Summer 2009: Reconciliation and Peace Building on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle

Editor’s Note: Following is a personal reflection by Andy Saperstein about his role in teaching this past summer at the Summer Institute on Islam, Intercultural Relations, and Leadership (SIIIRL), a joint venture of the Reconciliation Program of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School and Pathways for Mutual Respect.   Until the end of summer Saperstein was associate director of the Reconciliation Program.   He is now on the staff of the Vineyard Church in Columbus, OH.

By Andy Saperstein

During the normally sleepy days of June and July at Yale Divinity School, I had the privilege in 2009 of teaching at a far-from-soporific gathering of students from around the world at the first-ever Summer Institute on Islam, Intercultural Relations, and Leadership (SIIIRL).  SIIIRL was co-sponsored by the Yale Center for Faith & Culture’s Reconciliation Program and Pathways for Mutual Respect, a New Haven-based NGO that works to build trust, respect, and mutual understanding between the West and the Muslim world, and especially between citizens of the U.S. and Iran.  My colleagues Amanda Ogden and Melissa Yarrington of the Reconciliation Program and I joined the Pathways staff to host 14 students representing seven nations for three weeks of intensive coursework, discussion, cross-cultural immersion activities, and personal and leadership development activities, all designed to prepare a growing number of diverse leaders, scholars, and educators to engage their professional, academic, and faith communities on issues of reconciliation and peace building.

Student groupTeaching a course entitled “Language and Discourse Issues in Muslim-Western Relations,” I joined two other core faculty – John Hartley, executive director of Pathways for Mutual Respect, who taught a course entitled “Religious Faiths, Globalization, and Intercultural Relations;” and Matt Yarrington, adjunct professor in Quinnipiac University’s Department of History, who taught a course entitled “Islamic Societies and Intercultural Relations.”  Guest lecturers included Yasir Qadhi of Yale University’s Department of Religious Studies, Aysha Coskun of Yale Medical School and Hartford Seminary, and several others from four additional nations.

What kept us all particularly alert on the long, lazy summer days of the Institute was the vigorous engagement of a magnificent cadre of students – women and men of diverse faiths (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist), far-flung lands (e.g., Armenia, Iran, Sierra Leone, Pakistan), and wide-ranging languages (Pashto, Persian, English, Arabic, etc.) who spent double-digit hours together each day interacting in increasingly open and earnest ways on some of the most challenging interfaith issues of our age:

How can we accurately and sympathetically characterize Muslim communities with labels as wide-ranging as Sunni and Shi'i, orthodox, conservative, liberal, moderate, traditional, Wahhabi, Salafi, and heterodox?  How can we “speak reconciliation’ and promote magnanimity in our interactions with our friends and our enemies of all faiths?  How do faith, globalization, and collective memory inform the ways that religious communities interact with one another around the world?  And how can I – the Christian son of a secular Jewish man, with much of my adult life spent in Pakistan and Uzbekistan – model and promote ways of thinking and speaking and engaging the world that avoid flattery and superficiality on the one hand, and blunt-edged, myopic pettiness on the other, and yet bring people together to solve problems as expansive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as personal as my own unjust prejudices? 

SIIIRL provided a wonderful space not only for driving away summer somnolence but for planting seeds of a transformed world grounded in a serious commitment to enhanced relationships among people of different faiths.