peace, the ends of war!
This we seek through all our years;
to be complete and of one piece, within and without. (Thurman, 1984, p. 11).
Excerpted from FOR THE INWARD JOURNEY by Howard Thurman. Copyright © 1984 by Sue Bailey Thurman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights Reserved.
A sense of wholeness at the core of humanity: this was Dr. Thurman’s dream that was placed within me as a child and has sought expression ever since; first through friendships with people from different cultural, ethnic, racial and religious communities; through working with diverse groups of young people in congregations; as a community organizer struggling for social justice and community empowerment in the South Bronx and Boston; and finally for the past two decades at Wellesley College working in a kind of microcosm of the global human community. It is here at Wellesley, through the life journeys of the thousands of students whom I have had the privilege to know as their dean and teacher that the fullness of the world of cultrual, religious and spiritual expression has opened for me.
Each student who walks through my office door bears witness to the beauty and truth of the many cultural backgrounds, religious traditions, spiritual practices, and philosophical perspectives of the world through the beauty and truth of their own experience. And in those community spaces like Wellesley’s Multifaith Student Council and Multifaith Living and Learning Community where diverse students come together to explore complex questions and seek to build community that honors difference while affirming common principles, I have seen over and over again the power of human relationship to forge bonds of friendship in the face of vast differences of belief and practice, transforming all parties in unexpected ways. Over the years it has been these students who have been my teachers in expanding my vision of the many particularities that comprise the wholeness of which Dr. Thurman dreamed.
And yet at Wellesley as in the world, the diversity of human experience necessitates conflict as people encounter one another across these lines of difference. On campus, interreligious conflicts usually reach their peak with heated rhetoric and hurt feelings, while in the world the consequences are often much more dire. It is an understanding of the reality of this conflict and its sometimes violent consequences that was the teaching of the other side of my family, the Armenian side. It was my Armenian relatives, seeking refuge in this country from the violence of genocide, who first taught me the importance of community, and the dangers of social constructions of otherness.
For them, community was synonymous with life. It was their relationships with each other, their Armenian community, held together as it was by the glue of culture and religion that kept them alive in a strange land and nurtured their growth. But there are times when tightly knit communities become isolated enclaves protecting themselves from a real and perceived hostile world. In these contexts, the fear of “the other” can grow and become a deeply rooted prejudice against those different from oneself. Like many communities, even those who have themselves been victims of the violence of othering, the Armenian community can fall into this trap, and I still wince when recalling racially and religiously charged slurs coming from the mouths of relatives, particularly after a bit too much wine at family gatherings. Joy and sorrow, light and shadow, always side by side, this was at the heart of the lessons I learned from the Kazanjians, Chalikians, and Ohanasians, tempering the somewhat utopian vision of the Cases and Kirks.
Acts of violence and hatred in which religion has played a role have shaped my commitment to the work of diversity and inclusion as much as moments of interreligious/cultural cooperation and understanding. Human history is rife with examples of horrible violence committed in the name of religion. All religious traditions are culpable. Each has examples of atrocities committed against others. In time spent in Ireland and India in the midst of violent conflict, I have witnessed such moments and their devastation. The reality of the sorrows of religious extremism became even more immediately personal for me in the days that followed September 11th, 2001.
As the shock and fear of witnessing such death and destruction from afar began to sink in, the news came that one of my former students was on the plane that hit the second tower. Rahma Salie, Wellesley Class of ‘96, a student whose life reflected the beauty of intercultural and interreligious harmony, who babysat my children when they were little, whose marriage I performed; Rahma, her husband Micky and their yet to born child had died that day. As if their deaths at such a young age were not enough to break one’s heart, Rahma was Muslim and as such, along with the other Muslim passengers who were innocent victims of 9/11, was at first considered a suspect rather than a victim of the violence. When we gathered with her family and friends for a memorial service held at Wellesley College, we wept together for the loss of those whom we loved. We wept for the brokenness of the human community. And we wept for the tragic ways in which religious extremism and religious stereotyping played a central role in the events of that day and those that have followed.
Religion for me is both public and personal, because it calls forth in me the faces of people I have known (including Rahma’s) the faces of students, friends, and colleagues whose background, beliefs and practices, though perhaps different from mine, have enriched my understanding of the world around me and the world within me.
My encounters with people across lines of religious, spiritual, and cultural difference continue to be a journey to understand diversity as a resource rather than a barrier to creating healthy relationships and peaceful community. Such a journey towards the wholeness at the core of humanity set before me by Dr. Thurman and made manifest in the lives of those whom I have had the privilege to teach, work with, and learn from has led me to the discovery of the beauty and wisdom of all religions and cultures, an understanding of the diverse and interdependent world of belief and practice, and in the interwoveness of all life.
Thurman, H. (1984). For the inward journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.