As the first interfaith chapel week came to a close, Jacqueline Bussie sat back and smiled. As the new director of the Forum on Faith and Life, she sees this as a big step toward her ultimate goal: exploring the big questions of humanity.
“We know they’re hard questions, and we know they’re complex,” Bussie said, “but we embrace that.”
Concordia College has made one giant step towards eliminating the fear of diversity by creating the Forum on Faith and Life, a project funded by the Lily endowment, a grant designed to help educate for vocation. It focuses on encouraging and enhancing interfaith dialogue both on campus and in the community.
“The purpose of the Forum is to provide a space for thoughtful and informed reflection, particularly on issues of ultimacy,” Bussie said. “It provides us with an opportunity for genuine encounters with our neighbors.”
Faith, life, justice, meaning, vocation, service and spirituality were some of the topics she suggested are encompassed by the forum.
Bussie describes her job as being “a bridge-builder.” It is her job as the leader of the forum to build bridges between Concordia, students and the greater community and churches. By taking a listening tour to discuss the needs of various organizations and groups in regards to interfaith discussion, Bussie is finding ways to bridge race, religion and gender differences in the community and on campus.
“We live in a culture of busyness,” Bussie said. “When do we take the time to reflect on things with meaning? The Forum allows us to carve out a space to ask the big, messy, beautiful questions together.”
In the two months since Bussie moved to the Midwest, she has attended synod meetings, met with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastors and spoken to groups of religious leaders. She has helped facilitate discussions about faith and life in Islam and Christianity, and she has proposed to present a paper at a conference in Assissi, Italy in April.
Upon being chosen for the position of director, she was offered tenure, which she also had at her previous institution. Because Bussie was given tenure, this means that her position will remain intact after the funding from the Lily Endowment is gone.
“To me, being given tenure proves the institutional commitment to the Forum,” Bussie said. “We’re in it for the long hall now. As a college, Concordia is committed.”
Tenure also ensures that her position will not be eliminated due to any opposition the Forum may get. While Bussie says she thinks that Concordia students are open to learning about other people’s beliefs, she did note that a student wrote a Bible verse on an advertisement for interfaith chapel week. The verse was John 14:6 and stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”
“It directly shows how much we need this conversation on campus,” said senior Jessie Obrecht, Campus Ministry Commission co-chair. “As much as it was probably meant to demean this movement, it may have actually bolstered it a bit. It was the proof we needed that there are different beliefs on campus and that we need interfaith discussion.”
Bussie was brought to Concordia from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, to direct this interfaith movement. She will begin teaching Problem of Evil for the religion department as an associate professor in the spring, but she is focusing her time on adjusting to Concordia and jumping head first into the Forum this fall.
“When I was asked to apply for this job, I thought it was an honor,” Bussie said. “This is the type of job where you just get to be yourself and do everything you believe in.”
When Bussie does begin teaching in the spring semester, she will not be taking on a full load of classes, in order to make time to connect with students.
“The fact that someone is here on the religion faculty with time carved out from teaching to talk is great for students to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue,” said Bussie, who is surprised by the number of students who have approached her already to have discussions about vocation.
Though she is not teaching this semester, building connections with students has not been difficult for her. Bussie said that because of the rising desire for interfaith dialogue on campus, students have already sought her out for conversations and for assistance.
“You can tell she’s not from the Midwest,” Obrecht said. “She is a little ball of fire that is passionate about tons of things and still can have an unbiased conversation. She can help you find out where your passions lie without inserting her own opinion.”
Concordia offers a variety of differences from her previous institutions that she feels help the college center more on interfaith and diversity dialogue.
“I am most impressed by the quality of questions Concordia students are asking,” Bussie said. “I love that there is an emphasis on a culture of service, too. Here, it’s just what you do.”
Better Together, a campaign to foster interfaith dialogue and service projects on campuses, is supported by the Interfaith Youth Core, funded by the Forum on Faith and Life and advised by Bussie.
“Better Together definitely ties into the Concordia mission,” said senior Blake MacKenzie, a student leader for Better Together. “The world is a religiously pluralistic place, and we have to be informed and be sensitive to these differences, especially with different faiths and beliefs.”
The two movements have similar missions, while Better Together is led by students and the Forum on Faith and Life is led by administration.
“We need to start thinking about interfaith concepts more seriously,” said Obrecht, who is one of the students who has gotten to know Bussie since she came to Concordia. “Lots of international conflict ties back to differences in faith.”
Obrecht explained that recent generations feel the need to choose extremes to their beliefs.
“We feel like we need to choose one side, but really we need to embody that you can be grounded in some faith but still have conversations about other beliefs,” she said.
As Bussie continues to build connections through the Forum on Faith and Life, she hopes that others will join in embracing the interfaith movement.
“Students are the reason we are all here at Concordia,” Bussie said. “Faculty need to do everything we can to empower student voices.”