Baker Report: The intersections of interfaith

Vernese Edghill-Walden
Vernese Edghill-Walden

In the classic and beloved television cartoon, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” Charlie Brown’s friend, Linus, speaks far beyond his years.

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people,” Linus tells his sister, Lucy. “Religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.”

Life is not TV, however.

Honest dialogue on topics that might make us uncomfortable is a solemn and critical responsibility of society, something that forces us to examine what divides us in order to discover that which unites us.

Such exchanges of ideas provide a smorgasbord of opinions and concepts, opening our minds to different ways of thinking and to the importance of respecting those distinctions. It is how we move forward as a society.

Nowhere is this duty more imperative than on a college campus.

And, with no disrespect to Linus, NIU is poised to dive headfirst – and purposefully – into a frank and maybe difficult conversation on our diverse systems of beliefs.

Our second installment of Diversity Dialogues is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, April 21, when we will gather in the Regency Room of the Holmes Student Center to explore “Allies in Interfaith.”

Careful and thoughtful listening to our guest speakers – and to each other – will help us to understand where our beliefs cross paths and how we can collaborate without judgment to make NIU a more welcoming and inclusive place.

Vernese Edghill-Walden, our senior associate vice president for Academic Diversity and chief diversity officer, wants us to find shared values and common goals. She wants us to walk away knowing that we are sisters and brothers in interfaith, an umbrella that includes those with non-religious identities: I urge all non-believers to attend the dialogue and add their important voices.

April 21 guest speakers: Aaminah Khan and Katie Gordon
April 21 guest speakers: Aaminah Khan and Katie Gordon

Furthering the university’s pursuit of this ambition is the formation of the new NIU Presidential Commission on Interfaith Initiatives.

Members of this commission, chaired by Andy Pemberton, product manager in Outreach Creative Services, will serve “in a spirit of independence and impartiality to foster a supportive climate for people of all faith and belief systems.”

Please allow me to quote from the commission proposal drafted earlier this spring: “Call it what you will – faith, religion, philosophy or morals and values – systems of belief are fundamental to all people. They inform an individual’s point of view and decision-making. Understanding and respecting other people’s beliefs is a quality we work to instill in the NIU community.”

The commission will advise the president on issues and concerns related to belief systems at NIU. Its members also will recommend research and actions needed to advance these matters.

Goals include the coordination and promotion of more interfaith dialogues similar to the April 21 event as well as support for a dedicated place on campus where members of interfaith student organizations and the commission can gather and reflect.

Book cover of “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation” by Eboo PatelOutreach and partnership is planned with the Association of Campus Religious Organizations, which counts nearly two dozen churches and groups, as well as with members of the other NIU presidential commissions.

I am proud that the NIU Presidential Commission on Interfaith Initiatives was formed under my administration and will build a legacy far beyond my tenure here.

But I am more proud that these dedicated people came together organically, with neither assignment nor nomination but, instead, inspiration from NIU’s 2013-2014 Common Reading Experience. The selection of “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation” by Eboo Patel sparked and facilitated conversations among students, faculty and staff across religious and secular lines and into the university community.

What I find in the commission’s commitment to this vision, and to these ideals, is my own faith in the future of our society. They are paving the way to peace and understanding, and I am eager and excited to join their journey.

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