Catholic and Muslim Students Learn About Others’ Faith

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When the news of Osama bin Laden’s death was announced May 1, college students accounted for a majority of the cheering crowd that descended on the streets near the White House.

Jordan Denari, a sophomore at Georgetown University was not among the revelers. She talked about it with her friends, including one of her roommates from Pakistan, and they didn’t feel right about celebrating someone’s death.

Denari gets the chance to talk about contemporary and religious issues on a pretty regular basis in the university’s Muslim Living-Learning Community where she lives.

She said the on-campus residence with 24 Christian and Muslim students provides plenty of opportunities for “unstructured dialogue,“ which, as she put it, “often happens when I should be studying for my econ(omics) exam.”

The setting also set the stage for something she is coordinating on campus next year: interfaith dialogue groups. Denari was part of such a group last year when she and two other students — one Muslim and one Protestant — decided to get together once a week to talk about their religious perspectives. These group discussions helped Denari, in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, not only learn about different faiths but clarify her Catholic faith, which she wasn’t so sure about when she started college.

Although her campus living situation is unique, what happens when these students are together — simply getting to know one another and breaking down stereotypes — is also occurring at other colleges as the number of campus interfaith groups grows.

Austin Schafer, who coordinates a biweekly discussion group of Catholics and Muslims at Ohio State University in Columbus, said a key focus for the group is simply to understand people from other faith traditions and get to know them as “real people.”

Schafer, campus ministry pastoral associate at the university’s St. Thomas More Newman Center, said the dialogue group of about six to 12 students and local community members often doesn’t resemble typical interfaith dialogue but instead is “more of a dialogue of life where we’re just trying to understand each other.”

He said key teaching moments occur when Catholic students in the group are asked to explain the Eucharist or the Trinity for example.

He also is convinced that the small group, which may only number about three during exam weeks, serves as a “witness to the larger community.” The university itself is a big community — with more than 56,000 students, it is one of the nation’s largest universities.

At a much smaller campus, Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., a commuter school outside of Chicago, members of a Catholic and Muslim dialogue group have been meeting for lunch every Tuesday just to understand each other better. But the group became more focused last fall after a Christian pastor in Florida threatened to burn copies of the Quran.

“The (proposed) Quran burning event really galvanized people,” said Rita George Tvrtkovic, assistant professor of theology who oversees the luncheon group of nine students.

After the angry threats, the dialogue group began an in-depth look at sacred readings in the Bible and Quran. “What better way to combat a book burning than to open the targeted book, and to do so in the company of the other,” said Tvrtkovic.

She said the students have not only gained understanding but friendships. “Just the fact that they know someone by name” from another faith, goes a long way.

Although Muslim students make up 25 percent of the student body, their presence alone doesn’t guarantee that students from different backgrounds understand each other, Tvrtkovic said. She told Catholic News Service April 15, that this kind of understanding takes time and effort. It has worked in the small dialogue group because they first talked about common elements of their faith and shared faith figures such as Abraham and Joseph instead of differences. They have also put these shared faith traditions into action by volunteering at a local homeless shelter.

The idea of service work stemming from one’s religious traditions is the impetus behind a new White House initiative called the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, which encourages interfaith college groups to work on yearlong service projects together.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues, told CNS May 4 that the initiative brings together President Barack Obama’s emphasis on interfaith efforts with college students eager to do this kind of work.

As he sees it, shared service work includes a natural element of interfaith dialogue just from conversations that come up while working side by side with people of different faiths.

For example, he said, it breaks down the “all the ugly stuff we see about Muslims and Catholics on TV,” he said, adding that if all someone knew from either faith was what they saw in the news people would only “link Catholics with the sex scandal and Islam with terrorists” but as these faith groups work together they learn what “so many people consider to be the core of their faith.”

In the 12 years that he has been involved in this work, he said, it “almost never happens that someone wants to join another religion” as a result of meeting and understanding another faith.

Instead, “working together with people from different religions makes you continually go back to the parts of your faith you are most inspired about.”

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