As the chaplain at Oxford College, I talk a lot about respect. The reasons for this are layered. I was lucky enough to be shown respect as a child, and I feel a certain sense of duty to model this now in my life. As a practitioner of Christianity, I understand my faith to teach respect as an essential element to being human and humane. Respect is central to my work, because of who I am but also because of who I am called to be.
During this intense political season we could certainly work harder toward cultivating a culture of respect. We can still disagree and be civil, but we rarely find places where this actually happens. We need more places where this kind of behavior is modeled. Seeing it and hearing it just once can have a profound effect on how we live with respect and civility.
In my work at the college I spend a lot of time with students from a variety of religious traditions. I’ve learned and re-learned how important it is for me to listen to them. To get to know their story. To observe their tradition’s religious practice in action to see another way to name and honor the Sacred. To share meals together. To find common ground in service and social settings where community is valued.
The two largest groups of religiously identified students on the Oxford campus are Christians and Muslims. We have a strong and active Muslim Student Association, and they practice their faith regularly with daily prayers and a weekly time for prayer on Fridays. They find ways to educate our student body about the history of their faith, the culture associated with it, and the religious traditions and rituals practiced regularly in it. Quite often, they do a much better job with this than any of the other traditions represented on campus.
When the two Oxford students died this summer in Dhaka, Bangladesh, you may remember that we held a vigil for the incident and to remember them. At the vigil one of my colleagues handed me a beautiful green shawl handcrafted by a group of women from the nearby Methodist church. Included with it was a moving description of the “prayer shawl ministry” of this church, which is meant to serve as a source of prayer, healing, and love on behalf of that congregation. I remember thinking that was an authentic gesture of Christian hospitality with no expectations.
Just this week I met the mother, brother, and grandfather of one of those two students. They were immensely grateful to me and Emory for so many things, even amid such horrible grief. But they were most insistent on having me help them find the persons responsible for this prayer shawl. So I took them to the church to meet one of the pastors. While there they also requested email addresses for all the members of that group, hoping they could thank all of them since they weren’t sure who exactly made the shawl. They were deeply touched that a Methodist church would take the time to have such a ministry and offer it without [religious] borders.
“Though we are not Christian, we also believe that this is how we are to be with each other,” the grandfather said, referring to the church’s generosity in reaching out to their family. He said that he believes we must model this kind of respect even more so now in the wake of his grandson’s death.
And I couldn’t agree more.
Rev. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.