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Celebrating interfaith love and humanity

Baccalaureate Service brings together graduates and guests from multiple faith backgrounds

Highlights

  • President Schapiro: ‘We embrace religion at Northwestern year round’
  • Annual service this year held in tragic shadow of Orlando massacre
  • Students read passages from Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist traditions
  • Chaplain Stevens: ‘We celebrate our graduates, expect you will stand for something’

The themes of inner light that sustains and interfaith support that provides love and comfort shone through Northwestern University’s annual Baccalaureate Service June 16 as students shared common experiences in remarks, readings and music.

Held in the wake of the Orlando massacre, Baccalaureate Service 2016 was an “interfaith celebration of diversity” at a time when many students, faculty and staff paused — on the eve of Northwestern’s 158th Commencement — to underscore the importance of interfaith engagement, acceptance and inclusion. 

Several speakers gave poignant perspectives on the impact and aftermath of the Florida tragedy and the hate crime that shocked the nation. 

The service started with the haunting hum of a Tibetan singing bowl played by a Buddhist student -- a continuous tone that was overlaid, in turn, with a Muslim student singing Islam’s call to prayer, a Christian student playing chimes and a Jewish student playing the Shofar. 

“I thought that call to prayer was really beautiful, didn’t you?” observed President Morton Schapiro in his opening remarks to an audience of 750 in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the Evanston campus. “How beautiful it is celebrating the religions in an interfaith way.

“And you think about the horrors of this week,” he added, referring to the 49 people slain Sunday by a gunman in a Florida gay nightclub, “it just shakes you to your core when you see a targeted, vulnerable community like the LGBT community, and then … to see a particular beautiful faith (Islam) scapegoated the way it was this week. 

“You go through that,” the president said, and it touches everyone to the core. “And then you come to a celebration of faith like the one we’re here for today. When I close my eyes and I think about interfaith — and I think about peace and humanity — that’s what I picture: All the faiths coming together in such a beautiful way.” 

Schapiro emphasized that Northwestern’s various faith-based communities are alive and well — a fact that he said makes him as proud to be president at this University as anything else. “We embrace religion here year round,” he said. “It might seem a little unusual at a secular university … but here, rather than defining secular as having a place for no religion, we define it as a place for welcoming all religions equally.”

The evidence of that was on powerful display throughout the service, including the seven colorful banners hanging over the stage and representing the individual faiths of the Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.

In addition to the call to prayer instruments from different faiths, there were readings from sacred texts by students of different religious traditions, including Austin Carr (Christian), Rutvij Merchant (Hindu), Mikaela Eve Zetley and Jacqueline Soria (Jewish), Alaa Mohamedali and Magan Omar (Muslim) and Chuyu Tian and Jonathan Schild (Buddhist).

The music was equally inspiring and multicultural, performed by the Baccalaureate Choir and String Ensemble and the Millar Brass Quartet and conducted by Stephen Alltop, director of music at Alice Millar Chapel, and Eric Budzynski, music associate at Alice Millar Chapel.

It began with a prelude of music from Gabriel Faure, Gustav Mahler and Antonio Vivaldi; continued with processional music by Michael L. Shake, words by Brian Wren; included anthems from Indian Raga (arr. Ethan Sperry) and George Frideric Handel; brought in the audience in a choral response, from Peter Christian Lutkin, dean of the School of Music from 1896-1928, and ended with a postlude from Giovanni Gabrielli. 

Coming together in one community in love, faith and humanity

There were moving student reflections from Charles Schurman (Catholic), Laila Hayani (Muslim), Ryan Kenney (Episcopalian) and Jonathan Kamel (Jewish). 

Particularly poignant were remarks by Schurman, a graduating senior from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is also a Roman Catholic and a gay man, and he had struggled to reconcile his sexuality with his faith — a silent struggle for years. 

When he came to Northwestern, however, he found a home in the Sheil Catholic Center, where he joined the Music Ministry and found his connection to God strengthened. Schurman also joined the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and worked in interfaith engagement with others through the chapel, where he found a commitment to inclusion and another home. Schurman said he felt comfort and belonging at Northwestern and was accepted for who he was. He also saw his own prejudices fall away as he saw members of other faiths in a new light. 

“In light of recent events, and as a member of both interfaith and LGBTQ communities,” he said, referring to the Orlando killings, “I find it impossible not to stress the importance of this recognition: That we live in a world where prejudice and hate are stacked against us, and that if we are to combat the plagues of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and all other hatreds, named and unnamed, we have to come together as one community in love and faith and humanity.” 

 “I have been very privileged to experience this phenomenon here on this campus and to witness the lives of so many of my peers who work daily to make this truth evident here at our school,” Schurman said. “Faith and religion have a place at this university, especially a secular one, and it does offer great rewards to all of those brave enough to tap into it.” 

