Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 7, Numbers 1 & 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 7, Numbers 1 & 2
(July 2003)

Download our print issue (PDF)
Kellogg Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good: Contributing to the Practice of Democracy
Tribal Colleges and Universities: Guided by Tribal Values
Commitment to Diversity in Institutional Mission Statements
Valuing Equity: Recognizing the Rights of the LGBT Community
Creating Border Crossings: Dickinson College at Home and Abroad
Prejudice Across America: A Nationwide Trek
The Accountability Side of Diversity
Percent Plans: How Successful Are They?
Campus Life for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People
Multimedia, Books and Conferences
The E Pluribus Unum Project

The E Pluribus Unum Project: Engaging Diversity and Nurturing Commitment, Collaboration, and Service in an Interfaith Learning Community

By Jim Keen, college professor, Antioch College
Excerpted, in part, from The E Pluribus Unum Project, The Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values (2000)

In three short years, the E Pluribus Unum (EPU) Project, has established a bold and effective design for fostering interreligious collaboration promoting social justice and the common good. For three weeks, the EPU Project gathered sixty high school graduates, divided equally among Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, for the purpose of exploring how their respective religious traditions might inspire community service, civic engagement, and commitment to the common good.

The learning environment designed to carry out this vision was multidimensional, featuring formal study of religion with particular emphasis on teachings related to the environment, poverty, and human rights, as well as training in reflective listening, group governance, collaborative social problem solving, and exploration of spirituality through the arts and community service. Participants engaged in interfaith reflection and dialogue teams called covenant groups which supplemented informal conversation and reflection on the topics of the conference.

These aspects of the conference were integrated in a powerful group experience guided by the challenge the conference puts to its participants at the outset: to spend three weeks building a community among themselves that recognizes, appreciates, elaborates, and engages their diversity. This represented a powerful, and some might say utopian challenge, but one that participants have risen each year to meet with energy and grace in spite of occasional misunderstandings, tough moments, and very real conflicts that often arose as people moved beyond the niceties of the surface encounter to the harder work of engaging each other across thresholds of significant difference.

The EPU Program
The program succeeds by inviting religious educators from each of the traditions to adopt a method of bringing traditional religious wisdom into conversation with contemporary issues through the integration of four strands of learning: academic (religious social teachings), spiritual arts, service and advocacy, and building community.

The academic program consists of faith-alike classes in which participants join others from their own faith tradition in an exploration of how their tradition addresses issues of human rights, poverty, and the environment, as well as how it relates to the other faith traditions, particularly with regard to interreligious collaboration for the common good. Faith-alike classes are led three days a week by the faculty member of that tradition. The three faculty rotate so that each week each faith-alike class has one session taught by one of the faculty from the other two faith traditions. Thus the participants receive a substantial introduction to the other two faith traditions and how those traditions address the issues they are exploring within their own tradition.

In a second component of the program, the spiritual arts, participants explore the arts as a vehicle for social and political expression and as a nexus of individual spirituality and community sharing. Each participant spends three weeks exploring one of the following art forms: dance, drama, vocal music, storytelling, and visual arts.

A third programmatic strand is volunteer service. Almost all EPU participants were involved in community service prior to EPU and participated in new forms of service during the conference.
A final program area, community life, can be fruitfully divided into several more components: worship, community meetings, and covenant groups. In addition to pilgrimages which involved most participants attending one or more of a variety of worship services in the DC area each weekend, two to three communal worship services were held each week. Community life plenaries provided opportunities for participants and staff to address directly the challenge to create community. Community discussions clarified the purposes of the program and community reflection provided time for processing and assessing what was being learned.

Covenant groups function as the keystone in EPU’s design as an integrative learning environment. Convenant groups mediate the intersection of formal and informal learning by promoting conversations focused on the questions, “Who am I? What is my experience in the world? What am I currently learning? And what does this mean for me?” There is an emphasis on reflection and dialogue which aims at the construction of more “connected” levels of meaning and at the development of a stronger sense of voice which integrates students’ affective experience with their growing intellectual understanding of what they are studying.

Student Outcomes: Religious Identity and Crossing Thresholds of Difference
By devoting a significant amount of prime program time to formal instruction and exploration in faith-alike groups, the EPU design provides a context conducive to the maintenance and development of self identification with, and loyalty to, one’s own faith tradition. Faith-alike groups function as confirmational contexts in each of which a talented teacher representing that tradition provides instruction and clarification while inviting participant’s deep questions and concerns. Participants report that the interreligious nature of the learning environment as a whole stimulates their reflection and exploration of their own traditions as they seek firmer ground on which to stand as interreligious collaborators.

In my conversations with participants, I found that EPU had fostered for them a substantial and constructive engagement with diversity that they connected directly with the pursuit of the common good. As one student put it:

I feel like it has a lot to do with expanding how many people you include in your circle and when you get to talk to people of other faiths. I personally felt like you begin to realize that even though you have different practices of worship and different rituals, and different names for things, you all have an abiding faith. I feel like that brings people closer together. And when you expand your definition of people you have something in common with, then you feel much more committed to the common good.

Lessons from EPU
That EPU succeeds so well at fostering interreligious dialogue and connecting it to the common good, makes it, to my mind, an exemplary program from which others who share similar visions can learn several important lessons.

First, EPU demonstrates that it is possible to structure learning environments in which participants are likely to have enlarging encounters with difference. The faith-alike, covenant group counterpoint picked up the energy from the informal interactions in the dorm and elsewhere, yielding an approach that neither over-directed interreligious dialogue nor left it to chance.

Second, the covenant group design is one that could potentially be incorporated into any learning environment in which participants are strongly invested in their learning and share a real interest in dialogue and reflection. The covenant group integrates the program by mediating in a reflective dialogical manner between the formal and informal dimensions of a learning environment.

Third, by placing covenant groups in a framework that also incorporates faith-alike exploration of one’s own religious tradition and introduction to the religious traditions of others, EPU supports a practice of interreligious dialogue in which participants can come to grips with irreducible difference, and therefore, find a more authentic sense of common ground and the basis for interreligious solidarity in a pluralist approach to the common good.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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