Elmhurst College: The Quest to Build Bridges

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The Quest to Build Bridges

Engaging people of different cultures and beliefs is critical to forming lasting relationships that break down barriers, two speakers said in the concluding lectures of the College’s yearlong focus on interfaith engagement .

Relationships and shared experiences are the building blocks of transformation, the Rev. Dirk Ficca, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions said during a discussion on April 26. For students, that means getting involved with people of other traditions, whether by studying abroad or engaging in projects close to home.

The following day, Edith A. Guffey, associate general minister of the United Church of Christ (UCC), reflected on 20 years in a management role at the national office which is based in Cleveland. Though the UCC has a long-held commitment to racial justice, Guffey said churches could do more at the local level.

“We don’t do a good job of engaging each other on issues such as [racial justice]. There is huge diversity within any group of this size, and whites haven’t fully engaged with people of color,” she said.

The College’s yearlong series, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith, featured speakers from UCC, evangelical Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Catholic backgrounds who explored critical issues in religion and the promise of interfaith engagement.

The series began on October 1 with the inaugural Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life, in honor of Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, the influential American theologians who graduated from Elmhurst a century ago. The opening event attracted more than 1,000 attendees, and other events drew crowds of more than 300, which President S. Alan Ray said underscores the significance of the topic.

“The total effect has been larger than we expected, and we’re very pleased by that. We could see that interest in the series grew over time by the number of people who attended,” Ray said. ”Clearly there is an appetite for discussions of this caliber in the Chicago area.”

Ficca said his group in September will launch a program to engage 10 houses of worship, including seven churches, two synagogues and one mosque.

The first part will be for members of each church to visit the others as a way to become more familiar with the sacred spaces of different traditions and cultures. The second phase will be to seek a pledge from all the religious institutions to “stand in solidarity in the face of any religious-motivated defamation or violence,” he said.

“My dream is that in 10 years, every community and suburb will participate in such visits and take that pledge,” Ficca said, adding that his organization is eager to work with the College to promote similar opportunities for students.

Guffey noted that the UCC—with which Elmhurst is affiliated—has a history of “being cutting edge on social issues;” it was the first denomination to ordain women and openly gay ministers, and in 2005 it announced its support of same-sex marriages.

Such controversial stances inspired some members and congregations to leave, but Guffey said it was more important for the UCC to assert leadership on such issues than to play it safe.

“We talked about who the United Church of Christ was, and that is how we defined ourselves,” she said. “Everyone wasn’t going to sign on, and we expected that, but that’s who we are. It’s part of our culture.”


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