For a United Methodist theologian from Germany, an invitation to a U.S. forum for educators on interfaith cooperation and community service came at an opportune time.
The current European refugee crisis calls for an interfaith response, said the Rev. Achim Härtner, the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism and Christian Education at Reutlingen School of Theology.
Härtner was one of 50 international guests from 24 countries invited, for the first time, to join more than 450 students and staff from U.S. colleges and universities at the “Fifth President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge” held Sept. 9-11 in Washington.
“With conferences like this one, everybody wins,” he told United Methodist News Service in an email following the event. As participants share their experiences with their peers in their home settings, he added, “an initiative becomes a movement.”
In a videotaped welcome, President Barack Obama reminded the gathering that “one of the things that makes America great is while we’re free to hold different religious beliefs, we all agree that together we can make a difference.”
The international participants agreed. “Interfaith cooperation for the common good is not an option, but a must in our day and age,” Härtner said.
Seeking international input
His invitation to the gathering came from the Rev. Kenneth Bedell — a United Methodist minister currently serving at the U.S. Department of Education. Bedell was on the faculty of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, when Härtner was a student there.
A year ago, Melissa Rogers, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, asked about including a global dimension to the President’s Campus Challenge event.
After holding meetings in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, Bedell said, a “clear consensus” developed to invite “people from around the world who are developing opportunities for students in seminaries, colleges, and universities to have interfaith service experiences.”
Fundraising would be necessary to support selected international participants and insure broad representation. The Rev. Bud Heckman, a United Methodist clergyman who works for the International Shinto Foundation, connected the foundation with other funders to sponsor at least 30 international attendees at the 2015 gathering.
Hartford Seminary and the Berkley Center at Georgetown University were recruited to make arrangements for foreign guests, Bedell said.
Härtner said the “urgent need” for religious cooperation in community service was emphasized in lectures and panel discussions at Howard University and Georgetown University as well as receptions in the White House and Turkish Embassy.
The international guests appreciated the opportunity for mutual learning, understanding and networking, he added. “In our group, everyone was impressed by the far-reaching success of the president’s initiative on a national level within only four years. Extraordinary work has been done.”
Global migration a ‘key issue’
As a resident of Germany — where thousands of refugees have been streaming in since early summer — Härtner is well aware of the global migration crisis, which he said was “a key issue” in many discussions and conversations at the gathering.
“In my view, the streams of refugees will change the European continent more comprehensively and sustainably than the falling of the Iron Curtain in 1989,” he said. “We need a new paradigm for Europe that goes far beyond national interests and exclusion of others. This may take generations.”
The interfaith community “can set a signal in the right direction,” noted the professor, who leads his schools diversity department, simply by doing good and “talking encouragingly about it.”
The United Methodist Church’s position of “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors,” Härtner said, can be a guiding force for this new mission.
“As I hear from numerous congregations here and there, the crisis is often seen as being more than a crisis: a chance to share ‘faith expressing itself in love’ (Gal. 5,6 NIV) in a Wesleyan spirit.”
Making connections at home
In Härtner’s Reutlingen community, a Monday night interfaith prayer service in the city center over a three-month period in 2015 drew an average of 100 participants from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Bahai’i communities, a success that he would like to see continued.
The local United Methodist congregation opened a Friday afternoon meeting point for refugees last April, he said, and students and professors from the theological school have offered German language and culture courses for refugees since early summer.
The Reutlingen School of Theology has established a new lecturer’s position on “intercultural communication” and is initiating a new study track, “Christian spirituality in an interfaith perspective,” in 2016.
Upcoming events at the school include a public discussion on xenophobia, the fear or hatred of people from other countries, in early November, and a day of interreligious dialogue and theological reflection in October 2016.
An “open concern,” Härtner explained, is how to include non-believers “since the motherland of Reformation is becoming more and more secularized, alongside with other countries in Central Europe.”