By Ruth Broyde Sharone
A NEW DAY IN AMERICA'S HEARTLAND
The interfaith landscape in America has changed dramatically in the last two decades, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in Middle America. Take Fargo, North Dakota, for example.
Fargo, adjacent West Fargo, along with its twin city, Moorhead, and Dilworth, Minnesota form the North Dakota-Minnesota Metropolitan Area. The 2010 census registered a total population of 212,171. About half live in Fargo, a city that shot to prominence in 1996 thanks to a crime film brought to the silver screen by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. “Fargo” stars Frances McDormand, a pregnant police chief who investigates a series of homicides, and William H. Macy, a car salesman who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife.
But Fargo is developing a very different profile as home to the Center for Interfaith Projects, founded and headed by David Myers, 68, a retired professor who taught philosophy and comparative religion for more than 30 years. Born in Hearne, Texas, he was reared in Houston until his Methodist family moved to Fargo.
David admits to always questioning his religious connection. Along the way he noticed a developing attraction to Judaism, which turned out to be “the perfect place to contain my skepticism and a desire to be part of a larger community.” At the age of 58, after a year-long study with a rabbi and attending religious services at a synagogue in a neighboring town, Myers converted to Reform Judaism. His wife followed suit not long afterwards, of her own accord. Their 38-year-old son, Aaron, however, is not committed to any particular religious path. Like many young people today, he probably belongs to the “Nones,” Myers said, a term denoting those who do not identify with any particular tradition.
A New Community Emerging
The Board members of the Center for Interfaith Projects reflect a wide cross section of faiths. The chair, Phil Mouch, lists mysticism as his religious orientation. Vice president Mary Struck follows a buddhadharma practice. Treasurer Trish Tallakson considers herself a Christian pluralist. Secretary Brandon Baker is a Humanist, and other directors include a Muslim, a Baha’i’, a Hindu, a Catholic, a Unitarian Universalist, a Lutheran, and a Native American from the Arikara nation.
The growing interfaith engagement in Fargo is exciting but demanding, Myers notes, especially when it comes to fundraising. Fortunately, the Bremer Foundation of Fargo has given them a grant to help fund their operations and improve their interfaith library. But to expand they will have to spend more time and effort fundraising, a genuine challenge for a retired university professor.
The Center’s programs are innovative and timely. When Romney ran for the presidency, Myers organized a panel called “Meet the Mormons.” Today he is preparing a new panel for a fall program called “Ask the Atheists.” The Center also works with the Cass County Jail. The jail population has become more religiously diverse, and the jail chaplain has asked the Center to provide scriptures from different religions for the inmates.
The long-term vision includes creating an interfaith support group for young people, struggling to reconcile their sexual orientation with their faith, who sorely need a safe haven to share their trepidations about discrimination. Another goal is setting up student interfaith organizations at North Dakota State University (Fargo) and Minnesota State University (Moorhead), where Myers taught.
“In the face of growing religious diversity,” he writes in his blog, “there are two possible responses. We can treat religious diversity as a threat to defend ourselves against and stay in our religious enclaves, or we can welcome it as an opportunity to build bridges and create interfaith friendships. It does mean leaving your zone of comfort for an encounter with those who may see the world very differently than you do.”
The Next Generation
Myers connected me to Samantha Adank, an 18 year-old student at Concordia College (Moorhead), citing her as a perfect example of the new generation of interfaith activists. Samantha, reared in the Catholic Church but later becoming a Lutheran with her parents, recently attended an interfaith leadership workshop at the University of Southern California sponsored by the Interfaith Youth Core.
A bright, articulate young woman, Samantha is already an interfaith leader of an on-campus group called “Better Together,” pursuing multiple activities and hoping to collaborate with the student environmental group. They are also planning a mid-semester trip to a local reservation to begin a relationship with Native Americans.
Samantha’s motivation was sparked by two people. “I was ready to sign up for interfaith engagement after I read Eboo Patel’s autobiography, Acts of Faith,” which details his life growing up Muslim in America. (See TIO review.) She was also profoundly inspired by one of her Concordia professors, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie. “She is one of the most interesting, passionate, genuine, and kind people I have met,” she says, “constantly seeking out opportunities to encourage interfaith activity and dialogue on Concordia’s campus.”
Dr. Bussie is associate professor of religion at Concordia and director of the new Forum on Faith and Life. She arranged for Eboo Patel to address the Concordia student body last fall. The room was so crowded, David Myers reports, it looked like people were hanging from the rafters. “More than 900 attended. We had never seen so many people attend an interfaith event before, from the larger community as well as from the campus. They were spellbound by Patel and hung on his every word. And gave him two standing ovations.”
Dr. Bussie recently led students on a “Justice Journey” to Ensenada, Mexico, to serve the poor by teaching English and breaking ground for a new community kitchen for single moms. Under the auspices of the Forum, she also traveled to Bemidji, Minnesota, at the request of five pastors who asked her to speak about Islam, which she did in a five-hour workshop.
The Forum also sent representatives to a global conference on ecumenism in Assisi, Italy, to learn how Christians might better relate to one another. This spring Dr. Bussie shared her vision for a Theology of Hope and Spiritual Sustainability and how it can serve the larger North Dakota-Minnesota community.
Fargo is no longer a sleepy little town needing a Hollywood director to put it on the map. It is creating a unique future for itself in the interfaith world, spurred on by inspirational professors and advocates like David Myers and Jacqueline Bussie, with the baton being handed to enthusiastic, willing young people like Samantha Adank.
Better believe it!