Perhaps nothing prepares the mind, soul, and lifestyle so well for transformation as travel! This previous summer I had the privilege of attending the International Summer School at the University of Oslo, Norway (UiO-ISS) as a scholar of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Forum.
Physically immersed into an international dialogue of peaceful conflict resolution, I found myself not only learning from intensive political science courses as a Peace Scholar, but even more, from the everyday conversations and relationships with students from diverse cultural backgrounds.
From the perspective of a foreign traveler, I was able to perceive my own identity, nationality, and perceptions of the international community with fresh eyes. Not only did this new gaze allow for a more profound learning and knowing of others and their cultures, but also, it provided a renewed sense of understanding and appreciation for my own being—especially in a sense of spiritual geography, as my Peace Scholars project focused on interfaith dialogue.
Interfaith dialogue is a form of intercultural conversation that is focused on the religious beliefs and traditions of individuals. As a student-scholar of faith, I was able to learn about the richness of other religious traditions from around the world, while still maintaining a sense of dignity and integrity in my own Western-Christian background. In such conversations, I was able to both question and deepen parts of my own faith, and develop a more informed and empathetic understanding of others with faith different from my own.
Such honest and open conversations about faith are best held in a context of relationship or community, and for the first time in my collegiate experience, I was able to have such conversations with other student-ambassadors and scholars from around the world at UiO-ISS. Could this experience of interfaith dialogue be continued on my home campus of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota? Could we have an intercultural and interfaith dialogue?
With a growing population of international students from diverse faith backgrounds, and a core value of Christian in our mission statement that encourages exploring and growing in faith, I believed that interfaith dialogue on our campus would be possible. Working with the Peace Scholars program to gather materials and to determine a project to sustain on return to campus, I began the process of starting Better Together Augustana College (BTAC). Better Together, a program of Interfaith Youth Core, is an interfaith dialogue organization for colleges in the United States. One of my fellow Peace Scholars was an interfaith scholar and a representative of Better Together at her home college, and she gave me advice about workshops on her home campus involving intrafaith (Christian non-denominational) and interfaith (multiple religion) dialogue. Using some of the resources of Better Together, but formatting a program that was best suited for my MidWest, mainly-Christian campus; I worked towards starting up the interfaith group at the beginning of the school year. IFYC-Better Together
Augustana College has a collective of official student-lead organizations called ASA, and the first thing required was to run a year of the program and to find it sustainable before approving BTAC as an official ASA organization or club. BTAC hosts a dialogue workshop where all students, professors and community members are invited to learn and discuss faith with their international neighbors on campus. So far, three workshops have been planned, with each one being lead by a student ambassador of a different faith tradition: Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Christian denominations will present in December; the spring lineup includes Judaism, Agnosticism, and an interfaith worship event.
Some conflicts to overcome include differences of communication and time expectations between cultural backgrounds, as well as the resistance of some faith backgrounds toward any form of interfaith conversation, and a misunderstanding of the program as evangelism or moral relativity. However, agreement is not the goal of dialogue. The mission statement of BTAC is this:
“Better Together AC is a place for students from diverse faith traditions to gather over a meal and listen to stories, learn from presentations, ask questions, discuss ideas, and form relationships with others that are respectful, empathetic and informed.”
Sustainability of the program is also a question, just as it is for many volunteer non-profit organizations, activates, and clubs. Currently, students interested in the Peace Scholars program, as well as Augustana Mission for Peace, and Augustana Goes International, are likely to help with sustaining the program. The Chapel of Reconciliation on campus, our ELCA-Lutheran Christian center of worship, is a key player in maintaining the program.
The conversations and relationships that grow with BTAC on campus have allowed for a new type of community and conversation—one that allows for the intimate and whole representation of an individual’s identity. And as the landscape of America continues to rapidly diversify in faith tradition, it is all the more significant for students to engage in conversations with their neighbors to navigate the spaces of difference, and uplift the spaces of similarity, in order to have a more familiar, peaceful, and compassionate world.
Peace to you!