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Reaching out to interfaith partners.

Though no longer a collegiate athlete with NFL aspirations, Qasim Hatem remains fixed on a goal that is nearer, he believes, than his own breath--Allah, the Arabic name for God. Now garbed in a robe and skullcap, he is one of two Muslim students currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership program at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry The intentionally ecumenical school attracts and educates students of diverse faith traditions while remaining rooted in its Jesuit mission and identity

Hatem's decision to attend an ecumenical school may be a relatively unique phenomenon among members of his Muslim community But these schools can attest to an increasing interest in interfaith study and service not only on campus, but within local faith communities and the public sphere as well.

Hatem said Seattle University has "allowed me to express my religious perspective as a Muslim from a traditional background ... [and] has brought me closer as a Muslim who identifies with Islam to a realization of who I am at my core." His studies have increased "my expansiveness so that I can include other peoples' cores into my understanding, branch out, be more inclusive."

Hatem is executive director and resident scholar of the Mihraab Foundation in Seattle; the foundation's mission is to promote traditional Islam in a Western context. He is also the Muslim chaplain for Harborview Hospital and the University of Washington Medical Center, and he works with prison inmates, mentors teenagers and teaches classes for all ages.

His interest in the leadership program was sparked by an informational interfaith meeting, and by the experiences and encouragement of another Muslim student, Abdullah Polovina, who graduates this year. Polovina was a "catalyst," Hatem said.

An imam from Sarajevo, Bosnia, who balances graduate studies with his duties at a Portland, Ore., mosque, Polovina speaks of peace with a weighted reverence that comes from surviving the opposite: tanks, desecrated churches and mosques, and death.


"Peace [can still feel] heavier than war," said Polovina, who was invited to Seattle by local Muslim leaders in the spring of 2001, "when peace is not spread equally, and society's values are not experienced by all."

With a quick yet thoughtful smile that has become a familiar sight in the school's quiet halls, Abdullah has found his work at Seattle University and within the larger community "good, encouraging and needed."

Other ecumenically oriented schools across the nation, though small in number when compared to seminaries focused on one faith tradition, are increasingly reaching out to interfaith partners such as Hatem and Polovina with educational, service and leadership opportunities.

In addition to following a mission statement and adapting to changing U.S. demographics, such outreach by ecumenical schools is also a response to enrollment and revenue challenges. The Association of Theological Schools now requires that schools it accredits "address multifaith and multicultural issues in their Master of Divinity programs," according to Stephen Graham, the association's senior director of programs and services. However, promoting and maintaining this diversity can be a delicate and sometimes challenging process for schools that are also firmly rooted in their own denominational tradition and history

On Harvard University's campus, not far from its Center for the Study of World Religions, the Pluralism Project seeks to understand and communicate America's changing religious and interfaith landscape. Established in 1991 by Diana Eck, the Pluralism Project aims to be a resource for theological schools and others committed to preparing future faith leaders for a multireligious world.

Usra Ghazi, a Muslim student at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., founded the first university-wide interfaith group on campus called Harvard Better Together: Students for Interfaith Action. She hopes that "more and more Muslim students have interfaith encounters at campuses and seminaries so that this influence pours into our internal communities and fosters intra-religious understanding between different kinds of Muslims."

Hartford Seminary President Heidi Hadsell explained, "In higher education, the whole area of Muslim-Christian engagement and dialogue will only grow in importance in the years ahead. Christians and Muslims are the two largest religious communities in the world, encompassing billions of people. Thus, in a sense, the whole world has a stake in their peaceful coexistence and engagement."

At the nondenominational seminary she heads in Hartford, Conn., living arrangements for students in interfaith dormitories often mirror what's learned in the classroom.

Hadsell said, "We have found that learning together, as well as separately forms leaders that know and love their own traditions, and also have respect for and know another, or several other traditions. This is the kind of leadership we need today"

With 30-40 percent of the student body Muslim and four full-time Muslim faculty members on staff, traditional degrees are offered, along with a graduate certificate in interfaith dialogue and the only accredited Islamic chaplaincy program in the nation. Other opportunities include the Women's Leadership Institute, the Building Abrahamic Partnerships program, and the International Peacemaking Program. The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, founded in 1975, is also a vital resource for students.

Claremont School of Theology President Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan offered his own example of "peaceful coexistence and engagement." He described a situation that arose last year at the California school's annual Spring Festival. The Student Council and the Asian Pacific Islanders/American Association planned the event as a luau. The planners, Kuan said, went to representatives of Muslim students and told them that they'd decided not to have roast pig at the luau.

"Our Muslim students appreciated this gesture immensely," said Kuan. He said they responded by saying, "We know how important a roast pig is ... to your expression, so go ahead and do what is culturally authentic to you. We will have other food to eat."

In the end, roast lamb was served to 150-200 people. "We ran out of food very quickly," Kuan laughingly said.

A school rooted in the Methodist tradition, Claremont School of Theology has cross-registration agreements with the Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and University of the West (a Buddhist institution). Such agreements allow students of participating schools to study together and faculty to collaborate across institutions.


Hafsa Arain, who earned a degree in Islamic studies and leadership at Bayan, described her experience as both enlightening and challenging.

She reflected on a discussion in class with a more conservative male Muslim student that revealed a deep division of opinion over the ability of Muslim women to lead prayers in a mixed-gender setting. The class ended with the "acknowledgment [that] both of us, at the end of the day, are Muslim," she said. This acknowledgement "really meant that we were able to test our diversity of thought."

Arain also pointed out frustrations that are shared by Muslim students at other ecumenical schools.

"Because we are outnumbered, [we are] having the conversation on someone else's terms--usually Christians asking us the questions, and us answering them. And because there are fewer Muslims, we don't get to see how diverse, beautiful and intricate our religion is. In so many cases, Muslims are aware of basic things like Christian religious practices, holidays, and so on. We live in a world where Christianity is the norm--and Islam is seen as the other."

She added that the other "obvious challenge is the set of dangerous stereotypes that exist for Muslims.... Countering those constantly--always being on guard to challenge stereotypes and always feeling like I have to educate others--can sometimes be overwhelming and exhausting."

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, visiting professor of ecumenical and interfaith studies at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry is keenly aware of the ways that societal structures can impact and shape individuals as well as communities.

"Studying together is only part of the story For the sake of individual students, it's also about changing relationships." He called this "a key component of self-identity and an important step to changing the cultural climate."

To this end, efforts have been underway at Seattle University to promote interfaith encounters through curriculum updates, interfaith dialogue groups, and community gatherings. An introductory class about the Quran will be offered to students for the first time this fall, and a Feb. 5 event titled "If our faiths teach love, why do we hate?" featured panelists from four faith traditions.

According to Michael Trice, assistant dean of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue at the School of Theology and Ministry, such encounters are "bridges across a sea of pluralism" and an essential part of theological education.

The needs for bridges underlies Arain's words: "In some ways, my ultimate hope is a utopia: a world that has gone through a process of healing from violence and destruction, that has restored relationships that have been torn through centuries of colonial conquest and appropriation of land, resources, culture, and one that has eliminated evils like genocide and poverty ... But I have some simpler hopes until then--that we as a community can build a model of real interreligious engagement."

Caption: Hafsa Arain in Claremont School of Theology's Kresge Chapel

Caption: Qasim Hatem on the Seattle University campus

[Freelance writer Julie Gunter is a student in pastoral studies at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry.]
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Title Annotation:RELIGIOUS LIFE
Author:Gunter, Julie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 27, 2015
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