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Interfaith Engagement Highlights Commencement

Inclusivity, diversity and religious pluralism are strong priorities on a multi-faith campus

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June 22, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley
University Chaplain Timothy Stevens

See photos from the University's annual baccalaureate service
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Aaron Faucher played a Tibetan singing bowl. Philip McPeek sounded bell chimes. Jonah Newman blew the shofar. Amin Budereldin Elsaeed sang the Muslim call to prayer.

The multi-religious sounds from these Northwestern University students of various faith traditions echoed through Pick-Staiger Concert Hall June 14 at the start of the University’s 154th annual baccalaureate service.

The note of interfaith engagement also accented the commencement ceremony the following day, when Associate University Chaplain Tahera Ahmad read a benediction from the Quran in Arabic and English. She quoted chapter 103, “Surah Al Asr,” and the message that mankind is in a state of loss, except for those who join one another in good works.

It is a message that resonates strongly for the Northwestern community these days, when service, inclusivity and acceptance are priorities in a diverse, multi-faith world.

“Religion is alive and well at Northwestern,” declared President Morton Schapiro in his opening remarks at the baccalaureate service, underscoring the importance he has placed as president on Northwestern’s inclusive values.

“At Northwestern University, we welcome people of all religions equally -- with no single religion being a dominant force here,” he said.

The service that followed included interfaith traditions that go back to 1996, when the University chaplain, the Rev. Timothy Stevens, placed banners in Alice Millar Chapel representing symbols from the principal faiths of members of the graduating class that year -- including Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

Under President Schapiro’s direction, the baccalaureate service moved last year to Pick-Staiger, a site where members of non-Christian faiths feel less like they are in a church and more like they are in a truly multi-faith space.

Since 1996, the service has included texts from different faith traditions read aloud. Since 2011, the service has become even more diverse -- adding student speakers from various faith traditions, introducing the instruments from different religions and drawing a more diverse group of participants, students and family members.

Other University constituents are noticing and applauding the changes, such as including prayers from different faith traditions at Northwestern’s commencement ceremony, as was done this year.

“For me to hear a verse from the Quran was a fantastic surprise. I had goose bumps all over my body, and I think I was even shocked, very positively, at that!” said Northwestern Trustee Melih Keyman, president and CEO of Keytrade AG in Thalwil, Switzerland.

He leaned over on the commencement stage during the ceremony June 15 to tell President Schapiro and Board of Trustees Chairman William Osborn, “My hat’s off to you” for doing this.

“Even though there is a tension between the Muslim world and the rest of the world, this can be dealt with by an open mind and sharing the knowledge that all religions mean well,” Keyman added. “A few fanatics should not be able to destroy an otherwise peace-wanting planet.”

Keyman’s father was visiting from Istanbul to observe Keyman’s son Ahmet’s graduation from Northwestern. “He could not believe his ears and eyes, but immediately was prouder that we are involved with such a school,” said Keyman of his father.

“This is exactly the right message for Northwestern University to give out -- that we accept and respect any race, sex and religion on our campus and support the idea of extending this thought to other campuses. It is my firm belief that our world will be a better place if we can spread tolerance and respect to the world.”

The world is indeed changing, as is the religious landscape in America, observed Eugene Lowe Jr., assistant to the president and senior lecturer in religious studies at Northwestern. He noted that President Schapiro wants Northwestern to provide a welcoming atmosphere on campus reflecting that change.

“The president interprets the word ‘secular’ to mean that no religious tradition is privileged, but that we have a vibrant religious pluralism here,” Lowe said in an interview. “We want people to feel free to pursue and live out their faiths. President Schapiro is a person who also lives that out for himself.

“He really does think that what it means to be secular is to be open to different religious experiences -- to not have any single religious experience privileged over all others,” Lowe added.

In the latest U.S. Religion Census released last month by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, analysts concluded that America’s Muslims and Mormons grew substantially in the last decade. Muslims grew in number so much that they have become the third-largest religious group in Illinois after Roman Catholics and independent evangelicals. Those changes have made Chicago a more global city.

