When I first arrived on the campus of Saint Peter’s College, I remember being struck by two thoughts. The first was the joy I felt upon discovering the incredible diversity
of our student body. They come from 60 countries with 30 first languages other than English. Twenty-nine percent are Caucasian, 26 percent are Hispanic, and 22 percent
are African-American. There are Catholics, Protestants of all flavors, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and some we’ve never heard of. My second memory is of gazing across
the Hudson River at the gaping hole that was the World Trade Center, pondering all of the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion. In that moment, I
wondered how can we face the inescapable fact of our diversity and still help our young people find, not a cause for fear and violence, but an invitation to discover mutual
respect and peace?
The process of helping to write a new strategic plan for Saint Peter’s, the challenge of making the Spiritual Exercises and our Jesuit heritage accessible to
non-Christians, the facts of our diversity, and the obscenity of violence in the name of God have prompted the university to include in that plan an Interfaith Center that would
draw on both the work of Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core (http://www.ifyc.org ) and the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises.
Patel’s process, used by the IYC, begins pragmatically with story-telling aimed at probing the truth of each participant’s own experience. This leads to the second step
of teasing out shared values that transcend the specifics of a religion or culture. The third step involves volunteer service projects that allow students to trust the strong bond
of common humanity that each culture or faith tradition shares in its commitment to service.
A careful blending and balancing of Patel’s group process and the spiritual dynamic and insights of the Spiritual Exercises can give structure and depth to an
Interfaith Center on a Jesuit, Catholic campus. This in turn reveals critical moments of opportunity to both exercise and celebrate our Ignatian heritage.
The First Week of the Spiritual Exercises invites the individual to humble self-knowledge before an infinitely loving God. The story-telling stage of Patel’s process
is aimed at something similar: telling the true story about who we have been. In this first week of the Exercises, we examine our sinfulness not to dwell on our
perverse wretchedness, but to grow in awe and wonder of the God who continues to love us and works to draw us out of our delusions, so that we are, finally, free to follow,
to choose, to act. This is an essential condition for Ignatian discernment. In the sharing of our true stories, in the Patel model, we come finally to the freedom to
acknowledge that, despite our blunders and perversity, we all have common values that anchor our common humanity.
The First Week function of an Interfaith Center should facilitate a process of interaction that brings members of each culture to that moment of freedom when all discern
the values and anti-values at play, and together seek a way forward.
In practice on campus, this may translate into speakers and classes that examine social and cultural histories, and designing student activities with diversity in mind.
These activities might include, for example, events where ethnic meals (not simply food) are shared; or cultural and religious events are “unpacked” for the campus
community instead of “performed” as a curiosity; or a foreign-, ethnic-, or gender-oriented film series that celebrates and explores the beauty, complexity, and variety of
human experience. Can we challenge clubs based on nationalities, race, or religion to be “ambassadors” to the rest of the campus of the best of their cultures?
The Second and Third Weeks of the Spiritual Exercises invite us to community, transformation, sacrifice, and to begin to see the fact of our diversity as the
opportunity of our pluralism. In Patel’s model, the self-revelation of story-telling allows students to identify shared values that can form the foundation for a community based
on those values and on mutual respect for each individual’s quest for God. The Interfaith Center’s role here is to provide a safe and nurturing place for this community to
germinate by providing interfaith retreats based on the Patel model (in addition to the usual retreats offered by Campus Ministry), space for prayer and meditation,
opportunities to explore our common humanity through food, arts, music and liturgy, study-abroad and cultural immersion trips that explore these issues, and leadership
training for the core group of student interfaith “ambassadors.”
The Spiritual Exercises begin and end with the retreatant standing before God in openness and freedom. With the insight of the Principle and Foundation, the
retreatant desires only to praise, reverence and serve the Lord; in the closing Contemplation to Attain Love, the retreatant not only sees the whole of creation as God’s gift
but s(he) sees God working for us in that gift. Just as God expresses His love in action, the retreatant is challenged to respond with love in action. The IYC process
culminates in the participants putting their newly-discovered common values into action together in volunteer service projects, or in Service Learning courses. The Interfaith
Center’s role would be to facilitate these shared acts of loving service by helping to organize them, and helping to guide students’ on-going reflection on the experiences.
Finally, the students who have been active in the Center would be trained to extend this interfaith work into the world beyond our campus, including their home
Pentecost symbolizes a new unification, under the mystery of the Holy Spirit, which begins to reverse the fragmentation of Babel and reveal that faith does not identify
with any one culture, but can be present in the best of all cultures. Our Interfaith Center, we hope, will be a place where we can explore this mystery together. Jesus said, “I
am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn20:21). In the spirit of Vatican II and of the recent General Congregations, our Center will be a place where we begin to see that
where there is a Way, there is Jesus; where there is Truth in other religions, there is Jesus; and where Life is enhanced, there, too, is Jesus.