Bethel takes part in building the bridge between faiths

October 21, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Bethel professor attends President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge in Washington, D.C.

News | Sarah Boadwine

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Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Naomi Ludeman Smith, right, stands with Brenda Girton Mitchell at the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 24. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Naomi Ludeman Smith

Bethel professors got the ball rolling in an attempt to help the university break free from a closed mindset into the reality that is a religiously diverse community. On Sept. 24 Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Naomi Ludeman Smith attended the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The call of the challenge is to come together with those of different faiths to tackle a wide range of national obstacles as a community. Bethel was late in signing up for this year’s program because of a delayed response of whether there would be funding from the university in order to have professors attend. Bethel did not fund the attendance of the program, causing Smith to pay out of her own pocket to be present in D.C.

The program consisted of one and a half days of plenary sessions and panels of students discussing what they are doing on their campuses. This year, Bethel was invited to present at one of the breakout sessions.

This is the third year in a row that Bethel has been involved with the challenge. Professors Marion Larson of the English department, Sara Shady of the philosophy department and President Jay Barnes were in attendance at the first White House Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge in 2011.

“It all started with President Obama recognizing the need for U.S. citizens to better understand one another across religious differences," Smith said. "From his own background as a social activist in Chicago, he thought a place where people really come to know each other and collaborate despite their strong differences is through service.”

According to Smith, Bethel’s involvement in the Interfaith Challenge began when Shady and Larson started doing an exploration about interfaith work. They found out about the White House challenge and applied for Bethel to be part of it. Over the years the faculty in support of the program has grown.

“[Shady and Larson] had the foresight to see that this is something that matches our goals in terms of our values and the ways that we want to prepare students to move up into society,” Smith said.

Bethel’s involvement in the program has grown throughout its participation. The university has held days of service in collaboration with the Frogtown/Summit University neighborhood. The goal is to bring Christian students from Bethel into contact and interaction with Muslim students who are part of the Al-Medina group in the neighborhood.

Last fall the two groups were able to come together and clean up gardens, do other service work and sit down and have meaningful, engaging and sometimes painful religious discussions.

“A day of service is a light touch, it gets us together in order for us to find out our places of commonality. We both want a safe peaceful place to live and to have positive things in our community," Smith said.

Smith believes that Bethel is involved because it needs to prepare its students to move into relationships that are collaborative, effective and productive with people of different faiths without the intent to convert him or her. She explains that Christians also have been called by Christ to bring others to Christianity, but that Muslims have the very same call.

“We are both zealous missionaries and it’s really fun when you laugh with each other and go, 'Oh, we are both trying to persuade one another.'”

Shady also sees the importance of teaching Bethel students to be leaders in interfaith challenges. At Bethel it can be a much more difficult attempt because it is a university where an alliance with Christianity is necessary for acceptance.

“At Christian colleges because we are developing with people who are fairly similar to us, students end up graduating, getting a job and finding that the person in the cubicle next to them is Muslim and they have no idea what that means, they aren’t prepared to interact with them," Shady explained.

She believes students need to be prepared to have healthy loving relationships, interacting with people from other faiths in a way that is God honoring.

“What makes Bethel unique is that most schools have multiple faith traditions happening on their campuses… this is a disadvantage to us. Faculty are talking quite a bit about do we want to become a multi faith university. This is a long conversation, but it is starting on our campus,” Smith said.

Student Kaylee Eytchison, has been involved in Bethel’s participation in the Interfaith Challenge. She finds having interfaith conversations to be extremely valuable.

“It has been incredible to see the value and necessity in having loving and respectful relationships between different faiths. It was beautiful to talk to my Muslim friends and hear about why Islam is important to them,” Eytchison said.

According to Shady, participation in an interfaith program is not meant to water down Christianity. She states that interfaith work is a great opportunity for spiritual growth.

Shady and Smith both stress that Bethel is searching for students who are interested in getting a student organization off the ground. They are in a position where they are looking for new student involvement and leadership. Interested students should contact either Shady or Smith for further information.

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