Stretching Our Faith through the Traditions of Others
by Jenni Roolf Laster (March / April 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 2)
honoring the diverse cultures and religious backgrounds of a worshipping community can expand everyone's image of God
Texas Lutheran University, Seguin, Texas
Every fall, as the leaves turn colors and children begin planning their trick-or-treat routes, the Texas Lutheran University (TLU) community builds a special shrine. In front of the altar, at the center of attention, the shrine grows steadily, sprawling across the floor a little further each day.
Centered around the basic components of most shrines-candles, photographs, and flowers-this one quickly grows more personal. Books, soda bottles, skull-shaped cookies, CDs, and other items of seemingly small significance pile up each day.
The shrine, created in the TLU Chapel of the Abiding Presence every year for Dia de los Muertos, is a little different each year, which is one of the reasons it's special.
"Dia de los Muertos is an All Saints Day celebration when we remember and honor loved ones who have died," says Lori Ruge-Jones, assistant campus pastor. Also called "Day of the Dead," this Southwest tradition allows people to share memories of loved ones and celebrate their lives through a shrine incorporating keepsakes and trinkets identified with those being honored.
Like other Lutheran colleges, TLU's spiritual identity is influenced by more than the "traditional" Lutheran church. Based in the center of south Texas, TLU life is flavored by the rich Mexican culture. And, as home to hundreds of students of diverse faiths, the spiritual experience of TLU is a unique blend of the Lutheran faith, the south Texas cultural climate, and the myriad beliefs and customs of its diverse community.
"As people experience God through other cultures, they see the bigger, grander God," says Greg Ronning, TLU campus pastor. "That's the exciting thing."
A traditional day of celebration in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a significant day in the Hispanic American tradition. Likewise, La Posada, a traditional Mexican festival that reenacts Joseph and Mary's search for room at the inn, is celebrated in the TLU chapel every December.
"In the TLU chapel program, we are committed to inclusivity and to providing a worship life that takes us beyond our own traditions to experience the richness of God's people in the whole church," Ruge-Jones says. "We do this through language, music, decoration, food–a variety of ways to show the variety of God's gifts and people in the world."
Opening the "God Box"
Ruge-Jones, who is bilingual, works to integrate Spanish language and customs into the 20-minute chapel services held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and the longer Sunday night service. Parts of the service, from the blessing to the liturgy, are often said in Spanish.
"The liberal arts curriculum is about opening up the 'God box' and seeing what's there and what different religions and cultures believe," Ronning says.
In the TLU classroom, Norm Beck works to open up the "God box" every day. A national leader in interfaith dialogue, Beck has spent the last 26 years shaping the TLU experience by teaching courses in Judaism, Buddhism, and other religions on a regular basis and by coordinating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and the Annual Jewish Chautauqua Society Lectures, featuring Rabbi Samuel Stahl.
Dr. Stahl, senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, is a regular guest on campus, leading chapel services, classes, and public lectures.
"During Rabbi Stahl's presence and presentations on our campus during the past 26 years, he has shared with great clarity Jewish faith and experience with two generations of TLU students, faculty, and staff," Beck says. "He has helped us to understand the importance of showing respect for those whose religion is different from our own, as well as helping us also to better understand our own religion and its traditions."
There are 10 or so spiritual organizations on the TLU campus, which means even more opportunity for the interchange of ideas.
Integrating One's Tradition
Vance Robbins, a 1997 graduate of TLU who is now working for Augsburg Fortress Publishing in Minneapolis, was a protagonist for spiritual development in his time at TLU. For Robbins, who was raised in a Native American community in Oklahoma, that meant bringing his home traditions to TLU.
"For me, my Lutheran tradition was developed around (the more-acknowledged European traditions of) Lutheranism, but also allowed for my own cultural traditions to be a part of my spiritual/worship life in the church," Robbins says. "This was accomplished by our congregation using traditional worship rituals, such as smudging, developing, and expressing liturgy that was inspired by native people and our traditions, as well as singing and sometimes speaking in our own tribal language-Cherokee."
Robbins' willingness to share his culture and show others how it complemented his faith gave many a new perspective on Lutheranism. While a student, Robbins also coordinated the chapel diversity team, which works to ensure that chapel services reflect the diversity that exists on campus and continually offers new perspectives.
Ultimately, the increasing openness of the TLU spiritual ministry allows students to evaluate religion, God, and themselves in an academic and realistic way-a way that, for some, allows them to come to terms with the deepest truths. "At Texas Lutheran, I was Vance, a child of God, first," Robbins says.
The rest, to borrow from pop culture, was just details.
Jenni Roolf Laster is a writer for Texas Lutheran University, Seguin, Texas.