Election Day, 2012. Televisions and radios were swamped with last minute political ads and speculation about the outcomes. Pundits were gleefully preparing for a long night of poll watching. People from all political parties had knots in their stomachs in anticipation of either a victory celebration or a period of mourning and anger.
There was another group of people who chose to spend Election Day in a very different manner. The Chaplains and Advisors in the Religious and Spiritual Life Office at USM committed to be in prayer for the duration of voting and invited members of the USM community to join in the prayer vigil for our nation, state, and local communities as we peacefully made decisions about leadership and other ballot issues, along with prayers of gratitude that we are able to do so! Taking shifts in the Interfaith Prayer Room, chaplains, advisors and community members came in deep faithfulness. Some brought prayers to use and share. Others sat in quiet meditation.
And then there was that extraordinary moment when a Christian and Jewish chaplain were joined by a Muslim student. Each was in their own place of prayer, but they did so in each other’s presence. It was, indeed a holy moment.
Eboo Patel, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Corp, told the participants of the Global Chaplain’s Conference (which I attended this summer as a participant) that higher education is in a unique position to lead our nation in teaching respectful, interfaith interaction. He reminded us that one of the primary tools that will be needed if we are to ever bring about peace, compassion and cooperation is interfaith literacy. Where else do most of us have the opportunity to interact in such close proximity with people of different faiths and races. His experience at the Interfaith Youth Corps has taught him that interfaith literacy requires of us not only encounter with people who are different from ourselves, we must also develop friendships forged in ongoing sharing and support. These friendships are what creates the foundation for global understanding and cooperation.
Higher education chaplaincy is one of the last mission fields for the church. The demographic of SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) and Nones (identifying no faith tradition) is ever increasing, and campus engagement looks very different today than it did 40 years ago in its hay day. Nearly every student encounter begins with either educating about very basic faith tenants or with a gentle re-directing of the extreme stereotypes that result in hostile first encounters.
The power of the Religious and Spiritual Life professionals’ presence on campus is a witness to the possibility of civility, respect, and compassion without a loss of one’s own beliefs. It shows a commitment to future leaders that faith communities are and will continue to be one of the places where they can find meaning and support. It also helps to remind us that our lives are not compartmentalized machines. We bring our beliefs into the academy, as well as in the workplace. Interfaith literacy allows that to happen in a way that encourages curiosity and appreciation rather than suspicion and separation.
A Christian, a Jew and a Muslim knelt together in prayer. And God, most certainly, smiled.