At Northwestern’s commencement ceremony, participants were impressed by the interfaith perspective. It was particularly meaningful for many Muslim graduating seniors from Northwestern University in Qatar who came to Evanston for commencement and heard the Quran read at the ceremony. Nearly two dozen NU-Q seniors from the inaugural graduating class of 36 attended.

Chaplain Stevens works hard to make the baccalaureate service, as well, a reflection of diversity and religious pluralism, soliciting a variety of students from different faith traditions to play instruments, give their own faith perspectives and read from their individual sacred texts.

This year those included favorite passages from the Mahabharata (Hindu), the Talmud (Jewish), the Sri Guru Shahib (Sikh), the Book of Matthew (Christian), a prayer revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha (Baha’i) and a verse from Surah Al-Hujurat (Islam).

One of the two students who read the Quran verse was Omer Mohammad, 21, a Canadian Pakistani who was among the graduating seniors attending from NU-Q. He read the verse in tandem with a Muslim student from the Evanston campus, Sarah Shaaban.

The service opened with an invocation by Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, Tannenbaum Chabad at Northwestern, and closed with a benediction by Beth Knobbe from the Sheil Catholic Center and a choral response written by Peter Christian Lutkin, dean of the School of Music, 1896-1928.

“I think the baccalaureate is one of the most personal events in all of commencement week,” Stevens observed. “Students come and sit with their families, and they don’t do that elsewhere. But it’s also the event with the most student participation.”

Stevens reflected on “The Heart of Learning” in his remarks at the baccalaureate service, returning again and again to the purpose of higher education in molding students to deal with the challenges they will face in the world with caring, integrity, intelligence, a sense of justice and “a loyalty to higher goods.”

“One of the highest purposes of higher education is to shape character,” Stevens said. “What we are about, ultimately, is the formation of souls.

“To be in touch with the sacred, to be spiritually alive means to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way,” he added. “One marker is a sense of wonder and awe.

“The university should be a place where we give and receive respect, where we learn the importance of respect. But the sacred is also in the person next to you, so he or she is worthy of respect.”

Just as he preaches, Steven has underscored the importance of showing respect for persons of other faiths and no faith throughout his tenure as chaplain, teaching students to see themselves as part of a larger whole.

Michael Simon, executive director of Northwestern Hillel, said later that his organization is excited by the emphasis on interfaith engagement at Northwestern from President Schapiro, the chaplain’s office, the religious center and student affairs.

“We’re thrilled that this is the direction of the University and that we’re part of it,” said Simon, who walked in the procession at the baccalaureate service and noted that the change of venue of the baccalaureate service had made it more inviting to persons of other faiths.

“For the Jewish community, we’re thrilled at being part of an inclusive University, and I think that service is a symbol of some of the interfaith progress that has happened in the last few years,” he added. “And it’s only going to get stronger in the years to come.”

Moreover, he said, “When I hear Muslims and Jews are happy at places like this campus -- where you have opportunities to create connections in a space that is different from being out in the real world -- our hope is that by modeling that here, and having our students practice that, and creating friendships, then they will take that out into the world. What we’re trying to do is also model something that we hope our students will take with them and help build a better world.”

Simon also had praise for Ahmad, crediting her as the person who came up with the innovation of getting students to play their sacred instruments and sing the call to prayer at the beginning of the baccalaureate service. He described it as “blending together” the different traditions to create “something that is actually greater than the sum of its parts.”

Ahmad acknowledged that she had created that moment of gathering faith traditions together. “I did, indeed, suggest that last year for several reasons,” she said, “primarily because I thought it would be a really nice way to draw people into an interfaith setting and create what I refer to as a Zen moment for everyone.”

Keyman said he hoped the interfaith traditions would continue, not just because it was the right thing to do but also because it was a duty of universities to teach respect.

“I believe Northwestern should continue pursuing this open-mind policy in regards to representation of all religions on our campus,” he said. “This will help us to shape the young minds of our students in the right way.”