College has faith in its unity effort
An elderly Jewish woman who had fled Hungary during the Holocaust was taking courses at Merrimack College a couple of years ago when she encountered Padraic O'Hare, executive director of the campus Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations.
The woman told him, "You've made this college campus a safe place for us, a place where we feel welcome," O'Hare recounted recently, referring to his interfaith work at the center.
Now, the center has expanded its mission to include a new focus on Islam, and O'Hare is hoping Muslims at Merrimack College will have a similar reaction. "I want to hear the same from a Muslim brother or sister within the foreseeable future," he said.
The newly renamed Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations aims to mend misunderstandings among Jews, Christians, and Muslims by offering programs concerning interfaith relations for students and residents of the area.
As part of its mission, the reconfigured center, added to the small North Andover Catholic college last October, hopes to reach out to the estimated 10,000 Muslims living in the Merrimack Valley.
"Everything we are doing is designed to replace animosity and violence rooted in religious differences with interfaith understanding, reverence, and common moral purposes," said O'Hare, who founded the original interfaith program 17 years ago.
With ties between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds at a low point, O'Hare said he believes interfaith dialogue can help foster understanding and peaceful interaction.
At the center's inception, the college's students were overwhelming Christian, with only a handful of Jews. Gradually, O'Hare said, Muslims started to fill out the ranks of the student body, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, their numbers dropped off.
Recently, the college has been trying to recruit Muslim students again, and provide a "hospitable environment" for them, while integrating Islamic studies into the curriculum, O'Hare said. The newly renamed center is key to the drive.
The college now has about 200 students in interfaith studies and about 300 to 400 more attending the center's various activities, O'Hare said.
Andrew Genovese, a Merrimack College junior with a double major in theology and history, said the center dovetails with his belief in trying "to make peace in this chaotic world." Genovese, 21, of Tewksbury, who is part of a lay order founded by St. Francis, said he does not expect individuals to change the world but to have incremental impact. "One person at a time - that's how we do it," he said.
Pushing for the center's new mission was Mohammed Khusro, an area Muslim leader now on its board. Khusro, originally from India and currently living in Andover, said he has helped set up mosques and Islamic centers in Burlington, Hopkinton, Methuen, and Wayland, as well as the mosque on the Chelmsford line in Lowell.
Khusro, a real estate developer, said the Muslim community in the Merrimack Valley has been growing steadily for the past 40 years, and is now at about 10,000. Still, he said, other residents were not aware of it until the first Gulf War, starting in 1990. He said that conflict brought out animosity toward Muslims in the area that only increased after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It is that kind of hostility that Khusro said he hopes the center can help overcome. He said he hopes interfaith dialogue will correct what he sees as misperceptions about Islam. For example, he said the word "jihad" broadly interpreted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as a violent mission, actually means a personal struggle "in the mind and heart" against "bad actions and bad thoughts." While he calls himself a pacifist, Khusro said he can understand why some young Muslims abroad misguidedly take to violence - a tendency that he attributes to poor living conditions and lack of hope for change.
"Most people just want a good life," he said. "If this dream can be given to people around the world, that would produce much less violence in the world."
Khusro said he believes the center can help bridge the gap in understanding through its sponsorship of various activities. In the future, with the use of a $230,000 grant from the William and Mary Greve Foundation, the center is undertaking several new initiatives:
The award of an annual $25,000 prize named after Ignác Goldziher, a 19th-century Hungarian Jewish scholar considered the founder of modern Islamic studies. The prize will go to a student promoting the center's goals through scholarly work and popular culture, media, and direct action.
The sponsorship of a student pilgrimage from the college to Algeria, and a scholarly exchange with the friars and sisters from the Catholic Order of Saint Augustine and their lay collaborators in Algeria, with an eye toward understanding the Muslim population there and here.
The introduction of a collaborative program with other institutions, including Tufts and Brandeis campus ministries; the Islamic Society of North America, an interfaith group headquartered in Indiana and Washington, D.C.; and the Hartford Seminary, in Connecticut, the oldest Christian-Muslim relations program in the United States.
The Merrimack College center is also holding a forum on Professional Women in Religion on Thursday. Featured are the Rev. Diane Kessler, former executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches; Rabbi Karen Landy, a chaplain at Hebrew Senior Life of Boston; and Shareda Hosein, the first female Muslim chaplain at Tufts University and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
On March 31, Rabbi Robert Goldstein will preside over two Passover Seders on campus. Goldstein, chairman of the center's board and an adjunct professor at Merrimack College, has served since 1990 at Temple Emanuel of Andover.