During my first year on campus I heard about an interfaith experience that two of our students had on a service trip. I wasn’t surprised that a service trip was the environment for this encounter. Students frequently report that our alternative spring break service trips are some of the most powerful experiences they have at Wartburg.
Thanks to an awesome service learning program, Wartburg College, one of the colleges of the ELCA, typically ranks among the top schools in the country in terms of the percentage of our students who participate in these trips.
One of the students involved in the experience was a Christian from Iowa, the other a Hindu international student. One evening during their group’s reflection time participants were sharing their motivations for serving others.
When it came time for the Hindu student to share, he talked about how his faith influenced his desire to serve. Several other students had mentioned their faith as a primary factor in their deciding to go on the trip, but all of those had been Christians.
When the student from Iowa heard that his non-Christian peer was motivated to serve by the same thing as he was, it gave him a different perspective. He admitted that he had never really thought about what he had in common with those of other faiths until that trip.
People sometimes are surprised that as a Lutheran college we welcome people of all faiths, and no faith at all, to be part of our community. Unlike more conservative academic institutions we have no “statement of faith” that all students must sign, yet we also make no secret that we are a college of the church and that all students will reflect on their faith as a part of their experience. Furthermore there is protected time for worship, two required religion courses and a campus ministry staff.
Why do we do this?
Some suspect that our openness is a thinly veiled attempt to lure non-Christians to campus so that we can convert them. Others assume that such practice indicates we don’t take our identity as a college of the church all that seriously.
Neither of these assumptions is accurate. We don’t see non-Christians as targets, nor are we ashamed of the gospel. We do this because of experiences like our two students had on that service trip.
In other words, we do it because the Spirit is at work in the lives of all people, regardless of their faith commitments.
We do it because the world for which we prepare our students isn’t a Christian enclave.
We do it because we believe that all people are created in God’s image and that many of the things we as Christians hold dear are sacred in traditions other than our own.
Two summers ago I had a chance to hear Eboo Patel speak at an ELCA event in Chicago. Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, which brings together students from different religious traditions to work for the common good. This group has been able to do their work because it emphasizes shared commitments while not denying differences.
Patel challenges participants to ask themselves, “What in my tradition compels me to work for the common good?” I love that question because it respects differences while also seeking to build bridges between people of different faiths.
I’m grateful that students at our ELCA colleges are able to have such interfaith experiences and at the same time grow deeper in their own faith.
I’m happy for the students, but I’m even happier for God’s world, which desperately needs the hope of interfaith cooperation.