Symposium initiates campus interfaith dialogue

Bringing together community leaders from different faith traditions, the 2019 Diversity Symposium, “Evangelicals at the Religious Roundtable,” sought to initiate cross-cultural conversations among student, faculty and staff.

The symposium, hosted by John Brown University’s Diversity Committee, Dave Vila, professor of biblical studies and Robert Moore, associate professor of history, featured speakers including a global Christianity researcher and Northwest Arkansas religious leaders.

Mikayla Hagen, sophomore Outdoor Leadership Ministries major, said the symposium helped to pop the “JBU Bubble.” “It is important that JBU students interact with those who believe differently than them to challenge their own faith … If one only ever interacts with those of their own faith during the crucial developmental period of college, what will they do when exposed to the diversity of the real world?” Hagen said.

Gina Zurlo, associate director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, lead the first session on February 28, “Interreligious Engagement at Home and Around the World.”

Stressing the importance of Christians becoming involved in interreligious dialogue, Zurlo said, “81 percent of non-Christians don’t personally know a Christian. And to make matters worse, 86 percent of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists don’t personally know a Christian. It’s this idea that ‘birds of a feather flock together’ … People tend to hang out with people who are like them.”

Zurlo then described the current view of evangelicals in mass media, including headlines such as “Evangelicals fear Muslims. Atheists fear Christians. New poll shows how Americans mistrust one another,” “Americans warm up to every religious group except Evangelicals,” “Evangelical Christians take aim at Islam,” “Most white Evangelicals don’t believe Muslims belong in America” and “Seeing Islam as ‘evil’ faith, Evangelicals seek converts.”

“I know the history of how this came to be, but it also doesn’t quite make sense given the core of the Christian message and all the biblical commands to love your neighbor, to treat the sojourner in your land as a native, to love your enemy, pray for enemy, pray for those who persecute you … It’s core of the Christian faith to care about people at the margins,” Zurlo said. “If we’re following the example of Jesus, to me it makes the most sense that we would be reaching out and loving and knowing all the people in our society who are at the margins. Muslims are at the margins. Buddhists are at the margins. Hindus are at the margins. Jews even still are at the margins with steep rises in anti-Semitism around the world.”

Encouraging Christians to take part in interreligious engagement, Zurlo said that challenges should be embraced. “That’s one reason why evangelical Christians have been really uneasy in engaging in interreligious activities,” Zurlo said. “It’s because they fear something will happen to them, like ‘What if they say something that I’m not sure about? What if they say something that really challenges my faith?’ Great! All the better! Grab it and wrestle with it and work through it and talk with them about it … and see what does it do for you? How does it enhance your own faith?” 

Zurlo ended her lecture by encouraging the audience to take part in interreligious engagement through theological discourse, actions to increase human flourishing, experiencing another person’s religious practices and living life with people of different religions.

To start the second day of sessions, Raiyan Syed, head of public relations at the Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas, described his experiences as a Muslim living in Fayetteville. He said that while there is still room for improvement, his experience has been positive, especially in conversations with other faith communities. “Obviously, you expect some things to be different, but you see that there’s a lot of similarities … a Christian pastor says something and it’s like, ‘Oh that’s actually applicable to my faith, too,’” Syed said. “You learn something you didn’t expect to go in there learning, just from seeing the commonalities and the common ground with other faiths.”

Imam Abdellah Essalki shared the importance of prayer for Muslim, who practice prayer five times a day. “Prayer is a break from a busy life, so we take it as such. Whenever you are busy working, working, working, you take that break to connect with God … that is exactly what we believe,” Essalki said. “Prayer is a break from the long life. We all have a busy life. If we don’t have that break, something unpleasant will happen.”

In the third session, Swamiji Sri Venugopala Gattuji, head priest of the Hindu Association of Northwest Arkansas, shared about his beliefs in the Vedic scriptures and his religious practices. “You worship your own. You respect the rest of the entire world. We respect the rest of the entire world. That is the highlighted principle of the Vedic scriptures that we follow,” Gattuji said.

Friends warned Gattuji about wearing traditional religious clothing when he moved to Northwest Arkansas. However, he said that he has seen the area increased in acceptance of different religions. “They just take me as usual and so common. I would say that maybe 60 percent of the community got used to even with, we call this tilak, the red mark,” Gattuji said. “This is getting used to and getting together and getting to know each other, trying to make our journey together. As long as we respect the rest of the world, we don’t see any problem with living anywhere. The problem rises only when you want to suppress others.”

Marquita Smith, JBU coordinator for diversity relations, closed the symposium by reminding attendees of the focus of the event. “Our hope with the diversity symposium this year was to basically just open your mind to having conversations … In no way is this an attack on the faith because we strongly believe in Christ and what that means for salvation and our life,” Smith said. “I do want us to get to know other communities … It helps us understand how we are all connected and what it means to have an interfaith dialogue and understanding of community.”