A Tale of Two Pandemics

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Interreligious Engagement in the “Fierce Urgency of Now” 

We write from the present moment, at the beginning of an academic year deeply impacted by two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism laid bare by the murder of George Floyd. We started a year ago to collaborate on a grant to study interreligious pedagogies. What follows is less a summative report of our work than a story whose final chapters have yet to be written.  

First, let us set the stage. We are five professors representing three different private institutions (Augsburg University, Elon University, and the University of St. Thomas) in two different states (Minnesota and North Carolina) with very different student populations. Yet, despite the obvious differences, our institutions share a number of key similarities.  All are relatively small universities that have historic or current religious affiliations and robust departments of Religion (Augsburg), Theology (St. Thomas), and Religious Studies (Elon).  

More important, all share a commitment to interreligious engagement: Elon through its sturdy commitments to engaged learning and global citizenship, St. Thomas through its Jay Phillips Center for Interreligious Studies, and Augsburg by the sheer fact of its location adjacent to the largest Somali Muslim neighborhood outside of Somalia. 

Most importantly, each of our institutions has been trying to build infrastructure around interreligious engagement in the classroom, the campus context, the broader community, and the academy. Because of these similarities and differences, we thought we could learn a lot from each other -- and we did. Then, with the twin pandemics in front of us, we discovered that we could learn with each other as well. 

Let the story begin. 

A gathering co-convened by Interfaith Youth Core and the Wabash Center in Chicago in October 2018 planted the seeds of this collaboration. Scholars from campuses around the country gathered to outline the contours of a “field” of interfaith studies and identify salient pedagogies. Through these discussions, we learned that each of our campuses had lively student-focused academic programs on interreligious engagement. Yet each framed and situated these initiatives differently. Collectively, we knew we could learn a great deal from each other’s programs. We applied for a grant from the Wabash Center in order to explore the way each campus approached three aspects of our interreligious work: classroom pedagogies, community engagement, and undergraduate research.  

In the fall of 2019, just as the leaves were beginning to change, our colleagues from Elon headed north. At Augsburg and StThomas, they met with various stakeholders in interreligious engagement, including administrators, faculty, students, chaplains, and community practitioners. In February of 2020, Augsburg faculty visited St. Thomas, where despite years of collaboration across the Mississippi, we each discovered new edges to our work. 

Colleagues from Augsburg and St. Thomas arrived at Elon's campus on March 9. Spring was in full bloom and the dangers of the coronavirus were just becoming apparent.  As the week progressed, nervous discussion of travel and jokes about hand sanitizer punctuated our meetings with a wide spectrum of stakeholders in Elon’s multifaith work. Members of the Minnesota team departed on the morning of March 13, the last day that most campuses around the US were open for in-person instruction. In time, we came to fully appreciate how the pandemic would fundamentally change our campuses and deeply impact the initiatives that we were studying together. 

Because of the virus, we cancelled plans to convene in Chicago, instead of meeting virtually in early June to discuss our collaboration as well as initiatives on our respective campuses. Before we could address these questions, on May 25th, the very streets of Minneapolis where some of our team members live and work became the site of a twenty-first-century lynching that would generate waves of outrage across the country and galvanize energies for racial justice and social change not seen in decades. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis reverberated in North Carolina, where Elon students and faculty joined protests to remove a Confederate monument in a nearby town. 

By the time of our meeting on June 9th, we recognized that we had two pandemics impacting our work in higher education. This new virus, COVID-19, was raging across the world, while at the same time, for many Americans, the centuries-old virus of systemic racism was unmasked. We found ourselves talking about these pandemics together. In our discussions about how to move our grant on effective interreligious pedagogies forward, we realized that addressing them and confronting the ways that they are intertwined WAS the way forward. Indeed these two pandemics call us to “the fierce urgency of now” (Martin Luther King Jr.).  

That is as much of the story as we can tell at this moment, weeks before an academic year unlike any other, begins. Questions drive the next chapter, which we can only name, in hopes that some of our questions may resonate with or catalyze your own. 

  • How does “the color line” (W.E.B. DuBois) intersect with “the faith” line” (Eboo Patel)? 
  • How do we challenge higher ed to make religious diversity integral and intersectional to the diversity discussion?   

  • How will our students’ engagement with community partners shift in light of distance protocols and unequal access to online technologies?  

  • How can we frame those interactions with equity and justice, particularly when many of these communities are often under-resourced and experiencing the racialized effects of the pandemic? 

  • Does virtual learning foreclose possibilities for interreligious engagement and community-based undergraduate research or offer new ones? 

  • What is lost when physical presence is not possible and how might new remote learning contexts motivate or challenge us to develop innovative resources for engagement across differences? 

  • Will budget challenges associated with COVID draw resources away from interfaith work?  How can we most cogently argue that interreligious engagement is integral to finding a way forward in the present moment? 

We raise these questions against the looming specter of a traumatizing academic year that will alter campus culture, imperil many institutions, and threaten the progress that so many campuses across the US have made developing interreligious pedagogies and community engagement. Yet we feel both hopeful and enthusiastic about the possibilities of our work together.  More than ever, we believe that coalition-building and effective training for a new generation of leaders are the imperatives of the moment.  With this sense of urgency, we sprinted to raise the questions above before the academic year begins. But doing this work is a marathon, and we commit to the training. Indeed, we invite you to join us. 

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.


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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.