Faith and Learning in the Northwest
by Richard Rouse and Dennis Sepper (March / April 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 2)
How the ELCA's Pacific Lutheran University, situated in the northwest United States, faces the mix of cultures, traditions, and faiths
Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington
What is distinctive about a place like Pacific Lutheran University (PLU)? What are the challenges facing a university of the church that seeks on the one hand to remain faithful to the Lutheran tradition while at the same time responding to an increasingly diverse population marked by different faiths, ethnicities, and cultural traditions?
Among the 28 ELCA colleges and universities, PLU is uniquely positioned in the Pacific Northwest and on the edge of the Pacific Rim. Founded in 1891 by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants, it carries out its educational mission in a largely unchurched culture where only 20 percent of the population of Washington state claim any religious affiliation and where Lutherans make up less than 5 percent.
The Northwest as well as the PLU student body and faculty has experienced a growing ethnic and cultural diversity. While amazingly, over one third of our students identify themselves as Lutherans, the percentage of multi-ethnic students has grown to 12.5 percent, not counting several hundred international students.
In recent years, the university has looked to the rich tradition of Lutheran higher education to guide its response to a changing world. The authors see three characteristics that best illustrate this: (1) a faith-based community of learning; (2) an on-going dialog between faith and reason; and (3) preparing students for lives of service and global citizenship.
We live in a culture of violence that seems to touch all of us. Just as the September 11th attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. shattered the country's illusion of invulnerability, so the sense of safety and security in the "Lute Dome" was shaken last spring when a beloved music professor was tragically shot and killed on the PLU campus.
What is significant, however, is the way the university community responded to this tragic shooting of one of its faculty. Over a thousand students, faculty, and staff packed Olson Auditorium on the night of the shooting. They not only wanted to hear the latest news, but they needed to be together.
Following the meeting, the crowd gathered outside on Foss Field. Everyone was holding a lighted candle and joined in four-part harmony singing Beautiful Savior. The campus was swarming with reporters, and television crews had their satellite dishes set up on the perimeter of the campus.
But as voices sang out as if in prayer, even the media was deeply moved. Reporters stood silently in awe, and cameras were set aside. The way the campus community responded reminded all of us what a special place a school like PLU is–a place where people care deeply for each other and where faith and values form the core response.
In that moment all political, racial, religious, and cultural differences faded, and we became one community.
A second response to diversity can be illustrated by the Lutheran tradition of keeping faith and reason in dialog, which encourages both critical thinking and civil discourse. Lutherans have never claimed to have a "corner on the truth" and believe that the truth can be more fully known when we engage in conversation.
For example, Lutherans believe that the disciplines of science and theology can inform each other, and people from different religious or cultural traditions can learn from one other.
We have held several "Faith and Reason Dialogs" on subjects such as the death penalty, the environment, Islam, and the events of September 11th on campus. Using the format of the TV show Politically Incorrect (but without the hostility), we have brought together four faculty members and a moderator from diverse areas of study and backgrounds to give our students different perspectives and to model civil discourse. These dialogs have been well received by students and faculty for their diversity of opinions.
Also, every student at PLU is required to take two courses that meet requirements regarding diversity. The Campus Ministry Council also brings together people of different faith traditions and helps to promote inter-faith dialog.
Service and Global Citizens
Our third goal is to shape students to be both servant leaders and global citizens. During the 2001-2002 academic year, PLU has 206 international students representing 29 countries. Several times over the course of a school year, cultural events are held to celebrate the many diverse ethnic groups on campus.
We are especially pleased that nearly 50 percent of all students graduate with some international experience. The Center for Global Studies and our Study Abroad program send students to such places as China, Namibia, Cuba, and South America. The experiences of these students enrich the diversity of the campus as they return to share their experiences and insights.
Tatyana Medvedev, a 2001 PLU graduate, shared her story of how she was enriched and discovered her identity through the university's Study Abroad program:
I am a Russian immigrant who came to the U.S. as a 10 year-old child. Growing up in Massachusetts, I found that I never had to assimilate with the people of this country. It was here at PLU, where I found myself far away from my comfort zone, that I discovered my cultural identity crisis. It was a very difficult time for me. I tried to put things into perspective, and figure out whether I was Russian or American. Finally, after riding enough on this roller coaster of confusion of trying to find myself, I decided to go to a new place, Granada, Spain.
(In Spain) when asked where I was from, I answered that I was from the U.S., but originally from Russia. Many expressed how special that was. For the first time, I was hearing that my "multiple identity disorder" was actually a good thing. If it hadn't been for Spain, I don't know if I would have ever found my true value. I am thankful to PLU for giving me a chance to discover myself, to see my worth. PLU widened my horizon and I will value the gift I have been given more and more each day.
Anchored and Opened
It is our belief that the more our students understand the Lutheran tradition, the more they will be open to the richness of diversity on our campus. To this end, the Office of Church Relations and the Campus Ministry Office have developed an illustrated booklet, Here I Study: What It Means to Attend a Lutheran College or University, given to each new freshman, which celebrates the Lutheran view of higher education in a way accessible to first year students.
In addition, new student orientation now includes an introduction to Lutheran higher education. With a university anchored in the Lutheran tradition, we invite our students to explore the vast diversity they can find on our campus without fear and in an atmosphere of curiosity and youthful exploration.
Richard Rouse is executive director for Church Relations at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. Dennis Sepper is PLU's campus pastor.