Engaging in the Work of Dialogue at the OSU Newman Center
Austin M. Schafer
Given the climate of the world today, with growing intolerance and common misrepresentation of people of all faiths, the St. Thomas More Newman Center at The Ohio State University in Columbus believes that dialogue, with its direct personal contact, is one of the surest means to promote learning, mutual understanding, and peacemaking. As a ministry of the Paulist Fathers, the Newman Center names ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as a core value in its overall parish mission. By engaging in this mission, the kind of dialogue that is lived out takes place on a number of different levels.
First, the Newman Center is a key member of the University Interfaith Association (UIA), a collaboration of representatives from over 25 faith groups serving students, faculty, and staff at Ohio State. The UIA is dedicated to the coordination of involvement of faith communities and their traditions in the life of the university, and their mission is to promote peace and spiritual wellness at Ohio State. In addition to hosting meetings on occasion at the Newman Center, some of the UIA’s recent outreach has included
- planning an interfaith memorial prayer service to remember students who have died in the previous year,
- leading a blessing and dedication ceremony for the new student union,
- offering a workshop for resident assistants and for parent and family weekend on spirituality,
- and staffing 28 student orientations over the summer to provide spiritual resources for new incoming first year students and their parents.
Secondly, for the past six years, the Newman Center has hosted a weekly Muslim-Catholic dialogue group during the academic year in collaboration with students from the Scioto Education Foundation (now known as Niagara Foundation), which is a local Turkish-Muslim Cultural Center in Columbus. For participants, no prior experience in interfaith dialogue is needed, except an openness to listen, learn, and a willingness to share one’s faith. Discussions are honest, direct, and fun, and topics have included everything from “Islam-101 & Catholicism 101” to exploring how culture and national identity affect belief and practice. In 2009, at the Scioto Education Foundation’s 7th Annual Dialogue Dinner, the Newman Center, under the direction of Fr. Larry Rice, CSP., was honored with the Excellence in Dialogue Award.
Thirdly, the Newman Center collaborates with other many local ecumenical and interfaith associations. Fr. Vinny McKiernan, CSP, partners closely with the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio (IACO), whose mission is to build a multi-faith community which fosters harmony, appreciation, and respect among different faiths. With the recent Qu’ran burning controversy in Florida in the news, Fr. Vinny was asked to speak on a panel at a “Burn No Sacred Books” event on Sept. 11, 2010 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbus, OH. Fr. Vinny also hosts a monthly interfaith prayer service with Faith Communities Uniting for Peace at the Newman Center, as well as offers a Centering Prayer group that has participants from many different faith traditions. I serve on the UIA Executive Team at OSU and on the Diocese of Columbus’ Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and will be presenting a workshop at the 2011 Catholic Campus Ministry Association’s (CCMA) National Convention in Clearwater, FL on the topic of engaging college students in the work of dialogue.
In all of these outreach efforts, the St. Thomas More Newman Center at The Ohio State University follows the path of engagement and dialogue out of a genuine sense of respect and mission that gives a convincing witness in the parish, local community, and beyond. It motivates students and community members to cultivate the practice of dialogue and reach out towards one another in an authentic and welcoming way.
Overall, in Fr. Thomas Keating’s words, “All who seek to participate in the experience of Ultimate Mystery are united in the same fundamental search. They can remain in their own chosen path or religious tradition and still contribute to the unprecedented awakening of trans-cultural values that has begun to take place throughout the world. The most significant contribution they can make is to cultivate the experience of oneness with Ultimate Mystery, oneness with all other human beings, and oneness with the cosmos.”
Austin Shafer serves as the Pastoral Associate for Campus Ministry at the Ohio State University Newman Center in Columbus, Ohio.