The Dialogue Institute concluded its 13th Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI) for Student Leaders on Religious Pluralism in the United States on August 19th. Another 19 young adult students join an extraordinary group of nearly 260 alumni/ae from the Middle East and Southeast Asia who have participated in the DI's SUSI program since 2010.
Students returned to their home countries following an intensive five-week program focused on religious pluralism, dialogue and democracy, including four weeks in Philadelphia beginning July 15th and a week-long study tour in Atlanta, western North Carolina and Washington, D.C.
This summer's Institute also included overlapping activities with the DI's first-ever SUSI for Scholars - Religious Pluralism in the United States, giving the students several opportunities to interact with the 18 scholars from 18 countries (including a special concert with Atzilut, a high-energy Middle Eastern ensemble featuring Arab and Jewish musicians, pictured above).
A central question throughout the Institute was the extent to which religious life is valuable in a globalized, modern world. Among the group of students were those who have known violence and prejudice to such a degree that they have trouble trusting religious leaders, especially those who espouse exclusivist boundaries of faith. There were also those for whom a spiritual life is still profoundly meaningful who want to protect boundaries of religious identity. As one participant described it, if he were to adopt the religious pluralist view the program demonstrates, he would feel he was lying about his own view in which his religious tradition is so meaningful for him; he could not honestly acknowledge that others were equal. Other participants felt such a stance betrayed the mutual respect they wanted to model.
This tension, in truth, reflects much of the tension worldwide between those who protect religious boundaries, suspicious of a homogeneity the modern world seems to encourage, and those who do not want such boundaries to create any religious prejudice or violence, who want to live faith in being wholly human with less emphasis on religious identity. These seeming opposing views are not mutually exclusive and our Dialogue Institute curriculum for the SUSI students teaches the dialogue skills and religious literacy needed to help these differing experiences enhance knowledge of human and divine rather than becoming polarities that divide.
"In coming to terms with sharp differences in our SUSI cohort this year, we were all clear that humility and patience are essential to garnering respect," said Director of Education Rebecca Mays, who runs the Institute. "Dialogue is a difficult process that requires ongoing willingness to know and be known with care for the common good. This year's student group grew in their skills and their care to sustain that willingness."
Each student is required to develop an action plan to be implemented within six months. Two action plans demonstrate the "both/and" possibility described above:
- A young woman from Iraq has started a writer's group in which she teaches writing skills that allow for self-expression of any person's experience. She hopes through the telling of their stories that participants can heal from traumatic experiences of prejudice and violence as well as inspire others how to live their faith to help dismantle further prejudice.
- A young man from Egypt whose conservative views keep him firm in his religious identity wants, however, to work with local university student groups and professors to help make sure holding to one's particularist views will not create disrespect or violence for any who are different.
Here's how another student, Sultan from Lebanon, reflected on his SUSI experience after returning home:
It's the first day in Lebanon after an unforgettable SUSI journey in the United States. I wanna send my wholehearted greetings for all my SUSI colleagues, staff and administrators. I will definitely miss our dialogues, discussions, adventures, outings, games and celebrations - they'll never be forgotten. Each of you had something to teach me; from religions to cultures, traditions and norms, you've contributed in widening my scope of seeing the entire world.
I do really believe in your enormous visions that are driven by strong powers to inspire change and contribute in empowering and engaging youth within (y)our communities. And as Brian said: "We are the hope in this hopeless world". Go ahead and show that the DI's SUSI-Religious Pluralism program has created and supported new leaders who will make the best of this experience to lead their communities into peace, security, and prosperity.