Katie Basham, Interfaith Coordinator at Berea College, has been working to promote interfaith cooperation on campus for close to a decade. When discussing why this work is so important, Katie tells the story of the two students she sent to an interfaith workshop in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago. One student was Thai, a practicing Muslim, soft-spoken, and extremely bright, while the other student, a Christian from the Appalachian region, was boisterous, outspoken, and active on campus. As Katie tells it, the two couldn’t have been more different. As they made their way to D.C. through a series of airports, the Appalachian student found himself in an uncomfortable position as the Muslim student knelt to pray throughout the day, in clear sight of passersby. But as they went through the workshop, sharing a hotel room and learning about each other’s faith and practices, their comfort and mutual respect grew. By the end of the experience, the two had formed a close bond and found inspiration through the other’s faith, strengthening their own beliefs in the process.
Founded in 1855 by abolitionists and equal rights advocates, Berea College celebrates the unity of all people and provides higher education with an emphasis on cultural understanding and equality. Berea’s vision of a world shaped by the power of love, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice informs their educational mission and religious beliefs. Emphasizing true understanding of the Christian faith and service to others, Berea helps its students and community live a life characterized by plain living, pride in labor, enthusiasm for learning, and concern for the welfare of others. With currently 1,613 undergraduates, almost 70% of Berea’s student population is from the Appalachian region. Berea College is committed to providing higher education to those students who show academic promise but have limited economic resources.
Promoting Interfaith Cooperation
The Argosy Foundation has partnered with the Campus Christian Center (CCC) at Berea College to further their advocacy for interfaith cooperation. Defined as “the active engagement of diversity to a positive end,” Berea believes interfaith cooperation encourages respect for differing religious identities, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good. “As an educational institution, I think we have a responsibility to educate our students in a way that prepares them to be productive citizens in the world. It’s important that we teach them how to live among people who are different than they are and believe differently than they do. We want to encourage them to engage differences positively and constructively rather than use those differences as a means of separation to encourage more violence and hatred in the world. We want them to live in a way that promotes peace and justice,” says Katie Basham.
A haven for worship, study, and prayer, the CCC exists to help students, staff, and faculty develop their critical thinking skills and nurture moral growth through interfaith conversations and events, intellectual and spiritual engagement, workshops and retreats, and pastoral counseling. In the past, the CCC has hosted various events to promote intercultural, interracial, and interfaith understanding, such as weekly interfaith dialogue luncheons and lectures. It has also organized ongoing training sessions with various campus departments and offices on interfaith issues, encouraging campus-wide conversations on diversity and equality. According to Katie, “In order for us to strengthen our own Berea community, it’s important that students learn how to engage each other, how to be respectful of each other, and how to learn from each other in a way that doesn’t compromise their own beliefs, but that recognizes that there is value in the life and story of someone who may be very different.” She credits the interfaith programming at the CCC with helping students develop the tools to talk about faith and religion in a helpful, valuable manner.
A True Inspiration
This past May, a grant from the Argosy Foundation enabled 24 students, staff, and faculty to travel to Louisville, Kentucky to hear the Dalai Lama speak. The trip included music and reflections from various faith leaders about the value of compassion and understanding, along with an inspiring presentation from the Dalai Lama himself. Students prepared for the experience by studying materials composed by a Berea professor of Religion and Asian Studies, including various perspectives on Buddhism and contemporary Tibet. After the event, the group participated in an all-day seminar to reflect on the Dalai Lama’s message and discuss specific Tibetan Buddhist principles in conjunction with their own personal faith. Katie noted that the students felt most inspired by the Dalai Lama’s inclusive and kind demeanor. She recalls that the students came away asking themselves, “How can I, as an Atheist, as a Christian, or as a Muslim, how can I live in a way that radiates joy and warmth and makes people want to be friends with me and work with me?” A number of in-depth discussions were held about what it would look to put the Dalai Lama’s words into action at Berea.
Teaching Others to Lead
Most recently, Argosy has supported Berea’s partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation through student leadership training on college campuses across the country. With assistance from IFYC, Berea is developing a series of training modules that will be used by student leadership groups to foster religious scholarship, positive engagement with religious diversity, and interfaith cooperation on campus. Specifically, these training modules will be used to support Residence Life student staff, community service leaders, Multi-Faith Council members, student chaplains, and the Diversity Peer Education Team at Berea. The CCC is expecting these trainings to engage more than 150 students, each of whom will be able to use what they learn to inform daily interactions with others on campus and in the community. Argosy’s financial support will also enable Berea to administer IFYC’s Campus Religious Climate Survey to assess their current religious atmosphere and inform future work in religious diversity and interfaith cooperation.
Through Berea’s partnership with the Argosy Foundation, they have been able to put into action the college’s motto: “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” From delving into the spiritual teachings of other faiths to providing students with tools to best speak about their own religion, Berea and the CCC continue to promote an accepting and diverse religious environment for their students. An educational institution in the truest sense, Berea ensures that their students enter the world beyond campus with messages and actions of peace, understanding, and love.