When I accepted the position as General Secretary, it was to affirm the positive role that religion plays in peace-building by young people from all faith traditions. With over 22 years in a university setting I was privileged to oversee and mentor the spiritual identity and life of students, faculty and staff. Thirty groups of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other religions were represented in the Inter-religious Council. The Methodist-founded University’s extraordinary religious diversity is both indebted to the distinctive U.S. Constitutional and democratic values and Wesleyan commitment to ecumenism and inter-faith relationship. This diversity engendered opportunities for learning about and engaging difference rather than fostering and creating fear. For these young people, the beauty, the wonder, the astonishing possibilities and commitment to inter-religious engagement was formative and life-giving.
Following September 11, 2001 minority communities, particularly Muslims, were stigmatized and profiled. These young students and faculty members were often stereotyped, profiled, questioned and detained. They were detained in airports, profiled and stereotyped in grocery and department stores, and stopped by police while driving through Atlanta neighborhoods. Young women were shamed and penalized socially for wearing hijab. Parents lived in anguish and called over and over to be assured that their children were safe in the university. These devoted parents wanted nothing more than for their children to be educated and become contributing citizens.
The paths of my students
Many students I know well, and with whom I remain friends, asked me for letters of reference for admission into graduate schools, programs civil and secular, and religious positions upon their graduation which I gladly supplied. It was my honor to testify to their character, moral life, intellectual acumen and ability and desire to succeed. After 20 years, I have seen these alumni work hard to become outstanding attorneys, academics, public servants, physicians, teachers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and business people improving peoples’ lives and welfare of society.
We must not fall prey to fear
Today, the world is faced with men and women who are choosing a desperate life in extremist communities in the Middle East, some countries of Africa, the US, and Europe. These actions are deplorable. The terror that is perpetrated must be stopped.
Islam and its Muslim adherents are not the problem. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is not an extremist religion. It is one of the monotheistic Abrahamic traditions that teaches the wonder and mystery of God, the sacredness of humanity, the mandate to pray and to serve humankind by seeking and promoting peace.
As Christians, we must not be persuaded by hate-filled rhetoric borne out of fear and ignorance. We must not fall prey to desperation, fear and anxiety. With the exception of Native Peoples and tribal nations inside the United States who had a prior claim, most of us are the children and grandchildren of immigrants who sought freedom, education, jobs, and a life that was better than our forebears had known. We can do better than to stigmatize, shame, and fear our neighbors. We are one human family created in the image of God and called to love our neighbors as compassionately and lovingly as God loves us.