Voices at the Table

February 4, 2015 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

One of the most important things Zayna Hart Thompson learned at Elmhurst College and the Niebuhr Center is that it is possible for two people to disagree without being disagreeable.

Thompson, the pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Platteville, Wisconsin, was a senior at Elmhurst when she helped organize a Theology on Tap discussion group. Students from a variety of religious backgrounds met weekly at a local bar to debate matters of faith.

“It was a way of creating fellowship with people who didn’t agree. We argued in the best way,” Thompson said. “Having a lot of different voices at the table has always been central to Elmhurst, and I still value that.”

Thompson said her experience with religious diversity at Elmhurst served her in her time at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University, and continues to help her in her current work as a pastor.

“As a pastor, I don’t just serve my local church, I serve the universal church,” she said. “Those discussions at Elmhurst were great practice.”

The Niebuhr Center helps students considering the ministry by offering a diverse menu of courses, internships, travel experiences and service opportunities. It also provides an environment for open discussion and discernment that prepares students for a world of religious diversity.

Elmhurst was founded in 1871 as a proseminary to prepare young men for ministry in the German Evangelical Synod of North America. Today, the College’s mission has broadened and its student body has diversified along with the world it serves. Elmhurst students who enter the ministry come from a variety of faith traditions. At the Niebuhr Center, they find guidance and support—whatever their religious background or spiritual belief. The College’s statement of core values declares, “We value religious freedom and its expressions on campus.” And it pledges commitment to “cultural diversity” and “mutual respect among all persons.” Though the College is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, student religious organizations include Campus Crusade for Christ, Hillel, and groups for Catholics, Muslims and others. Elmhurst’s annual religious lecture series includes events honoring Jewish, Muslim and Catholic thinkers.

“I love that I can walk into the Frick Center and have a conversation with my Muslim friend for an hour. It’s a place where diversity is encouraged and accepted. There are not a lot of places like that,” said Jordan Bartolazzi, a senior organizational communication and religious studies major from Auburn, Illinois, who plans to enter ministry. “Elmhurst is really a microcosm of the world, and if I want to interact with people who are not like me, I have to be prepared to have those kinds of conversations.”

Bartolazzi said that the diversity he found at Elmhurst helped him hone his ability to explain why he believes what he believes. Bartolazzi thinks that skill will serve him well as he prepares for the ministry.

“I’ve learned to disagree well,” he said. “I can cite my reasons and defend my positions without being closed-minded, so that it’s not two people having an argument. It’s a healthy conversation.”

Elmhurst has become a nationally recognized locus of interfaith activity, with the Niebuhr Center fostering interfaith understanding through community service, education and discussion. In programs like its Partners for Peace events, the Center brings students and community members together to work on projects to benefit struggling neighborhoods in nearby Chicago. In 2012, the College’s efforts drew praise from White House officials as part of President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. A group from Elmhurst traveled to Washington to share insights about the center’s programs with other participants in the White House program.

Niebuhr Center funding helps make it possible for students to travel in the United States and abroad to participate in international education and service-learning experiences. With Niebuhr Center funding, Angelo Luis, an Elmhurst graduate now pursuing a master of divinity degree at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, provided service in Australia and Jamaica and attended a conference of the National Council of Churches at Oberlin College in Ohio. Luis said the Niebuhr Center succeeds in fostering its own environment of productive dialogue.

“There were so many faith traditions represented at the Niebuhr Center and at Elmhurst, it was natural for me to be friends with people who were different,” Luis said. “What mattered was respecting the person. We were all trying to search and live out our call to be ethical and responsible people.”

Thompson said the Niebuhr Center helped fund a month of international study in Italy and three months of service work in Ghana, where she worked with women’s empowerment groups. During her time at Elmhurst, she served three internships with churches and social-service groups. She also participated in the Niebuhr Center’s Ministry Team, which travels to Chicago-area churches to plan and lead worship services.

“I learned what I was called to do and, just as important, what I wasn’t called to do,” Thompson said. “On a practical level, when I left Elmhurst I had more experience in ministry than many colleagues had when they left seminary.”

Bartolazzi said the spirit of inclusiveness and open conversation at Elmhurst and the Niebuhr Center prepares students to enter seminaries and ministry.

“You’re going to be challenged here, and that’s a fantastic thing. I’ve had to wrestle with questions about faith that others haven’t had to,” he said. “Too many pastors can be closed-minded, and that’s unfortunate. They never learned to have the healthy conversations we have here.”

Bartolazzi described himself as “a reformed evangelist in my thinking who was raised as a Catholic and is now at a UCC school.” He said his long debates with a friend about their religious beliefs were among his most instructive experiences at Elmhurst. Each would try hard to convince the other of his position, but neither lost respect for the other’s thinking.

“It was, ‘You’re wrong,’ and ‘No, you’re wrong,’” he remembered, laughing. “That’s healthy. I want to be prepared to reach people out in the real world.”

Bartolazzi has traveled extensively, thanks to the Niebuhr Center.

During his freshman year at Elmhurst, the Niebuhr Center helped fund a trip to Haiti, where he worked in an orphanage. And in early 2012 he traveled throughout Kenya and Uganda for five months, working with groups trying to stop the spread of AIDS and pitching in to build a community center for women of the Masi tribe.

He credited the center with helping him understand the importance of service in his life.

“I think as ambassadors for Christ, we have a role to play in reconciling all things back to God,” he said. “The Niebuhr Center has played a big part in helping me work that out.”

The Niebuhr Center also helped Bartolazzi secure a 2012 summer internship with the nonprofit group Evangelicals for Social Action, where he traveled to college campuses to help establish campus chapters of the group. Bartolazzi, who plans to attend seminary and enter the ministry, said the internship helped him develop his professional communication skills.

He said that learning happens not just in classes and service projects, but in everyday encounters.

“When you walk into the Niebuhr Center, you never know what kind of interesting conversation you’re going to have,” he said. “I love that about the place. I’ve had so many great conversations with the Center’s staff. And I’ve been able to flesh out what I believe because of those conversations.”

Emily Labrecque, a 2010 Elmhurst graduate and a 2014 graduate of Pacific School of Religion, said that at the Niebuhr Center she gained valuable practical experience in planning and leading worship. She teamed up with Thompson to co-found a campus worship service called Illuminae, led Tuesday night worship, participated in the Niebuhr Center’s Ministry team and served an internship at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Elmhurst. “Each of these experiences in some way prepared me for Christian ministry,” said Labrecque, who is completing clinical pastoral education at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan. “They gave me a more grounded understanding of what it means to be a Christian leader and helped me better understand how to foster and build community across diverse perspectives, ecumenical and interfaith.”

She said that the opportunity to engage with people of diverse backgrounds at Elmhurst was formative.

“For the first time in my life, the Niebuhr Center provided me with cross-cultural conversation and experiences every single day,” she said. “Whether it was students from other faith traditions, cultures, ethnicities or sexual identities other than my own, I was exposed to many different walks of life. It was so beneficial to me as a young person developing a sense of self in the world as I was forced to confront my own judgments and perceptions about others. I draw on my Elmhurst and Niebuhr Center experiences every day.”

Connect with #ElmhurstCollege