“I would like to take the time to thank all those who have worked tirelessly to create spaces where I have felt welcomed, loved and at home the last four years, especially the staff of the Sheil Catholic Center and the staff and chaplains at Alice Millar,” he concluded. “As I move on to the next phase of my life, I can only hope that all of you continue to inspire students and each other to continue to improve the future of diversity and love on this campus.” 

The work of a university: seeking wisdom and learning compassion

Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens offered reflections at what is usually a “joyful time” for graduates, but he also spoke eloquently of the impact and implications of the massacre at the gay nightclub in Orlando June 12. 

“But this year we gather under a tragic shadow,” Stevens said. “My friends in the LGBTQ community have responded with intense grief and the resolve not be intimidated by such an assault. The killer was a Muslim-American. My friends in the Muslim community are horrified, and they emphatically denounce this senseless loss of life. 

“We are all stunned and heartbroken,” he said, noting that his friend Eboo Patel spoke at a vigil this past week in Orlando. Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps, a Chicago-based nonprofit teaching interfaith engagement and dialogue around the country. 

Stevens quoted Patel as saying: “Mercy in Islam is not about lukewarm tolerance. Mercy in Islam is about friendship. It is about solidarity. It is about love.” According to Stevens, Patel acknowledged with gratitude his teachers, friends and colleagues who were gay and then said, “Everyone here is smart enough to know that extremists of all traditions belong to only one tradition, the tradition of extremism.”

Trying to draw lessons from the tragedy, Stevens spoke of the work of the University as standing in direct opposition to the violence, anger and hatred perpetuated by some. A university stands for something very different, the chaplain said. 

“At this time of Commencement we celebrate the extraordinary work done in this University. Faculty, students, administrators and staff are all dedicated to the project of understanding our world better and making our world better,” he said. “It is an impressive and noble enterprise,” he added, noting that the work of a university is not only to acquire and share new knowledge or to develop skills that will serve throughout a lifetime. 

“The work of the University is also about seeking wisdom and learning compassion,” he said. “We are in the business of forming human beings who will devote their lives to that which is true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling and gracious — that which is beautiful and worthy of praise — that’s what our University motto says.”

He added that “the work of the University is also about forming human beings with character, people who know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no.’ It is about becoming citizens who feel responsibility to their community. It is about having heart.”

Stevens referred to the “ethic of non-indifference” that is at the core of the Jewish tradition, Stevens said, “Non-indifference is about ensuring that the public space is safe for all those who traverse it. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We cannot ignore what happens to our neighbors, especially those who are most vulnerable. When we see another person in danger or distress, we must give active assistance. We must do something; we cannot remain indifferent. 

“I would argue that this ethic of non-indifference is central to all our religious and spiritual traditions,” he added. “At their center they all teach empathy and compassion. They all have some version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. … They call for empathy and a setting aside of crude egoism.”

Finally, Stevens congratulated graduates, but he added that students going out into the world now should use their newly acquired skills and knowledge to help make a better world.

“We expect that you will stand for something,” Stevens said. “We expect that you will devote yourself to making your part of the world a little better.”

The eternal light of God in everyone 

In his remarks, President Schapiro also spoke of the “eternal light of God” he sees in people, a light inside human beings he feels reflects the first light the Bible says God created on the first day of creation -- four days before the Biblical story that recounts God created the sun, the moon and the stars.

Then the president told the story of seeing this inner light exemplified on a recent visit to Robben Island in Capetown, South Africa, the infamous prison where South African leader Nelson Mandela was long incarcerated. A former prisoner led the tour of Mandela’s solitary confinement cellblock, where the prisoner had spent five years imprisoned when he was aged 20 to 25. 

This former prisoner remembered one brutal guard, in particular, who relished inflicting physical and psychological abuse, Schapiro recalled. But the former prisoner also remembers a different guard who visited on only one day and treated the prisoners humanely. It was a young college graduate who, it turned out, was doing his national service as a prison guard as his own way of protesting white Apartheid rule.

President Schapiro said the prisoner who gave the tour mainly remembers this kind guard. “He said he doesn’t really think of the brutal guards,” Schapiro said. “What he thinks about is that one person who was there for one day in five years — someone who took the time and made the effort to provide a small bit of human dignity in the midst of unthinkable horror. 

“When I think about the eternal light of God, it’s in that one prisoner who can forgive, and it certainly was in the one guard who showed humanity to those who most needed it,” Schapiro observed. 

Then he congratulated the graduating students and noted he is proud to be part of an academic community “where the eternal light of God is kindled and nurtured every single day of every single academic year.

“May all the students and their parents and loved ones be blessed with every imaginable personal and professional success,” President Schapiro concluded, “while always respecting your own faith and cherishing all others.”

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